The Jack in the Green pub near Exeter prefers exquisite raw materials to techno-cuisine and is happy to sacrifice frills on the plate in favour of reduced components and prices. Michael Raffael reports.
Jack in the Green chef Matthew Mason starts planning menus in January. He sits down with his local fruit and vegetable grower and they pore over seed catalogues. Six, seven, eight months later, he reaps the benefits - golden raspberries, particoloured beets, mottled carrots and 11 varieties of cherry tomatoes flow from his kitchen. The Bib Gourmand pub, just off the flight path to Exeter Airport, prefers exquisite raw materials to techno-cuisine.
Owner Paul Purnell knows what he wants, too: to spread his net as wide as possible. He doesn't want to frighten customers by showing off. Every dish has to deliver more than they expect. "I hate the word gastropub. It sounds like a tummy ache," he says.
His solution, and Mason's, is a mix of overlapping menus. Each one is straightforward but as a collective, it presents a complex challenge, even though Mason describes writing menus as "fun". To make them all work he's happy to sacrifice frills on the plate. "By reducing the components we've created a better product and don't have to charge so much," he explains.
A courgette tart with feta cheese (£6.95), figures on both the à la carte and vegetarian menus. It shows off the produce - sliced Golden Ball and miniature courgettes with micro-salads on a rough puff crust spread with pesto and feta cubes.
Listed either as a starter or a light snack, a "posh" prawn cocktail (£6.95) is just that. Presented in a martini glass, a chiffonade of lettuce is coated with an avocado cream and fresh - not frozen - prawns painted with a Bloody Mary dressing on top. It's the kind of offering that would look wizard in Portofino.
The pub menu fish pie (£13.50) "topped with creamed potato and melted Montgomery Cheddar", may contain ling, hake, brill, monkfish or offcuts from the tasting menu's wild sea bass, served with carrot and vanilla purée and Anya new potatoes (£19.50 on the à la carte).
Mason started his career at Gidleigh Park under Shaun Hill. He puts the same care into a pub-grub Thai green chicken curry and sticky rice (£13.50) as a roast breast of free-range (he buys free-range Plymouth Rocks) chicken with mushroom lasagne when it figures on a £25 regional "Totally Devon" menu.
Consistency across the board hinges on the sourcing. A spanking new £300,000 kitchen has made things easier. The Jack employs 25 staff, eight in the kitchen, and according to Purnell it's turning over about £1.4m a year. Open seven days a week, the tempo rises towards the weekends and the average spend goes up, too. On a Saturday night he can expect 140 covers.
The location on the old A30 combines a country setting with easy access to the city, but Purnell feels he gained from the opening of a new road linking to the M5. Instead of fighting traffic jams, Exeter residents can expect a 10-minute drive from the centre.
An exception to the no-nonsense cooking is pâtissier Scott Paton's desserts. In 2009, at 21, he became the South-west Chef of the Year - five years after starting in the pub as washer-up. The late Francis Coulson, who invented sticky toffee pudding, would be amazed how it has evolved. Scott uses fresh, Majdoul dates and flavours the cake base with Earl Grey tea. His take on a summer pudding (£5.95) borrows tricks from a charlotte russe. A pistachio polenta cake pyramid accompanying a sour cherry parfait (£6.95) would slot on to any gastronomic dessert list. Two-tone petit four macaroons with coffee come straight from the Pierre Hermé stable.
For Purnell, the key is volume. Mason spends about £300,000 on food costs to deliver a 65% gross profit. Buying pheasant breasts for 50p helps, as does fish bought off the quayside and produce dedicated to his use that costs a fraction of what chefs in London might pay. His saving passes on to the Jack's clientele... and to charity. The pub gives 50p to the Rugby Association's Wooden Spoon charity for every sticky toffee pudding sold. Last year it handed over £1,800. That's a lot of pud for an inn stranded beside an old trunk road.
Jack in the Green, Rockbeare near Exeter, Devon EX5 2EE .
Tel: 01404 822240
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