Milsoms, Dedham: Urban Cool in the Countryside
When you’ve lived in London for a long time and move out (in my case from Hackney to Essex - just like a black cab driver, as my sister likes to say) there are certain things you miss. The lively vibe is one of the main things for me, aside from adjusting to no longer living in a multicultural city. So when I find a place locally that fills the gap, it’s almost thrilling.
One such place is Milsoms, which on a Saturday night is as lively as a night in the East End. My partner, daughter and I are, however, in the Dedham Vale, the heart-stoppingly lovely region known as Constable Country, where Essex and Suffolk blend along the border. Lovely in all seasons, in summer the greenery is abundant and the drive through winding lanes decked with hedgerow is a good start to the evening.
Milsoms is like the younger, cooler sibling of the more traditional Maison Talbooth and Le Talbooth, all within less than 5 minutes of each other. A vine-clad boutique hotel with 15 rooms, modern art mixes with Victorian features and it has that well-thought-out look that all Milsoms' hotels and restaurants have, regardless of individual style. It’s that effortless effect which comes from a lot of hard work behind the scene. They could be a little smug given that all of their empire seems to thrive regardless of the ebb and flow of the economy or people’s changing tastes.
Despite being out in the sticks, although its just 15 minutes from home, Milsoms pulls in a younger crowd and have commandeered the lovely outside terrace; one loved-up couple lies on the grass drinking Champagne further along in the garden. Maybe they’d seen the menu which also belies the surrounding English countryside, with a lip-smacking list of dishes including Yemeni style tuna tartare, king prawn massaman curry and soft shell crab with cucumber kimchi and Srirachya mayo all rubbing shoulders.
What stands out is that amongst all the buzz it still all feels informal and therefore relaxed. Informality comes from the low key menu, signage and attitude as much as the modern art and the fact that you can’t book a table (although hotel guests are guaranteed). The system seems to work as we arrived at 6pm on a Saturday night and were able to take our pick of available tables. The novelty being we got to choose out table instead of being escorted to one. Our daughter Maya got to sample a bit of waitressing as pads are placed on tables which you fill in and take to the bar or hand to a passing member of staff.
We chose our own table, number 8, which was perfectly placed by French windows looking onto the pretty gardens, out of the main thoroughfare yet with a good view of across the restaurant allowing me to take in at a glance a group of diners (over) dressed up as medieval revellers and just how busy the bar was when I wanted a refill.
I was choosing from the new summer vegan menu which Milsoms have offered for a couple of years now and with the rise in veganism, they are among the savvy restaurants that recognise the need for good quality plant-based options. I'm not a vegan but I'm curious, as they say. House-made houmous with warm pitta was what I would have ordered if my partner hadn’t gone for the small-bite odyssey known as the chef’s mezze, £14.50. Served on a raised triangular plate (like a contemporary version of an afternoon tea) this dish is a proper feast and and includes something from pretty much every food group, from soft lamb meatballs, crispy deep fried halloumi and calamari, tzatziki, taramasalata and stuffed vine leaves to plump caper berries and green olives. Like Jack Spratt and his wife, we licked the platter clean.
Maya eats fish but not meat and went for the vegetarian beetroot and walnut burger on a brioche bun, £14.50 (also on the vegan menu). The coaster-size round of goats’ cheese was too much for her tender palate but the fries in a pretty silver pot disappeared quickly. Hard to eat delicately, it's a healthy alternative to a meat-based burger with plenty of extras such as a pile of peppery salad leaves and tasty smoked red onion pickle.
My main course was a dish so good that despite my partner’s ample plate of golden skate wing in butter (a special), his fish-eating/carnivorous head was turned by my vegan bowl of risotto with peas, rocket and nutty girolle mushrooms and charred red chicory sticking up like sails on a boat, £14. Clean and spring fresh, it could almost pass as spa-cuisine.
By now I was really full despite no meat or fish protein but obviously, I still found the strength to eat a whole vegan pudding. Again, my creamy, mellow dark chocolate torte with icy orange granita and raspberry coulis, £7.50, had my partner digging his spoon in but I can’t blame him. It was probably the most memorable end to a meal I can think of. You see, it’s not so bad living out in the sticks, especially if you are a vegan.