By Mischa Mack
My expectations weren’t sky high – the transformation of a village pub in the Surrey Hills doesn’t spark the same buzz as, say, the launch of a Bolivian-Balti fusion pop-up in Bermondsey. But having said that, Matt Edmonds – former Head Chef of Searcys at the Gherkin – is the new Head Chef here, and that did grab my attention, and would surely convince my city-centric husband to accompany me for dinner. Not a chance. Why would he drive 45 minutes out of London when he has everything – from magnificent food markets to Michelin-starred establishments – a stroll or a tube hop away? My friend Boris – half-Venetian, half-Mancunian – is quite a cook himself and is usually loathe to eat out when, in his opinion, he can do so better at home. Well, on this occasion he didn’t have anything better to do (dear Boris) – so off we went.
The Grantley Arms is in the pretty village of Wonersh, near Guildford, and was bought last year by locals Richard Fryer and Chris Frederick. They’ve completely renovated the Grade II Listed building, which dates back to 1590, restoring its original beams and fireplaces. Painted an elegant pale grey throughout, the interior feels contemporary and fresh, yet not at all stark. The main dining room, with its high ceiling, broad beams and atmospheric lighting, feels warm and well-established. Tables are spaced out – none of that elbow-bashing or eavesdropping we’re used to in London. Plus, there’s a beautiful private dining room in the adjoining ancient bakery building, featuring exposed brickwork and the original bread oven.
Selecting a starter was easy for me since I can’t resist anything involving sage. Penrith chicken pressing with onions, shallots – sage, obviously, and sour dough croûte. When it arrived, I had to just stare at the plate for a while, to take in its artistry and to understand its complexity. Curved parallel streaks of burnt apple purée and rapeseed mayonnaise, upon which was placed a perfect rectangular prism of the most tender chicken – sage sandwiched along its middle. Carefully adorned with little salad sprigs – sourced from family-run Secretts farm, just up the road – and crowned with the croûtes, this was something outstanding. I’m not fond of smears for the sake of it, or indeed of any unnecessary daubing of dishes, but this kind of precision union of tastes, temperatures and textures – rich and subtle, warm and cold, smooth and crispy – had meaning.
Boris ordered the South Downs rabbit, considering himself a master of broths (his fridge is usually full of tupperware containing bones floating in bleary liquids), he was curious to try the consommé it came with. Although itching to find fault, he capitulated and pronounced it the perfect accompaniment to the delicate flavour of the medium-cooked rabbit. This, let me assure you, is a first in the 20 years I’ve known him. To follow I had rump of Herdwick lamb: two extremely plump cuts – deliciously pink with crackly edges – served on either side of the plate, lemon thyme curd beneath them and a streak of wild nettle sauce slicing between. Separately, in a tiny Le Creuset-like cooking pot, came 12-hour barbecued lamb shoulder, its smokiness sublime. Boris tucked into his braised saddleback ossobuco with Swiss chard, truffles, apple and morels, topped with shards of bubbly crackling. The raised eyebrows said it all – sheepishly, he was surrendering his epicurean aloofness. I let him know that humility suited him; he should wear it more often.
Matt Edmonds came out of the kitchen to meet us. An amiable, easygoing guy, he’s passionate about good British food and great, wholesome, British ingredients. With this his first solo venture, he and his team of assisting chefs (largely ex-Gherkin) are putting their all not only into developing a destination restaurant but also into reinstating the pub as central to village life. I’d seen some beautifully presented sharing plates and fine burgers on their way to the bar area; I’d certainly be a regular if I were local. I commented on how reasonably priced the restaurant menu is – I don’t know anywhere else where I could eat this standard of cuisine for £35 for three courses. But Matt explained that he wants to make something that’s special and accessible.
For dessert, on the chef’s recommendation I ordered the ginger opalyse cremeux. A more fitting and fathomable name would have been ‘rhubarb and ginger in outer-space’, owing to its cosmic air. Imagine a dense scattering of crushed gingerbread with upended pieces of startling pink, smooth-tasting rhubarb; pointed, planetary-like balls of creme anglaise whipped with white chocolate; spiky, pink-flecked fragments of thin white chocolate; and a smooth oval of rhubarb sorbet. Boris’ fat finger of lemon curd, served with shortbread and yogurt, was very good too – especially its adorning rose-flavoured mini meringues.
I made a point of letting my husband know what he’d missed, flashing food images I’d taken precisely for this purpose. I think we’ll be heading back to The Grantley Arms, and I imagine that Boris may just find himself free to join us.
The Grantley Arms can be found at The Street, Wonersh,Guildford, Surrey, GU5 0PE.