The Pier, Harwich
When I last visited the Pier at Harwich to review it for the Evening Standard, I had a little moan about the container lorries breaking down on the A12 that I encountered on my way. I was soothed, however, by a pretty amazing dinner on arrival, much of it from the coast on which the hotel is set, including crab tacos and a fish and shellfish fritura. Simple yet also sophisticated dishes. That was in early 2014.
Last summer the well-established hotel, part of the successful Milsom’s local family run hotel group, re-launched following a brave five-month closure. Gone is the nautical blue and white façade, replaced by a less obvious but nevertheless soothing shade of stone that was actually the original. Pared back, the focus is now on their food offering in the upstairs brasserie, the Pier Restaurant, with an entirely new menu, aside from fish and chips, of course.
Head chefs Stevie Robson (new) and John Goff (existing) produce dishes ranging in price and complexity from a starter of Harwich fish soup with crab rouille, £6.50, to tandoori fillet of hake with kale and lime hollandaise, £16.50. I’m not a vegetarian but if I were I’d salute them for their Keralan squash and cauliflower curry, £12.50, brilliantly bucking the usual unimaginative cheese-based offering for non-meat eaters. Lacking a holiday this year (blame builders as slow as the tortoise we are looking after while my sister takes her annual two weeks away) I chose sardines with a cheery smear of salsa verde, so fresh they seemed just caught from the sea, a bit further south in Cornish day boats, and stone bass (a chunky version of sea bass) with cockles from Leigh on Sea and butter beans (two childhood favourites of mine), joined by a smoky tomato sauce.
Ample choices of puddings from Ardleigh strawberry Eton Mess to homemade ice cream laced with caramelised walnuts were whittled down to a delicate lemon sponge pudding – not heavy as this usually wintery staple could be – freshened up by hints of ginger and a sunny lemon curd as far from the jars of Hartley’s more synthetic version the words ‘lemon curd’ conjure up as I was from leaving anything on my plate.
Weather – or constitution permitting - guests can dine outside on the balcony overlooking the quay. The restaurant was full on a weekday lunch; among them guests staying in the thoughtfully revamped rooms upstairs, (courtesy of the owner Paul Milsom’s wife Geraldine, who led the redesign), sharpened up by a grey mesh banister lining nodding to the local industrial past and the still working docks nearby.
Such industrial settings now have a kind of urban cool; think Gothenburg’s ship building industry juxtaposed against its arts and food scene). There’s something quite lovely about the soothing rooms washed in shades of olive paint looking across to the sky-high cranes. You’re on the edge of Essex, ships ready to sail to Europe or keeping it local there’s the tiny foot ferry that darts across to Shotley on the facing peninsula.
A favourite amongst the hotel’s 14 rooms is the Mayflower Suite with wide bay windows looking out across the estuary and a working telescope for nosing across the water. Unbeknown to many – including myself – Harwich is where the Pilgrim Fathers built the Mayflower and where its captain, Christopher Jones, hailed from. So the suite – and Harwich itself – gains extra resonance as we look towards 2020 and the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, taking the first Pilgrims across to North America. The Harwich Mayflower project is building a seaworthy replica (harwichmayflower.com), with donations being taken online now. A more indulgent way to donate is the Dedham Vale Vineyard’s Mayflower 2014, a dry white with a donation made for every £12 bottle sold (dedhamvalevineyard.com).
*In celebration of its 40th anniversary, The Pier is offering a £19.78 three-course menu, available all day from Sunday through to Friday, until the end of February 2018.
Double rooms from £125 B&B, milsomhotels.com/the-pier