Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Gunton Arms, Norfolk

"Posh pub with rooms & food in deer park" is the short tagline that appears when you plug Gunton Arms into Google Maps, and sounds exciting enough, but the reality of approaching this extraordinary place in person is something else. A short vegetation-canopied walkway from the car park opens dramatically into a giant park populated by groups of red deer, the bucks snorting and bellowing in the late evening sun, and to the right in a separate field a herd of cattle. To the side of the main gravel road through the park stands the pub itself, handsome and stately in traditional Norfolk flint, fenced off to presumably prevent hungry deer wandering in and nibbling guests' dinners. There is a different way the animals might end up inside the pub, but we'll get onto that shortly.

Inside, the magic only intensifies. A maze of low-beamed candle-lit rooms are each decorated with astonishing items of modern art - a Tracey Emin signature neon in one, a Lucian Freud etching in another, a couple of Gilbert & George in the corridor outside the loos. In these Covid-aware times it's more difficult to move around the place and explore the full extent of the collection, which is frustrating, but on balance I think I'd rather I felt safe and looked after of an evening than stumble across a new collection of erotic Japanese photography. Certainly not before I've eaten anyway.

The menu is big, which can be a bad sign, but contains lots of things you'd want to eat, so in the end it's good. There's a load of gastropub classics such as pork belly with apple sauce, or cod, chips and mushy peas, but also a section called "From the Elk Room fire" which has a list of the various animals you may have seen wandering around outside, made into sausages or simply seasoned and grilled over a huge wood fire. From our cozy anteroom, which even with generous spacing between tables we had largely to ourselves that evening, we read the specials board by the light from the fire, and hoped the food could live up to the atmosphere.

It all did. Lamb sweetbreads, a generous amount of them for a starter portion, came with wild mushrooms (presumably found somewhere nearby) and spelt, all bound with an incredibly rich, sticky sauce, the kind of thing that probably took a day or two to make. Unpretentious despite the premium ingredients, and presented with a rustic honesty that just made the whole thing even more irresistable, this was a great start.

Mixed beets with blue cheese and pickled walnuts is perhaps a little more conventional, but more than made up for the established concept with excellent (local obviously) Binham blue cheese, fantastic pickled walnuts (we'd seen wet walnuts at the markets over the previous couple of days in places like Harleston so these could have come from similar batches) and some bold seasoning which lifted the whole thing into something extremely enjoyable.

Duck egg featured on a separate vegetarian menu, and though I didn't get to try it, it looked the part and from what I can gather went down very well indeed. Similarly a red onion tart, which was eagerly devoured but I didn't get to sample, partly because the vegetarian options on any given menu are usually towards the bottom of my list of preferences, but mainly because I was worried I'd need all the space I could get for my...

...giant slab of red deer rump, delightfully charred and smokey from the wood fire, presented Hawksmoor-style, honestly and simply on a plate with a little tub of rowan jelly. The flesh had a gentle, dark crust and inside was perfectly medium-rare, tasting of a live well lived and full of strong, gamey flavour. It was fantastic, but a slightly bittersweet experience as it only made me wonder what the other dishes from the Elk Room could have been like - the venison sausages, for example, or the 28-day hung Aberdeen Angus beef. Maybe one day I'll find out. Meantime, the venison came with goose fat roasties, with a serious crunch and as smooth inside as buttered mash.

Despite all that, we did somehow find room for a treacle tart which was served with clotted cream and what treacle tart isn't made better by being served with clotted cream, I ask you. And to round everything off I should mention the service, which as well as being masked-up and Covid-compliant was also personable, attentive and very pleasant. Easy enough to achieve when we were the only people in the room but still, commendable.

The Gunton Arms is quite unlike any other gastropub I've ever visited, not perhaps measured by kind of food they're offering - the Elk Room dishes apart, this was a well-executed if tried-and-tested gastropub menu - but for the louche, clandestine character which managed to be as comfortable hosting local families and regulars as the (I'm told) occasional aristocrat or rock star that wanders through its doors. It's hard to put your finger on exactly why it's so special - clearly filling any old building with hundreds of thousands of pounds of modern art would not automatically make for success - but however carefully curated the atmosphere, the result is a fairytale ideal of a country pub, filled with intrigue and wonder, that just happens to serve some excellent food into the bargain. Long, in this troubled times, may it thrive.


1 comment:

Willie LEBUS said...

Had the crackling and wild boar sausages with chilli dip, both exemplary. The ribeye melted in the mouth. Oh and stunning pork terrine. Wines good and expensive. Service impeccable. #yum!