Essex Restaurants Guide – 10 of the Best
The Essex Food and Drink Awards were announced on Thursday showcasing not only the achievements of Essex food producers and restaurateurs, but also the diversity of dining experiences available in Essex.
The trend for local produce continues unabated, however, with Essex restaurants embracing home-made, traditional and modern British cuisines – but with a twist.
James Donoghue and his wife Diana own The Pheasant in Gestingthorpe – voted Best Food Pub 2011 in East Anglia in The Great British Pub Awards.
James trained as a chef and Diana used to run Hedingham Castle in Essex. In the early 1990s, the couple ran bars and restaurants in not so leafy Mayfair in London – after which James retrained in landscape design and exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.
He was designing gardens in Essex and Suffolk when his client research revealed that what people wanted was to produce their own fruit and vegetables.
The fusion between tilling the soil and cooking has been with James all his life – his first memory of saving his pocket money was to invest in ten strawberry plants for the family garden at the age of eleven.
Realising there was nowhere suitable to plant them in the Yorkshire soil, he built a raised bed and drainage system.
His obsession with the perfectly ripe strawberry continues to this day. If you eat at the Pheasant, your strawberry will be at its most delicate peak of ripeness as it hits your palate.
“It’s all about taste,” says James. “From a personal point of view, it’s about knowing the source of the food, knowing the quality of it and it’s also about flavour – flavour is so important in gardens.
"Most produce that you buy in the supermarket and shops is grown for visual impact and shelf-life, with post-harvest technology like large containers with little holes in the top and bubble wrap at the bottom to improve shelf-life.
“There’s a certain variety of strawberry that will only last about a day after you’ve picked it, but they are so sweet and delicious – why not grow them and take them straight from the garden to the kitchen?”
It is this attention to detail and flavour that characterises British cuisine throughout Essex, says James. Produce at The Pheasant will most likely come from the kitchen garden or the acre of land recently purchased for cultivation.
"Across Essex there is a very clear demand for local produce and sustainable food as well. Most of my friends in the industry say if they put local or sustainable produce on the menu, it’s far more favourable than food that may have come from China or New Zealand.”
James says the English palate is becoming “quite broad”, particularly in Essex where a lot of fusion in cooking is happening, with little delineation between the eating habits of the younger or older generations these days.
“Now you find everybody’s willing to try a little bit of everything – we mix different flavours with different dishes; for example, putting chocolate with venison or with beef.
“We have Muntjac on the menu here and people ask what it is – people don’t know it’s a little deer and it tastes absolutely delicious. But now it’s so popular that if I put on the Internet that I’ve got Muntjac on the menu that day, I can guarantee I can fill the restaurant and be sold out by the end of that evening.”
James says that his customers range in age from eighteen to seventy, and people also happily travel across the county for dining experiences.
“We get people from London, Ipswich, Harwich, Clacton – we have got a very large demographic of people from
Southend-on-Sea and we had a large number of people from Southend, Clacton and Ipswich on Valentine’s evening.”
Midweek trade is a little quieter since the economic downturn – but there is a bigger emphasis on weekend trade.
James says that colleges such as Colchester are breeding a “good stock” of student and young chefs.
“The Heston Blumenthals have been around for a wee while now – and while they are not passé, they are now very
The trend among up-and-coming chefs seems to be going back to basics, he says.
“Looking at simple dishes, looking at what they are and stripping them down and rebuilding them, making them what their own; looking at the key elements in there and rebuilding them with a fusion. Also simplifying dishes, making them lighter – there is a trend towards old fashioned food but lighter, so that it is not so cholesterol laden.”
Elli Constantatou of Visit Essex.com also reports that a growing number of young chefs in Essex are changing the culinary landscape. Many of the young chefs she has encountered across Essex are in their twenties and have been inspired by the career and success of Essex-born chef Jamie Oliver.
“There is a scene of young entrepreneurs in Essex,” says Elli. “They are proud of what they do and take the job very seriously.”
Visit Essex.com is currently compiling the results of an online survey to gain a picture of the Essex demographic, using social segmentation techniques rather than the traditional socio-economic classifications. Results show that a large proportion of Essex dwellers are “Cosmopolitan” types, who are most likely to enjoy shopping, new products, heritage – and cooking.
“The core value of Cosmopolitan types is that they are also most likely to visit parks and the countryside,” says Elli, “And they are the social segment most likely to eat out often.”
It is perhaps easy to see why home-grown British produce is fast becoming the bedrock of dining out across Essex.
But Essex diners are also an adventurous lot, it seems – so whether you are seeking Muntjac or Madras curry, Essex restaurants will keep your tastebuds tantalised.
Best for Gourmet Gastropub
The Pheasant Pub with Rooms, Gestingthorpe, Essex CO9 3AU
Tel: 01787 461196
Chef: James Donoghue
Cuisine: Gastropub, Traditional & Modern British, Home-grown Produce Price Guide: Set menu £12.50-£15
Best Food Pub in East Anglia 2011, Essex Life Food & Drink Awards Finalist (Best Gastro Pub in Essex)Diana and James Donoghue established The Pheasant in 2005 and since then local produce has never tasted quite the same. Expect premium local meat, home-grown vegetables from the kitchen garden, fish smoked almost on the premises in the Borley Smokery next door – and honey made by The Pheasant’s own bees. The menu offers all the great staples of British cooking – game pie, venison, roasted belly of pork (with caramelised apple) and Spaynes Hall Farm
Sausages. Garden chef Donoghue believes in using produce that is at the very peak of perfection as it hits your palate – you will relish the moment.
Best for Fine Dining
2 Maldon Road, Great Totham, Essex CM9 8NH
Tel: 01621 894020
Chef: Craig Ferguson
Cuisine: Modern British, European
Price Guide: Two courses £32.95, Three-course Sunday lunch £20.95
Smart casual dress Retreat to the heart of the Essex countryside and the smell of lavender fields as you savour the Willow’s fine dining menu of fresh British cuisine. The ambience is a suitably subdued canvas for the colourful gastronomic treats that include chef Craig Ferguson’s signature Haggis, neeps and tatties, locally shot pigeon breast and Maldon oyster tempura. Move on to locally shot venison with sloe gin jelly – or a riotous entrée of Trio of beef, pan-seared fillet, braised shin and pressed cheek. Desserts offer fabulous distractions such as Chocolate marquise with a bitter kumquat jelly, blood orange salad and chocolate caramel tuile. Willowy you will not be.
Best for Sophisticated Dining
155-157 Ingrave Road, Brentwood, Essex CM13 2AA.
Tel: 01277 261 331
Cuisine: Modern British, European
Price Guide: A la carte entrées £15.95-£22.95
Restaurateur Matt Mason has just collected three awards in the Essex Food & Drink Awards and Masons in Brentwood won the accolade of Best Large Restaurant. The brasserie’s ambience is warm, the décor slightly masculine – and the menu both à la carte and table d’hôte. Local produce is used when available and you can look forward to dishes such as moules marinières, seared partridge breast or breaded goat’s cheese as starters, with dishes such as local pheasant or tenderloin of pork as a main course. Vegetarians are well catered for – more frivolous diners will just want to skip straight to the dessert menu.
Best for Surf and Turf
80 High Street, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex CM0 8AA
Tel: 01621 786900
Cuisine: Modern British, European, Fish
Price Guide: Main courses £12-£16.50
Best Small Restaurant, Essex Food and Drink Awards 2011
Fish lovers will also be contented souls with an à la carte and set menu that will blow away all expectations of what a small restaurant can achieve. Local produce and fish are used with imagination in classic dishes such as daube of beef, lemon sole (contented) and halibut – plus enticing starters such as seafood risotto with crustacean essence or a local game terrine with quince chutney. The set menu offers wild salmon, rib of beef and wild rabbit.
There are specials like baked sea bass or Beef Wellington, sticky desserts and a fine wine list. Utter contentment.
Best for Traditional Dishes
Stratford Road, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6HW
Tel: 01206 322795
Cuisine: British, European, Sunday lunch, Sandwiches/wraps Price Guide: Main courses £9.95-£25.50, Sandwiches/wraps from £6.50
Milsoms’ motto is “eat, drink and stay” and the menu will certainly make leaving sweet sorrow. Starters include crab brulée, Vietnamese fish cakes, Mediterranean inspired dishes – and a sublimely retro1970s prawn cocktail. Main courses offer traditional dishes such as blackened “Essex birds” chicken breast, 28-day Dedham Vale beef, British lamb rump – or add a steak to your prawn cocktail. Ordering is easy – write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to a passing waiter. There is also a Kids’ Menu offering home-cooked fare, such as sausage and mash or spaghetti Bolognese.
Best for Seafood
First Floor, Pier Hotel, Harwich, Essex C012 3HH
Tel: 01255 241212
Cuisine: Seafood, Steak
Price Guide: Main courses £15.75-£35, Three-course Sunday lunch £29
If fish is your dish and you prefer sophisticated dining with stunning sea views, your catch of the day will not be fresher than at Pier Hotel’s Harbourside Restaurant. Attention to detail is paramount and the menu treats fish with respect and some imaginative touches. Expect dishes like Roast fillet of cod with butternut squash, sultana & pine nut salsa and sherry sauce, or Lobster Thermidor in mustard and brandy cheese sauce. Come sundown, wade into the seafood platter served on ice and watch the sun set over the harbour.
Best for Foodie Families
Heath Road, Tendring, Essex CO16 0BX
Tel: 01255 870060
Cuisine: Modern & Traditional British
Price Guide: Set lunch or dinner – Two courses £10 Two AA Rosettes
You could take the kids to a chain restaurant, but The Fat Goose offers set meals from £10 for two courses– and there is a children’s menu with smaller portions of home-made steak burger, free range chicken breast or haddock and chips. Grown up dining offers fresh produce, including pan roast pigeon breast, smoked goose salad, haunch of local venison, a 10oz Dedham Vale rib eye steak or wild rabbit braised in Aspalls cider. Expect a generous scattering of quail eggs, plum chutney, juniper, blackberries and roast squash among the dishes, plus sublime desserts – and baked camembert drizzled with Muscat and served with fresh, home-made bread. Now try and waddle home.
Best for Indian
Jalsa Ghar Indian Restaurant
79 Stortford Road, Great Dunmow, Essex CM6 1DL
Tel: 01371 873330
Cuisine: Bangladeshi/Indian, Vegetarian
Price Guide: Main courses £8-£11.95
Finalist, British Curry Awards 2010/2008
Since 1998, Jalsa Ghar has been serving its unique fusion of Bangladeshi and Indian food from the pretty surroundings of the Queen Victoria pub in Great Dunmow. Tasty appetisers like lamb stuffed mushrooms or crispy deep fried bread with prawns accompany traditional Tandooris and House Entrées such as King Prawn Galfried or Gusth Khata Masala (braised lamb in butter with ginger, garlic and spices). Even Balti lovers will be satisfied and current special offers include 20% off Sunday orders and 10% off takeaways.
Best for Italian Café Culture
13 Steward’s Lounge, The Liberty, Romford, Essex RM1 3RJ
Tel: 01708 756 203
Cuisine: Italian, British, European
Price Guide: Under £10
Italianissimo is a cool, contemporary Italian café/restaurant, with art on the walls and art in the menu. Simple dishes with stylish presentation and affordable prices demonstrate that good food also comes in small packages. The extensive menu offers salads, sandwiches and panini, hot dishes, desserts and a long list of coffee, specialist teas and milkshakes. Expect food like mamma would make if she had the time – plus an English breakfast with smoked salmon or bacon and eggs – or muesli, fresh banana, honey and yoghurt. Bellissimo.
Best for Fish and Chips
9 Vine Parade, Wivenhoe, Essex
(also in Colchester and Braintree)
Tel: 01206 820222
Cuisine: Fish and Chips
Price Guide: Under £10
Of course it’s impossible to name just one chippy in Essex, so opt for a pretty location – and the possibility of free parking – as well as fish and chips to dine for. Multi-award winning Henleys in Wivenhoe allows customers to choose their fish from the wet fish display (proper, but not for the sentimental) and it will be cooked before their very eyes. Henleys holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest chips – 222 seconds from peeling to serving. Henleys also serves pies, burgers, sausages, chicken and ribs. Really fast.