Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Du Cane Arms

I must immediately come clean and admit this was not my first visit to the Du Cane Arms. Shortly after attending the Grand Opening of The Bull at Great Totham’s ‘fine dining’ Willow Room, we became aware of the Du Cane and made an exploratory trip, incorporating a pleasant walk around the rolling hills that surround the village of Great Braxted. Moist from our exertions, and with my cravat slightly awry, I am afraid to report we fell upon our food with ne’er a thought of blogging or photos, secure in the knowledge that we would return.

Eventually, the opportunity arrived. I was able to escape the shackles of my ‘day job’ and Mrs. C had a rare day when she wasn’t catering in one form or another and so it was that we set off in the Cravat Mobile to North East Essex. Great Braxted is a small collection of houses along a single road in the middle of nowhere with, sitting fore square in the centre, the Du Cane Arms. Run by chef patron Jonathan Brown, whose avowed intent is “to deliver to discerning customers good quality, hearty food in a relaxed and informal atmosphere”, we arrived at lunch time determined to put him to the test.

Aware of the muted wall colours and gaily striped floor covering, I choose autumnal shades for my cravat offset by robust corduroy to give that ‘Country Squire About Town’ look, and I do believe I pulled it off! On entering the bar it was evident that this is one very popular restaurant but two separate members of staff were quick to assure us they would be with us in a minute and the young waitress was true to her word, escorting us to our table. Weekday lunchtimes the Du Cane operates a Menu Du Jour, two courses £10.00p., three for £13.50p. with four or so choices for each course as well as the A La Carte. Having perused the main menu our eyes were constantly drawn back to the Menu Du Jour as, quite honestly, I would quite happily have chosen any of the available options. To help our deliberations, I quaffed a most agreeable pint of Adnams Bitter while the present Mrs C enjoyed a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc about which I was most impressed by the young waitress' knowledge of all the details of the wine.

Choices made, I cast my monocle around the pleasant dining area to survey my fellow diners. Quite a diverse crew I must say; from ‘young’ retirees through to a young family, from a group of elderly locals to a pair of ‘Ladies who Lunch’. All seemed universally happy as the waiting staff negotiated between the slightly too close tables, laden with drinks and intriguing plates of impressively crafted food. Prominently on display were the recently gained 2010 Essex Good Food awards for Best Newcomer Restaurant, Best Chef, and Highly Commended Chef of the Future.

Our first courses arrived. Mrs C had a tian of smoked salmon and mackerel with dressed leaves which was deemed very nice. I managed to prise a morsel of the salmon and mackerel, bound with  mayonnaise from her and must admit it was fresh, well flavoured and nicely seasoned. I decided to take her word on the salad as I didn’t wish to indulge in an unsightly squabble! My starter, a salade tiede of pigeon breast, black pudding and chorizo with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing and dressed leaves was altogether to my taste, the excellent quality meat elements having been well cooked and the dressing providing just the right amount of sharpness to offset the richness. Both dishes were well presented and of good proportions. In readiness for the mains, I ordered a glass of red. Again the waitress was able to confirm the Merlot Cabernet Shiraz mix and very toothsome it proved to be.

The mains arrived, both adorned with their trademark shards, and after a quick piccie or two we both tucked in. For madam; loin of cod wrapped in pancetta with a potato cake, spinach, and mussels and cockles in a cream leek sauce. I had chosen the breast of chicken with wild mushrooms, crushed potatoes, cabbage, parsnip crisps and a grain mustard cream sauce. On looks alone, I think I won that round! Having ‘helped’ Mrs C to finish her dish I can confirm that the cod was cooked perfectly, large flakes of opaque fish with the slightly crisp ham offset by the smooth potato cake. The spinach still had texture and was not waterlogged, the sauce with the local mussels and cockles tasted of the sea with the cream balancing the saltiness nicely. A well executed, cohesive, dish.

My chicken was also perfectly cooked, moist and well seasoned. The mushrooms and cabbage were full of flavour, and along with the potato, provided ample opportunity to mop up the nicely balanced sauce. My only disappointment was the parsnip crisps which were a bit soggy. Overall though, a very good dish that I would happily order again.

After an ‘*Auntie Betty Moment’, I relented and ordered the local cheese slate for dessert, whilst Mrs.C bowed out gracefully with a cup of tea. The three local cheeses were served with fashionable black crackers and homemade chutney and were excellent but, even for an acknowledged gourmand such as myself, the portion was way too large. Luckily Mrs.C helped me out but there was still a sizeable amount left. Quelle Fromage!

As we both sat, slightly ruddy faced and replete, we tried our hardest to find fault with the food and the venue. Thank goodness for the parsnip crisps! The maitre d’ brought us the bill and engaged us in conversation as he remembered us from the previous visit. It was like going to an excellent dentist, the money was extracted without any pain or fuss. The total bill for five course, three large glasses of wine and a pint of Adnams bitter came to under £45. It was almost embarrassing to pay so little!

A small part of me wants to keep the Du Cane all to myself but then again they deserve to be packed to the rafters every day. What a conundrum! My view is get along there as soon as you can, then you can get that second visit in quicker – you will want to, I promise.

So, the all important Cravat Ratings::

Food style – Modern British with ethically sourced local ingredients. Well balanced and interesting.
Drinks – Three real ales, and a short but interesting wine list with a good range by the glass.
D├ęcor – Very clean lines, if a bit clinical. Bare tables and comfortable seats with good weighted cutlery. Some of the art work jarred but the fresh flowers and plants softened the effect!.
Staff – Front of house run by three staff who were unfailingly pleasant and knowledgeable.
Quality against Cost score – Amazing! The Menu Du Jour provides the best value, high quality food I have seen for a long time. Even the a' la carte , if the same standard of food applies (which from the odd dishes we saw that lunchtime appears to be the case) represents astonishing value.
Cravat Rating – Definitely achieves 'The Best' rating.  Absolutely excellent.


Pip Pip!



*Auntie Bettie was an elderly friend of the family who was rather well upholstered and whenever, at a family gathering or tea party, she was offered a cake she would always say “oh no, I couldn’t really” and then, just as you were moving away, would snaffle two! A class act every time.