This is a strange time to be writing about restaurants. The industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and so I’m not going to want to write any negative opinions any more than you’re going to want to read them.
This calls into question all the fundamentals of a “review”, but it also gives me a chance to talk to chefs, rather than trying to distance myself from them. To get some kind of insight into how the industry is going to pull through this.
Across the UK, restaurants have “pivoted” to takeaway for their local communities. So, as soon as travel restrictions allowed, I rented a camper van and headed off — in a peripatetic private dining room — to try some of the most interesting.
Osip, in Bruton, Somerset, was unfinished business. I’d booked a table pseudonymously to review at the end of March only to be thwarted by lockdown. This time, I called under my own name and ordered takeaway from Merlin Labron-Johnson, a chef I’d rated extremely highly at Clipstone and Portland, who had just set up on his own for the first time, four months before the virus took hold.
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“It happened so quickly,” said Labron-Johnson. “I could see it was starting to be a problem in Spain, Italy, France, but we were busier than we’d ever been. It felt like we were just finding our feet. I called everybody who’d booked to cancel — some of them were quite surprised — and the next day, the government closed down the restaurants.
“We started off doing baskets. We were making stuff but also trying to support our producers and farmers . . . We made pâtés, terrines, jams, sodas, pies-and-veg bundles.
“At one point, we were doing the online shop, a pop-up shop, the baskets and takeaway — all coming out of this tiny kitchen — and we weren’t really making any money. We had no income, no grants — we fell through the gaps of all the government schemes. But I couldn’t just sit there for three or four months doing nothing.”
I’m sure dinner is great when it’s thrust over your threshold by a perspiring biker with a packed schedule and an attitude problem. I, on the other hand, was able to pull off the main road to a spot Labron-Johnson had recommended, slide back the van door and gaze out over some sort of Mendip. (I have no idea what “Mendips” actually are, but they’re obviously big, green and restful on the eye.)
There was a jar of rillettes and a chunk of home-baked treacle bread to trowel them on to. Labron-Johnson has form with rillettes or, more accurately, I have form for reverting to a gibbering fan-boy over his execution of them. This time there was no foie gras blended in, but the view more than compensated.
“The takeaway is quite good business,” said Labron-Johnson. “It’s basically me and my sous-chef. All the overheads of a restaurant, well you kind of remove all that. No floor staff, no washing up. We just cook food and put it in tubs.
“We still charge what I think is decent value for money — quite expensive for takeaway at £30 per head, but that’s for a lot of food. Less than half of what we used to charge when we were operating as a restaurant but with far less than half of the overheads.”
Any of this food could have been unpacked on to a plate and served to the delight of a customer in a dining room but I was already discovering something quite unexpected. Takeaway isn’t necessarily a poor substitute for some “real” dining experience. It can be lovely in and of itself.
I cracked out my little gas stove to reheat some roast chicken, basting in the jus, as directed, with my collapsible camping spoon. I served it with hasselback potatoes, cooked in the bird’s own fat. It was, my paper menu informed me, “dry plucked by our dear friend Russel in Bradford on Avon”, a little touch that delighted everyone except, possibly, the chicken.
How did Labron-Johnson see the future panning out for Osip? “I’ve now realised that I’m just a lot less anxious, less apologetic about doing what I think is right. Now I’m going to do this the way I want to do it and if it doesn’t work, I’m going to give up. This feels like a second chance to open the restaurant and I want to make it work.”
The sky turned golden and bird-things flew by, making that noise they do. I removed the lid from an astonishingly fresh meadowsweet panna cotta, topped with a lemon thyme crumble, and took a moment to reassess my long-ingrained antipathy to the countryside. I could really get to like this bucolic nonsense. At least, I could if I had a proper toilet.
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