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Restaurant review: The Oak, Stanstead Abbotts

PUBLISHED: 16:27 06 November 2017

The Oak (Brian Arnopp Photography)

The Oak (Brian Arnopp Photography)

Brian Arnopp Photography

Richard Cawthorne visits a rejuvinated Stanstead Abbotts venue led by a chef with a passion for seafood

Cured and torched mackerel with beetroot puree, pickled beetroot, beetroot crisps, pickled and compressed cucumber (Brian Arnopp Photography)Cured and torched mackerel with beetroot puree, pickled beetroot, beetroot crisps, pickled and compressed cucumber (Brian Arnopp Photography)

The Lord Louis was a typical Herts village tavern and like many before and since it suffered a familiar fate, slipping into decline and eventually closing. The building’s good fortune was that it happened to be on the road from Roydon to Datchworth, where the Tilbury, a renowned gastro-pub is located. A member of the Tilbury team was chef and Roydon resident Craig Oakley, who had been looking to open his own business and whose journey to work took him down Stanstead Abbotts High Street – and past The Lord Louis. He took the place on and, renaming the venue, is now the owner and head chef of The Oak.

Described winningly as a ‘fish-led gastro-pub’, the business opened in January and by the summer had made enough of an impact to become a finalist in the Newcomer of the Year category in the 2017 Hertfordshire Life Food and Drink Awards. By last month, it had progressed still further, sufficient to make booking a weekend table at short notice not an easy task. We ended up on a Saturday, not my favourite reviewing day since, with the kitchen at full stretch, it rarely gives a true picture of how a restaurant works. On the other hand, coping with and keeping happy a full house, which this was with all 52 covers occupied, is also an important part of what the business should be about.

The surroundings are still recognisably pubby, with a bar along one side of the room and polished wood floors, comfy chairs and tables of assorted shapes. It’s a sign of the times that most of the tables are given over to meal service, but there is room for drinkers too. Cocktails, fine wines and craft beers are now part of the scene. It is also still a work in progress, with plans to extend the building rearwards to add another 28 covers, bringing the total to 80.

As noted, fish is a major part of the Oak’s offering, a nod to a market Craig was able to study closely in the course of 16 years working with award-winning restaurants. The supplier here is Flying Fish Seafoods of Cornwall, which runs day boats enabling the Oak to provide ‘dishes from ocean to plate in less than 48 hours’. The menu can change according to the day’s catch but typically features native Cornish lobster, line-caught cod, beer battered haddock, sea bass, salt-baked kohlrabi, fish pie and mussels. Customers with other preferences can browse among the likes of 10oz sirloin or 8oz fillet, confit duck leg, lemon chicken or cauliflower steak. As with the fish and seafood, suppliers are listed and given due credit, including Bridget Borlase’s Sacombe Hill Farm a few miles away for meat, poultry and game, Dawlicious Jersey Ice Cream from Hertford Heath among the desserts and cheese from Toby Archer of the Cheese Plate in Buntingford.

Cornish dressed crab with shallot vinegar, creme fraiche (Brian Arnopp Photography)Cornish dressed crab with shallot vinegar, creme fraiche (Brian Arnopp Photography)

Since we had been attracted in the first place by the emphasis on fish, our choices for our meal were predictable, with a mackerel dish the only unusual touch among our starters. At £8, the cured and torched mackerel with beetroot purée, pickled beetroot and beetroot crisps, plus pickled and compressed cucumber (main image) looked good and proved refreshing, with any hint of too much fishiness taken care of by the accompaniments. The choice across the table was Cornish dressed crab (£12.50, far right), expensive for a starter but a generous and well received shellful spiced up with shallot vinegar and crème fraiche. Other notable sounding starters included heritage tomato and goat’s cheese mousse with a bloody Mary gel and granola, and a ham hock and cider terrine with pickled vegetables and toast. Both dishes were priced at £7.

Mains featured Cornish skate wing meuniere (£21.50), not as common as it used to be but a favourite with Craig and rapidly becoming a best seller with his customers. A meaty dish served with new potatoes, samphire and caper butter, it also provided my fellow reviewer, who had never before had skate, with a new experience. Safe to say she too is now a convert. My monkfish brochette (left), although also pricey at £24, was a flavourful twist on a familiar fish and served with cumin spiced flatbread, an exotic touch that went down well. The lobster when available is £35, served with garlic and herb butter or with thermidor sauce. Surf and turf – half lobster and an 8oz fillet of Hertfordshire beef plus fries, is £38.

Desserts, although not sampled on this visit, were highlighted by a tempting looking potted Victoria plum cheesecake (£6.50) with toasted oats and plum jam. Eton mess, also £6.50, came with tarragon and Bacardi infused strawberries, cream and vanilla ice cream. Other choices included chocolate brownie served warm with pistachio ice cream and peach Melba with poached peaches, cream and oats.

The Oak is a straightforward sort of place with few frills but a welcome emphasis on the quality of the food. Service, even on a busy Saturday, was friendly and efficient. Like any restaurant, it can be noisy at busy times, but a boisterous atmosphere is often part of the fun.

Monkfish brochette with cumin spiced flatbread (Brian Arnopp Photography)Monkfish brochette with cumin spiced flatbread (Brian Arnopp Photography)

The cost of this meal for two was £87 plus tip, including a bottle of vinho verde.

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.

Book a table

The Oak, 36 High Street, Stanstead Abbotts SG12 8AG

01920 877294. theoakstansteadabbotts.co.uk

3 of a kind

Richard recommends three more village gastro-pubs in Herts

1. The Alford Arms, Frithsden, Hemel Hempstead HP1 3DD

01442 864480. alfordarmsfrithsden.co.uk

‘Dogs, children and muddy boots welcome’ at this multi-award winning country pub on the fringe of the Ashridge Estate. Specials include roast guinea fowl breast or pan-roast rainbow trout.

2. The Golden Fleece, 20 Green End, Braughing SG11 2PG

01920 823555. goldenfleecebraughing.co.uk

Pub of the Year and top choice for family dining in the 2017 Hertfordshire Life Food and Drink Awards, Jess and Pete Tatlow’s operation is an enduring favourite tavern-with-tables.

3. Bushel & Strike, Mill Street, Ashwell SG7 5LY

01462 742394. bushelandstrike.co.uk

Former brewery dating from 1854 with strong emphasis on food. Specials include white bean soup with wild garlic as a starter and glazed Lincolnshire quail among mains.

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