12:44 21 July 2015
Garlic butter whelks with wild garlic gazpacho and cockles
Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne revisits an old friend under new ownership and finds it in good hands
It was the garlic butter whelks that started it. Where in Herts would you be likely to find such a thing? No doubt I’ll now be deluged with advice on where to sample more of this traditional English seafood, but for the moment the only place I know that does it like this is the Tilbury at Datchworth.
This former village pub had already made the transition to the gastro side when it was run by TV chef Paul Bloxham. It still has much of the old atmosphere but had moved gently to more of a restaurant with a pubby bar, though there is still a ‘pub classics’ menu alongside the a la carte. It was popular among those in the know when Bloxham reigned and seems to be well on the way to being even more so with the arrival of the brothers Bainbridge, Tom and Jamie, and head chef Chas Wheeler. Tom, an enthusiastic and self-taught chef, runs the kitchen with Wheeler, Jamie the front-of-house. Ideas for the often-eclectic dishes, of which the whelks, served with garlic gazpacho and a cockle and white wine sauce and on the menu at £7.50 are a good example, come from Tom in partnership with his chef, a co-operation that he says works well. As proof, the Tilbury is now the bearer of two AA Rosettes and listings in the current AA and Michelin guides.
If it was the whelks that commanded attention and persuaded me I should review the Tilbury, the garlic gazpacho in which they were served simply proved the point for my fellow diner. Much taken by the molluscs anyway, she had one word for their accompaniment – ‘wonderful’, and this from an authority on such things. On my side of the table, I was similarly intrigued by an unusual take on the old insalata tricolore, in this case listed as tomato tartare with buffalo mozzarella and basil gel (£7.50) but with the Bainbridge touch of a mini-bloody Mary to make you remember it. Serving the tomato in this way brought out all the freshness that the non-skinned version sometimes lacks, while the properly-peppered vodka shot did away with the dish’s blandness at a stroke, leaving just the texture and flavour.
Mains had the same touch of the familiar enhanced by some tasty twists. Sea trout (£19) came with new potatoes and asparagus but also samphire and a cockle and white wine sauce. The samphire was perfectly cooked, not easy with this delicate coastal treat, and proved again to be an inspired accompaniment for fish, as its growing popularity testifies. The same applied to the trout, with its layer of properly crackly skin shrouding a healthy serving of the sweet pink flesh. My partner was similarly pleased with her duck breast (£22.50), accompanied by steamed duck-leg dumplings, duck hearts and asparagus in orange jus. In contrast, a side dish of fresh vegetables (£2.50) was disappointingly ordinary but filled out the meal as planned. A shared dessert of treacle tart with marmalade ice cream, another winning combination of old and new, restored our faith. We washed everything down with glasses of Prosecco on one side and a flinty Picpoul de Pinet, not often seen but growing in popularity and availability, on the other.
A friend asked me recently whether I ever wrote a bad review. I have where it was deserved and will again where necessary but the truth is Herts is fortunate in its choice of restaurants and the hard-working teams that run them are kept on their toes by a combination of fierce competition and an increasingly sophisticated audience. The result is a sweep of good and in some cases very good meals. The Tilbury does its job very well, as those rosettes show.
The cost of this dinner for two was £86, including two glasses of wine and service.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.
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Datchworth SG3 6TB