Restaurant review: The Chef's Dozen
19 September 2014
"Thanks to the plethora of amazing local produce around here, their menus almost write themselves. But here’s where Richard Craven is different: he surprises"
One of the Cotswolds’ most exciting chefs returns to his foodie homeland and places the region at the centre of the culinary map, says LAURA ROWE
I’ve got a jammy job, I know. I get paid to eat. Pound signs whir (okay, almost; pennies) with every chew. I get to chow down on some of the newest, most exciting bites in the Wolds. It’s tough, but someone’s got to do it, right?
So when I say somewhere is the best place I’ve eaten all year, you better know it’s good. That was how I described my experience at The Fuzzy Duck in Armscote, just before Christmas last year. Even to my friends down south proper, in Bath and Bristol, I would recommend the place. It welcomed families, foodies and even dogs, and had everything you could want from a Cotswold gastropub – a chic but countrified décor, charming staff, and a menu that felt familiar and yet pushed the boundaries with every mouthful. But it was the latter, the food, that really made this place special – and that was courtesy of chef Richard Craven, who opened his own restaurant recently, called The Chef’s Dozen, in Chipping Campden.
If we’re being pernickety, and these are certainly the pages in which to be so, this restaurant is actually The Chef’s Dozen Mark II. The original opened in 2011 in Alcester, where Richard and wife Solanche successfully built up a reputation for two years before moving to The Fuzzy Duck. But the opportunity to open their own restaurant again, in Richard’s hometown (he went to school and started his foodie career here), was too good to resist.
The restaurant, which opened in June, has taken up a prime spot on the High Street, with its own pretty courtyard. It’s small (seating no more than around 30 covers), but thoughtfully considered in its layout and décor. It’s calming, neutral and intimate – there’s no space for tables bigger than six – making it perfect for a date night, say, and particularly if your date is a foodie.
You see, Richard’s got some culinary weight behind his pass. Having worked with Emily Watkins at the Kingham Plough, and in South Africa at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français, he knows his stuff. Even better than a glittering CV, though, is that Richard understands his surroundings better than any chef I know.
His approach – and his menus are refreshingly succinct – involves cooking from scratch, naturally, and taking the Cotswolds from field to fork. And for many gastropubs in the area, that is enough. Thanks to the plethora of amazing local produce around here, their menus almost write themselves. But here’s where Richard Craven is different: he surprises.
There are three options at dinner – a seven-course tasting menu for £58pp, a set menu (two courses for £16, three for £19), and the ‘chef’s dozen’, which gives a choice of three dishes for each of the four courses for £38.
The restaurant is packed, too, even midweek. It could be down to a recent glowing review by Guardian reviewer Marina O’Loughlin, who called the delicate razor clam pre-starter “the best I’ve had, ever”, and the homemade milk loaf with Richard’s own churned butter and whipped pork dripping a “jaw dropper” – but I bet it’s more to do with the locals. Good news spreads fast, after all.
Take my dining partner, the Doctor, and his wild rabbit ravioli. It’s become a signature dish for Richard, and for good reason – the rabbit (shot to order by gamekeeper friends one mile away) and hearty offal are encased in the most delicate sheets of pasta bathed in a rich consommé with light veg. The aforementioned bread, too, is baked with flour made especially for the restaurant on the outskirts of the town. And my hand-dived scallop, simply seared and perched in a scallop and seaweed broth, was so stripped back it was both brave and brilliant.
Another course of blonde ray was almost meaty – caramelized to create a bark, but with a nudge it pulled apart to yield the most tender, alabaster fish. Crisp slices of pure turnip, toasted cob nuts, sea purslane and a rich gravy were unexpected plate fellows, but they worked well. So much so, in fact, that I nearly forgot about the Doctor’s 24-hour braised pig cheek – thick and sticky with sauce, this was meat that could have collapsed at a cough from the neighbouring table. It came partnered with cousins buckwheat and rhubarb.
Grabbing sneaky bites of the Doctor’s main course, local estate fallow deer, was remarkably easy, so buttery soft was the meat when sliced and stolen. It had been paired with flavours it was born to be with – onion purée, blanched baby leeks, an onion ring, Herefordshire blueberries and bone marrow. Hogget from Nolan Brook (three miles away) had been subtly smoked with hay from the same pastures and served with Drinkwaters carrots and blackberries. Minimal, but it’s far from simple cookery.
The Doctor, not renowned for his sweet tooth, rated the warm honey cake with natural yoghurt and plum, and the sloe tart with a thyme ice cream certainly hit the spot, but it was a magical ‘optional cheese course’ for £7 that was the star. Having spied it on a neighbouring table we had to order – melted Single Gloucester draped over milk loaf, with honey, ripe pear and a mound of freshly grated summer truffle, it was cheese on toast for the gods.
Richard Craven’s cookery is what can only be described as plucky. Stripped back, minimal plates, but each cooked with incredible skill and knowledge and inspired flavour pairings. And I haven’t even begun on front of house, with Solanche and her passionate team. Well, you’d be cheery if you had this quality to present on a daily basis...