The Leaping Hare, Wyken Vineyards, Stanton, Suffolk IP31 2DW (01359 250 287). Starters £6.95-£9.95, mains £14.95-£29.95, desserts £4.95-£6.95, three-course lunch £22, wines from £22
The good ones have a soundtrack all of their own; a gentle hum of easy, contented chatter, with the occasional clink of cutlery on plate and bottle to glass keeping time. The Leaping Hare at Wyken Vineyards, not far from Bury St Edmunds, is one of the good ones. Outside, on a calm autumn day, a few diners sit at tables, soaking up what feels like the last breath of the year’s warm sunshine, tucked in against the high, foliage-clad walls of the old barn. A herd of sheep and what appear to be a couple of llamas – I’ve never been that great on my camelids – keep the grass short beyond the fence. The air smells sweetly of leaf mulch on the turn.
Inside, a certain kind of England is being fed, and being fed exceptionally well; it is that part of England, to be fair, which would think it has little interest in this newspaper. And yet, here I am, on the site of one of the country’s oldest vineyards, about to have a very lovely time. The late Beryl Cook would have recognised some of the ladies here from her own paintings, their glasses perched just on the bridge of the nose, as they give themselves to a good lunch. The men too, for that matter. It is a place for people-watching.
This older crowd, a lot of them now untroubled by the call of daily work, has nowhere better to be than here, inside this vaulting space, the walls traced by gnarled beams only just about managing a straight line. The art is tasteful. The paintwork, in muted tones, is tasteful. There is a cleaned, blue-black mussel shell staring at us from the bowl of snowy sea salt, the better to scoop it up. It’s that kind of tasteful. Come friends, and slip gently with me into the restaurant equivalent of the bubble bath you never quite want to leave.
I am late to this party, by about a quarter of a century. The Leaping Hare has been in the Good Food Guide for 25 years, and has held a Bib Gourmand, the most interesting award from the tyre company, representing good food at a reasonable price, for more than 20 years. There are hints on the menu of an awareness of the times and their passing. The word “foraged” appears. There are asterisks to indicate that certain dishes are made with ingredients from the estate or from within five miles of it; on others, that the key ingredients are from Norfolk or Suffolk.
The whole “diving into hedgerows to find wild things that taste much like farmed things” has never quite excited me; as I’ve said before and I’ll keep saying, if foraging were so great, presumably we would want everyone to be doing it. If that happened, the eco-system would collapse. Farming was a great invention. What’s more, it’s all irrelevant if what happens to those ingredients when they reach the kitchen misses the mark. Here, it doesn’t. The cooking at the Leaping Hare isn’t innovative. It’s British produce, given a proper seeing to with lots of classic French bourgeois technique and an emphasis on big, crowd-pleasing flavours. You may not coo over the first mouthful. Instead, gently, as the meal goes on, you will clock just how well you are being cared for.
A partridge breast is seared and roasted, but there is still a crimson blush within. There’s more partridge broken into the rich stew of white beans and lardons upon which it sits. A scoop of golden fried breadcrumbs, flecked with the green of herbs, are spread across the top to give it a texture. It’s a lot of starter for £7.95. That understanding of the need for crunch is obvious in a second starter of spiced and roasted monkfish, with golden onion rings, looking like something you could wear as a dainty bangle, speared by crisp batons of green apple. It comes on what is described simply as “curry sauce”. It is the deep yellow of the best butter. It is sweet. It is only very lightly spiced. It’s the perfect sauce for a coronation chicken, and lubricates the fish perfectly. It makes me laugh out loud. It’s like meeting an old friend unexpectedly, after a long time separated.
Venison, served rare enough for you to imagine you could test the blood type, comes with roasted shallots, savoy cabbage and their version of clapshot – mash mixed through with parsnip – and a rich game jus that’s so shiny you could see your face in it. There are onion rings, again, for that bit of texture. They are tiny this time, as if designed for your pinkie rather than your wrist. It’s also a menu that recognises the value of letting a dish give up its own secrets. Duck breast has been rendered so that there is only a thin layer of fat beneath the bronzed skin. Here are damsons from the estate, and whorls of a smooth, duck liver parfait and a few crushed hazelnuts. Here, too, is the advertised dauphinoise, served as a crisped rectangle. We are pleased to see it. But hang on, what’s this in the middle? The two slabs of potato are sandwiching long-cooked then shredded duck, as if it were some savoury bourbon biscuit. It feels like you’ve been lobbed a freebie. Yours for £19.95.
Their dark chocolate sorbet is good; the lip-puckering passion fruit flavour is better. Best of all is a pavlova, the meringue part fashioned through some sort of kitchen witchcraft into a cup, filled with damsons and damson ice-cream and sugared nuts for crunch. It disappears quickly. Service is of the smooth, unobtrusive kind that recognises that people eating here probably want to talk to each other, more than they wish to hear long speeches. There is a bustling café down at the other end of the room, knocking out fishcakes, pasta dishes and bowls of mussels. They don’t miss a beat, in either space.
This, of course, is a vineyard. It is only right that we drink some of what might be called their rosé, were it not the deep pink of pear drops. It is luscious, a last taste of the summer just gone. We pay up and wander into the “country store” out the back, selling picture frames and children’s books, salad servers and vases and all manner of things you didn’t think you needed until you saw them. Outside the breeze blows, the leaves fall and all is very much right with the world.
My strongest memory of Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmunds, from my visit a few years back, is of a lady in a hat, eating oysters off the half shell by herself. It was all very civilised. If anything, the offering has stepped up a notch since then. Go for the likes of crab with apple, caviar and lemon grass, or rabbit with kohlrabi and oyster ice cream, followed by halibut with a cauliflower crust and a cockle emulsion (maisonbleue.co.uk).
Despite the collapse of the Jamie’s Italian chain earlier this year, Jamie Oliver is pushing ahead with his mid-market restaurant interests, only outside the UK. He is to launch Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen, an all-day concept, in Bali and Bangkok. According to the company the menu could be ‘easily adapted to local flavours and food trends’. In Bangkok, for example, this will include a soft shell crab burger with green papaya salad.
A simple marker of the economic challenges faced by the UK’s hospitality industry: according to research by accountants UHY Hacker Young, the country’s top 100 restaurants recorded a combined loss of £93 million in the past year. In the previous 12 months it was a £37m profit.