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Halfway through what I’m eating at the fine-dining restaurant Robin Wylde in Lyme Regis, the chef Harriet Mansell makes a couple of drastic changes. The first is due to gritty mussels which, despite soaking for ages, turn out not to be fit for purpose. The green gazpacho in which she planned to use them needs to be speedily reworked. She lightly pickles some chive buds, which she adds with confit fennel, slightly fermented rhubarb and a few wildflowers, including three-cornered leek and bittercress. The gazpacho itself is made from cucumber, mint, parsley, tarragon, spring onion and cold-pressed rapeseed oil. Every mouthful is a taste explosion: pinpricks of saltiness, waves of sweet herbiness, insinuations of smoke, a vinegary trail, a garlicky tang – even the jab of green chilli heat. It’s a modest serving but the dish seems to stretch on forever, an ever-revolving carousel of flavours.
The other change to the menu is just as revelatory. I have been expecting a savoury dish of oat-milk panna cotta infused with toasted spent grain, with pickled magnolia leaves, dashi and black vinegar. Earlier, Mansell gave me a pickled magnolia leaf to try – it was soft and velvety and reminiscent of pickled ginger. But sometime between then and now Mansell has lost faith in the dish, and hit on a more exciting alternative, pairing the panna cotta with a gorse sorbet she’s been working on for a mildly sweet pre-dessert. “I think the panna cotta and sorbet bring out the best in each other in quite a fantastic way,” she says, setting the new dish in front of me.
She’s right. On its own, the gorse sorbet is insanely subtle. Gorse flowers are said to taste of coconut or almond. I can’t pick out either. Paired with the panna cotta, however, it tastes almost lemony, while the caramel smoothness of the blancmange melts in silky union with the zingily cold sorbet. Later, Mansell brings out the gorse syrup used in the sorbet base and it tastes confoundingly of foam banana sweets.
Dorset rising: five food destinations to know
The Oyster & Fish House
Perched high above the Cobb in Lyme Regis, this seafood restaurant from Mark Hix features some of his signature dishes including Cobb-smoked salmon, cured and smoked on the premises, and Fish House pie. theoysterandfishhouse.co.uk
The Strawberry Tree
Previously in residence at The Pop-Up Kitchen (home to Harriet Mansell’s pop-up version of Robin Wylde), this “slow Spanish food” restaurant has won acclaim for its delicious tapas and pinchos.
A firm favourite with locals, this eatery serves healthy, vibrant Asian street food – bao buns, spring rolls, salads and rice dishes with plenty of kimchi and carrot-radish pickle. redpandago.com
The Monmouth Pantry
With a former Moro, River Cafe and River Cottage chef at the helm, this little grocery store is packed with freshly baked sourdough bread, homemade dips, local veg and British cheeses as well as natural and organic wines on tap for fill-your-own bottles. themonmouthpantry.co.uk
A hop and a skip away in Bridport, this café run by two River Cottage alumni serves locally sourced food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Small-plate highlights include Tamarisk farm lamb and grilled Dallwood asparagus. wearesoulshine.co.uk
This erratic meal is not part of normal service. I am here in late spring, when the 26-cover dining room is officially closed. This is more of a trial run, a series of dishes in development ahead of the reopening in mid-May, when the restaurant resumes its single eight- to 10-course tasting menu, Wednesday to Saturday, with an extra lunchtime sitting on Saturday. At the time of my visit, the restaurant has been shut for five months, having only launched in October and traded for five weeks before being forced to close.
Despite its hardships, Mansell has managed to put the hiatus to good use. She acquired a second venue, a former beer cellar down the street, which she is relaunching in July as a 40-cover wine bar called Lilac. Specialising in low-intervention wines, it will offer a menu of seasonal small plates, made using surplus ingredients from the restaurant for zero waste. Dishes will include tempura sea beets with smoked roe, mackerel tartare, and lobster and shiitake tart. Mansell has also been experimenting with new ingredients – many foraged from the local area – “to create a larder of flavours” for the new menus. Her forager’s instinct was born of her early years growing up in Devon as well as her extensive experience as a yacht chef searching out native produce in ports around the world (she has cooked for the Murdochs and the Qatari royal family). But it was her time as a stagiaire at Noma in Copenhagen that proved most pivotal: “They were uncovering indigenous flavours in Denmark that they didn’t think they could get outside of Asia,” she says. “It made me look at everything with fresh eyes.”
Around Lyme Regis, her eyes are also trained on everything. “If I’m at Axmouth Harbour,” she says, “there are beautifully fragrant dog roses growing wild by the beach that I use as an aromatic. I first used them on a potato dish with crispy-skinned chicken, tangy goat’s cheese and verbena. There’s also orach, beach mustard, scurvy grass and sea purslane along the estuary, which I love with tartare or ceviche. The other day we found wood avens, whose dried roots taste like cloves. And quince flowers made into syrup give off a mind-blowing flavour of cherry Bakewell.”
Mansell’s use of flowers and foraged ingredients such as reindeer moss has led to a misconception among patrons that her dishes will be “dainty and delicate”. From my reckoning, they are anything but. Despite notes of subtlety, there are plentiful jolts, often from the use of acid. “I play around with the maturity of vinegars,” Mansell says, “from week-old tang to things that are insane. I have this kombucha reduction that is ‘wow’. But you’d only have the smallest dot. I like surprising people with what they’re eating.”
Among the dishes I try, that element of surprise combines with a glorious sense of discovery: a baked Portland oyster served with herb, vermouth and mead butter; a poached Lyme Bay lobster in a smoked rapeseed oil mayonnaise with shiitakes cooked on the fire, pickled oyster mushroom, raw shiitake and chive oil. And a salad of leaves including purple frills and miner’s lettuce in a fermented rhubarb and honey dressing (with an anchovy and tahini concealed within) that is so alive with flavour, I have to take a moment to myself. Dainty and delicate? Not remotely.
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