Sunday, 15 July 2012

Where to eat in Essex: Square 1

Because of the timing of Sasha's and my recent flight out of Stansted Airport, we had to sleep over in Essex the night before our journey. This meant that we'd be eating out in Great Dunmow, the small town where our wonderful B&B, the Harwood Guest House, is located. We thought we'd be forced to settle for pub fare, but it turns out that Great Dunmow has quite a selection of quality restaurants.

Now, I know you're all here for my delightful descriptions of luscious food, but first I have to make a few brief comments about Essex. Those who are familiar with Britain will know that the word "Essex" is locally associated with something like this:


The American equivalent--documented in equally tasteful fashion in an equally high-quality reality TV show--is:

Back in the day, Essex actually had a pretty good rep; it was the place where all the rising middle and upper class folk moved in the Victorian era in order to escape the filth and smog that covered every inch of London proper. True, Essex residents were nouveau riche rather than aristocratic, but they were still riche, and they still had nice country homes with private gardens and fresh air. But as more and more people got enough money and mobility to leave the city, Essex just kept getting fuller and fuller, and pretty soon it wasn't that exclusive any more. 

In modern times, some parts of Essex are among the most affluent in the UK, while others have incredibly high rates of unemployment. According to common stereotypes, Essex people (especially the ladies) are fake-looking, promiscuous partyers--and I relay these stereotypes to you in a removed, academic sort of way rather than a judgmental one; after all, Jamie Oliver is from Essex, and he is my hero.

All of this background is relevant--albeit marginally so--because it points out why Sasha and I didn't really know what to expect when we went out. We certainly didn't anticipate wandering into the award-winning and Michelin-noted
Square 1 Restaurant, where we were both the youngest and most casually dressed customers. Although the hostesses probably would have been justified asking us to come back after improving our attire, they quickly seated us at a table right next to the window and the floor-to-ceiling fountain. Whatever awkwardness we felt about our attire was assuaged by the salt and pepper shakers at our table:

Clearly, the people at Square 1 are a loving and accepting bunch.

We were both pretty hungry and so we started off with appetizers--an unusual move for Sasha, who generally prefers to save his spare stomach room for dessert. I had a dish that seemed to have been inspired by the traditional Italian prosciutto e melone. In this case, though, it was thinly-sliced ham and nectarine atop a bed of rocket, with cheese, walnuts, red chillis, and a drizzling of honey. Unusual, but delicious.

Sasha ordered mussel chowder, although he would have preferred clam chowder if only it had been available. I'm not normally the biggest fan of mussels, either, but this particular soup was pretty tasty. I helped myself to a couple of bites, as well as a couple bits of broth-soaked bread.

For my main dish, I had salmon over a bed of root veggies and greens. It was all very fresh and light, which is just what I had in mind when I ordered it.

Sasha got something that I had contemplated for myself, but ultimately deemed too rich: chicken and potatoes with a creamy pea sauce. It was quite heavy--a little bit too much so for Sasha's tastes, but I was not deterred from stealing a few bites when he was done. That was definitely the kind of dish you want to come home to after a long day out in the cold.

As per usual, I decided to pass up dessert, but Sasha ordered the passionfruit panna cotta with strawberry sherbert and a swipe of honey.

For those of you who are wondering where the "sherbert" is, it's the pink stuff at the right-hand side of the dish; in Britain, the word refers to something akin to the stuff in pixie sticks, as opposed to the sorbet-like stuff that Americans would expect. As far as I'm concerned, it's a bit weird, but its presence didn't stop Sasha from deeming the dish a success.

Although I couldn't be persuaded to have a third course, I did agree to join Sasha in a round of ports. I have port once every blue moon or so, and it's pretty much the only alcohol that I can be convinced to drink--because it doesn't taste too alcohol-y, and because it comes in small quantities. Regardless of the latter characteristic, it is usually enough to make me feel a bit loopy, and my serving on this evening didn't disappoint. Feeling humiliated by my susceptibility to booze, I decided to take a stroll to the restroom to get my blood flowing. It was during this little adventure that I saw my first of several stereotypical Essex couples that were out on the town that evening. My favorite was a 40-something blonde woman in swanky party clothes and stilettos, accompanied by a guy in a grey track suit; she looked like she was going clubbing, while he looked like he was going to the gym.

So, for the cost of one gourmet meal, Sasha and I were also treated to a bit of local culture. Priceless!

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