‘In a town infested with chains, Pea Porridge shines like Venus rising from some murky waves’
No, I don’t love a chain restaurant. With few exceptions, they appear to care little about you and me – we’re not guests, we’re footfall – and even less about what’s on the plate. As long as they can lure enough mugs through the door happy to shell out for food that has been bean-counted down to the last haricot, they should coco.
The city centres already colonised, they’re now sending out oily tendrils into the suburbs and sticks. Some seem specifically to target genteel market towns: Prezzo, for instance, is as perniciously dedicated to Lebensraum as Tesco Metro. These places suck the passion out of cooking and service: the last time I tried a Prezzo – yep: mug; but there was little choice – the dish I ordered had none of its billed petit pois. It returned with an almost-frozen fistful dumped on top. They might as well have spat them at my bonce through a peashooter, Beano-style.
Bury St Edmunds is infested with chains: Café Rouge, Frankie & Benny’s (particularly ugh), Giraffe, La Tasca, Ask, and, of course, Prezzo. Among all this homogeneity, Pea Porridge shines like Venus rising from some murky waves. Once a bakehouse, with the blackleaded oven still centre stage and baking paddles suspended from the ceiling, it may have the exposed brickwork, teatowel napkins, bare tables and reclaimed chairs of its hip urban cousins. But it’s not like them at all.
Maybe it’s the warmth, a big goosedown duvet of it, from the front-of-house, led by co-owner (with husband and chef Justin) Jurga Sharp. How deliciously uncool. And the generosity: freebies of pea (of course) and ham croquette, a gentle introduction into a menu that’s positively splay-legged in its butchness. We’re in farming country, and you can imagine large-booted men dropping off marrowbones or pig’s cheeks or hare just in time for service. There are “nibbles” (sorry) of “crispy pigs’ ears”, cartilaginous and gelatinous meat of supreme porkiness in a hearty crumb with a blob of pungent aïoli: how’s that for a statement of intent?
Justin writes a killer menu: all macho Brit – game, offal or unusual cuts; champ – with a touch of recherché Med – barba di frate or lardo di Colonnata, or dishes such as sauté of snails with bacon and bone marrow. It’s not all swagger, either – there’s real delicacy in a dish of sweet mackerel fillet with bitter, raw puntarelle, sly little bombs of caper and slivers of orange.
Leafy bitterness is a recurring note: ox heart with pickled walnuts and dandelion, its uncompromising nature softened by radishes and a subtle “kohl” (ie, kohlrabi) slaw. But I confess to being most enchanted by the old-school comfort of a whole local partridge, ripe from hanging, propped up with some wonderful, gooey dauphinoise, cavolo nero and sauce made with good red wine. And how can you resist sides that include fat chips and garlicky sprout tops?
This is rugged, rustic food, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sophisticated. Sharp has worked at London’s fêted Chez Bruce, so he’s perfectly at home with classic techniques; his fondness for outré ingredients adds a welcome frisson of eccentricity (reading some of his replies to online punters who don’t “get” his restaurant, I suspect eccentricity all round).
The hum of happy punters is the only soundtrack, extended families, oldsters, a touching duo of what looks like teenage first-daters over by the window. Everyone gets the same friendliness and welcome: they actually care, see?
After quite a lot of Swiss Müller Thurgau (the winelist is equally idiosyncratic), we find ourselves in the Old Cannon microbrewery next door for a numbered bottle of Gunner’s Daughter. This little Suffolk square offers an enviable vision of small town life, the kind of thing that makes city types come over all misty-eyed. And it’s as far away from the Prezzos and Café Rouges as you could hope to find.
• Pea Porridge, 28-29 Cannon Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, 01284 700200. Open Tues-Sat, noon-2pm, 6.30-9.30pm. Meal for two with drinks and service, about £80. Set menu, two courses £12.50, three courses £16.50 (not Fri & Sat dinner).
Value for money 8/10