The 15th century White Hart pub in Nayland, Suffolk, with its dark wooden beams and real log fires, has all the makings of a model Olde English inn. But this is no traditional watering hole. It is where Roux protégé Mark Prescott is now chef-patron.
Prescott has the most unlikely background for a pub chef. He worked for a total of 13 years for the Roux brothers - first at the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire, then eight years at London's Le Gavroche, where he was head chef for five years. But he is clearly happy with his switch in career.
"It was time for me to leave Le Gavroche," says 33-year-old Prescott. "I had gained an awful lot of experience working for the Rouxs. But I had been employed by them for 13 years, continually working at high-quality restaurants where I felt under close scrutiny. I'm pleased to have a change from it."
Wigan-born Prescott says it has always been his intention to leave the Smoke and open a place of his own. He had always envisaged returning to his home county of Lancashire. But, while on the lookout for a suitable site, some friends came across the White Hart in Suffolk, "and it all fell into place".
With financial backing from Michel Roux, Prescott bought the pub in March 1995, stripped, renovated and refurbished it with help from Michel's wife, Robyn, and opened for business at the beginning of November.
The interior of the Grade II-listed building has been through an interesting redesign. Entering via the side door reveals a warm, cosy bar, but beyond that there is no sign of the country pub image. An open-plan dining area with a mixture of bare brick and bright, yellow-painted walls with Amtico flooring stretches beyond. The room imparts more of a bistro feel, blending old with new.
Two Gainsborough pictures decorate the walls upstairs. The story goes that Thomas Gainsborough's brother, John, had a large debt owing to the landlord of the White Hart. To pay off his brother's debt, Thomas offered to paint the two pictures on the walls.
The food is substantial and reminiscent of farmhouse cooking. "In some ways it is very similar to Le Gavroche's style of food - simple, Albert Roux cooking," says Prescott.
Set lunch and dinner menus will change every six to eight weeks, although Prescott is currently still offering his opening menus. The set lunch menu offers two courses for £12 and three courses for £14.50, while dishes on the dinner menu are individually priced. A local following has been established, with some regulars dining twice or three times a week. "We've been quite surprised - people are already asking when the menus will change."
The four recipes featured in Chef are some of the best-selling items from the lunch and dinner menus - dishes Prescott delights in preparing. "I cook food that I enjoy cooking and eating. These dishes are the ones I would cook for my friends at home."
Minute steak sandwich with red onions and a fried egg (£4.50) is a far cry from the cuisine at Le Gavroche. "It's the first time in my career that I have cooked anything like this," says Prescott. "Michel and I discussed serving sandwiches. I didn't want to do them unless they were something really special. So we agreed to serve them with salad and make them more of a meal. Now we've built up quite a reputation for them."
Prescott uses sirloin steak, which he buys from a local farmer who hangs the beef for five weeks: "it's exceptional quality," he says. The steak is chargrilled and served in a whole ciabatta, which is smeared with mustard butter. The sandwich is served with tomatoes, basil and red onions. "It's huge," says Prescott.
His starter of spiced Thai prawn salad, which features on the dinner menu (£5.20), has taken some time to perfect because Prescott has had trouble sourcing the correct size and quality of prawns. "They were either lacking in taste or size, and once I'd got the right ones, I needed to guarantee I could get them every day." Local supplier Direct Seafoods came up with the goods. The king prawns are served with rice vermicelli and mixed with a dressing including red wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, red chilli, ginger and coriander. "It's served cold and is extremely refreshing and light."
Braised lamb shank with savoyard potatoes appears on both menus (£8.50). It illustrates Prescott's desire to use inexpensive cuts of meat cooked on the bone to minimise preparation.
"My cooking style is foolproof," he says modestly. "It's something anyone can do." The shanks are braised in lamb stock for an hour and a half on a low heat with bouquet garni, mirepoix and white wine, while a sauce is made from shallots, butter and honey. It is served with a gratin of savoyard potatoes and fresh vegetables bought in daily.
Although Prescott says lamb shank is an easy dish to cook, he acknowledges the fact many fail to get it right. "Its serving time is crucial," he says. "Making it in large quantities, say for 15-20 people, does make a difference to the final dish.
"All we want to do is produce decent peasant-style food with at least three or four vegetables as an integral part of the dish. We want to give people well-cooked, fresh food that's value for money."
Prescott's Sussex Pond pudding has proved extremely popular over the winter months. "It's certainly nothing I have invented, but I like the idea of such a simple dish."
The puddings are made from suet pastry and are filled with alternating layers of diced lemons, butter and sugar. They are then sealed, covered with foil and steamed for two hours. Prescott serves them with custard or cream.
"I think this is food that people should and will eat. It's the food of the future. People of my generation are increasingly appreciating good food and wine - it's a serious market," says Prescott.
"You can have a far more enjoyable experience in the country at very reasonable prices compared with what it costs to eat out in London." Having said that, Prescott claims he is achieving an excellent gross profit on food that well exceeds the norm.
The 60-seat pub, with private dining for a further 50 at the back of the property, is serviced by three in the kitchen (including Prescott) and four full-time front of house. Prescott's sous chef comes from the nearby Colchester Institute, while his commis is ex-Gavroche.
Front of house is currently being looked after by Annie Cooper, Prescott's girlfriend (another ex-Gavroche chef), while they look to appoint a manager. She will then take on the position of assistant manager so that she can work both front of house and in the kitchen.
Prescott's only complaint is that people see the White Hart as a restaurant. "They expect more service than we would like to give them, such as having their wine poured or coats hung up."
No doubt the White Hart will work to educate customers accordingly. However, with the sign adorning the front of the pub stating: "Chef-patron Mark Prescott of the Roux Brothers", you can understand how they pitch their expectations.