This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Restaurant interiors that cost as little as £100 in total are pretty rare these days but that is only one of the particular charms of Tom Brent’s design of the Thorpeness Brasserie, which he opened earlier this year on the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and the nuclear reactor at Sizewell.
The brasserie’s interior is as British as its exterior. This modest cafe stands looking out across the shallow meare, home to swans, herons and brave boaters, and with its back to sand dunes, a pebbly beach and the bracing winds off the North Sea. On one side is the Emporium, a decidedly upmarket junk shop, and on the other is a hatch from which the brasserie’s kitchen sells its excellent home-made ice creams.
My first professional encounter with Brent was in 1980, when I asked him to design the interior of my former restaurant, L’Escargot in Soho, and he promptly came up with a carpet design that incorporated snails around the border and a green snail trail across the width of the carpet. This cost considerably in excess of £100.
Faced with the prospect of designing his own interior, and uncertain of what his first season by the sea would yield, Brent spent the six months before he opened scouring eBay for old copies of Private Eye, Picture Post and Movie magazine as well as numerous copies of that old schoolboy favourite, Dandy. Front covers of the first two now cover most of the walls while the best pictures of the film stars of yore have been reserved for the disabled lavatory, an area invariably neglected by the designers in Brent’s view. Dandy covers the walls of that part of the restaurant dedicated to toys and children.
Brent has sensibly used his new location to dictate the menu, which states as its aim in bold, ‘Good Food By The Sea’ and aims to offer this over breakfast, particularly popular with the local bikers, lunch, tea and dinner.
Our three meals there over one weekend were all fun, as much for the food as for the friendly service from a group of young waiting staff, some of whom will take off to study art and music at the end of the summer. In the interim, their ability to charm customers from 3 to 80 was impressive.
In their hands was some equally pleasing food. The fish soup, enhanced with fennel, was excellent even if the local fishing ports are not as busy as they once were, as was a chicken liver parfait with onion marmalade, and a salad of polenta, blue cheese and walnuts. A small range of main courses included absolutely correct interpretations of a navarin of lamb and a bourride of salmon, haddock and cod (two dishes frequently bastardised). Someone in the kitchen obviously has a deft hand with risotto and any vegetable that happens to be in season. Desserts are another strong point, particularly a warm rose and almond pudding, roasted peaches with a raspberry sauce and local strawberries with meringue and whipped cream.
Brent’s decision to give up his career as a designer to concentrate on this new venture must appear foolhardy when the rain keeps all but the hardiest customers away. But when the sun shines, the food, welcome and the walls at the Thorpeness Brasserie should bring a smile to any customer’s face – although I would like to see a few more substantial main courses.