Le Talbooth, Dedham
If you are lucky enough to live within easy reach of Le Talbooth restaurant, or staying at one of the family-owned Milsoms group’s hotels in the vicinity, you will know the pleasure of turning up to eat at such a captivating place. Established in 1952, Le Talbooth serves as the dining room for Maison Talbooth, chauffeuring guests in their trusty Range Rover.
For me the setting, reached via winding lanes fringed by hedgerows and fields, is part of the charm. It was this setting, almost unchanged since he framed it in his many landscapes that so inspired painter John Constable. Driving down Gun Hill, frequently mentioned in the titles of his paintings, you spot the Tudor beamed pile set low by the banks of the River Stour among ridiculously pretty gardens.
Once inside, staff continue the serene feeling with an easy, amiable manner which I much prefer to a stuffy formality. Savvy places realise that fine dining doesn’t mean being fussed over by staff as starchy as the tablecloths. The service is pretty perfect, attention to detail blending with a thoughtfulness that extends to second-guessing our every need.
On the way through to the restaurant I glimpse the brand new kitchen where head chef Andy Hirst and his team work their magic; the recent fit kept the restaurant partially closed until the end of January. Rumour has it they will give you a guided tour if you ask nicely (just not during service). Keeping things local, Hirst was born and bred in nearby Colchester and his career includes working at the then Michelin starred Auberge du Lac restaurant at Brocket Hall, the infamous Hertfordshire estate. Here the Modern British menus use county-wide produce from the East Anglian region, from locally-caught cod to Dingley Dell pork and lamb from Suffolk.
At 7pm on a Friday night the beamed restaurant lit with softly-glowing table lamps fills up quickly as we order. What turns out to be the first of many good things to eat begins with Mersey crab and avocado rolls with a curl of Siam dressing, kohlrabi and brown crab mousse. It’s fresh and light and the type of small starter you could easily eat as a main.
I also eat lamb with balsamic sweetbreads, caramelised onion, artichoke and lamb jus, £33. It’s a testament to the cooking that I eat it, as normally rare meat has me running back to the oven (a Michelin-starred chef at La Residencia in Mallorca once came out to see who had dared to send back ‘under-cooked’ meat to his kitchen). It is soft and sweet and served on a square plate, which I thought was a bit 80s, but that’s picky.
For Ali, Cornish brill and glazed short rib, £31, is a new take on surf and turf (usually seafood and red meat), accompanied by mushroom puree, Swiss chard and fresh walnuts. The meat melts in your mouth and the mushroom puree unites the meat and the golden piece of fish. The portions are just right. We forget to order sides and are still satisfied (and I eat a lot). Still, there’s always room for pudding, as everyone knows.
Another beautiful black speckled plate arrives with a dome of pineapple parfait set on coconut meringue dressed with shavings of coconut, clear cubes of coconut jelly and the best thing for spirit-loving adults - a shot of spiced rum you inject into the dish. Made at home this might be sickly, but this is a well-balanced and ultimately truly original take on traditional Eton Mess, £9.50. Compared to all that you might think my cheese and biscuits, £12 would pale into insignificance. But, no. An artistic display of six different cheeses with pear chutney, scattered with grapes, celery and glazed walnuts is perfect.
The prices are fairly high, but for a meal that is hard to fault with service to match it’s worth it. More affordable is a fixed-price lunch offering two courses for £27 with dessert wine, coffee and handmade petits fours. Sat overlooking this bucolic countryside may well inspire you, just as it did Constable all those years ago.