Bury St Edmunds has justifiably taken on the mantel of ‘Suffolk’s foodie capital’. It’s home to the county’s only Michelin star (Pea Porridge), hosts the biggest concentration of AA Rosettes locally, and bursts with independent food shops selling everything from beer, to chocolate, to bread.
And now, it can boast Suffolk’s first completely plant-based fine dining restaurant.
Just a short drive from the town centre, Woodlands resides inside Bannatyne Health Club & Spa (formerly Clarice House) on Horringer Road, and launched its brand-new concept – spanning from breakfast and brunch, to lunch, afternoon tea, and Friday night suppers (from 6pm to 8pm) on July 10.
Two admissions here. One. I’d never been to the premises before. Two, I am a meat-eater through-and-through…and took with my vegan-food-averse husband as a guinea pig.
Our first impression was ‘wow’. What a building. Inside and out, Bannatyne breathes grandeur. The neo-Jacobean property rests in a leafy idyll, and we’re told its land used to stretch all the way over to the A14 – there’s even a monastery on site!
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Inside it’s all high ceilings, carved stone and wood. Stained glass windows with intricate leadwork and ornate latches. Chandeliers.
The elegant part-panelled dining room is comfortably formal without being stuffy.
General manager Daryl Johnson says the whole team has fully invested in the plant-based concept, and wants Woodlands to become a destination known not just for vegan food – but good food. Tasty food you’d want to eat, regardless of the fact it’s meat and dairy-free.
“We’ve worked hard to develop a nutritious, healthy and delicious menu that everyone, whether they’re vegan or not, will enjoy,” he says. “It’s a true dining experience with a difference. Our menu features a twist on classic dishes, as well as introducing different ways of using meat alternatives. We’ve chosen to create a broad menu with lots of healthy ingredients rich in fibre and protein, aligning with our wellness philosophy.”
By the time the welcome speech was over, Mr J was breaking a sweat at the idea of a three-course vegan meal – but a glass of cool Aspall cyder (from the vegan drinks list) soon calmed his nerves.
On an initial glance I was impressed by the menu which looked complex, thoughtfully-created and, most of all, interesting. It’s not rammed with Quorn and soya protein. The kitchen has actually gone out of its way to construct dishes that appear balanced and enticing.
We noted the team even press their own tofu, and are making cashew cheese from scratch. This is vegan food taken up a notch.
Yes, the standard burger is there, as are handmade seitan (pronounced satan) bites (likely for new vegan converts or the dining companions of plant-based-eaters). But these sit alongside a Woodlands rarebit, paprika roasted cauliflower with saffron risotto, toasted pine nuts and tomato salsa, wild mushroom, rocket and miso pizza on hand stretched sourdough, and Madras tofu with peas, sugar snaps, spinach and sticky rice.
We (I) had pre-ordered, and eased Mr J in with a thick, peppery sweet homemade tomato soup served with a plush, fluffy wedge of focaccia bread. Naturally it’s a hit, being creamy and packed with punchy tomato and notes of herbaceous basil. “Vegan food’s not too bad actually,” came the response over the table.
“Er, we eat tomato soup at home,” was my reply. “Stop thinking about the word vegan!”
My own starter was a coriander-injected sweetcorn and courgette fritter. The nibs of corn gave pops of texture, and combined with the homemade chilli jam on top made for a satisfying nibble. I only wished- they’d dressed the Asian salad underneath.
A bowl of sticky pulled jackfruit with noodles, stir-fried vegetables and crushed peanuts was regarded with a mixture of concern and despair by my husband who had a look across his face resembling that of someone who’d just been told to jump out of a plane.
“Just try it,” I pressed, twirling my own fork in the noodles, grabbing a little bit of everything. The jackfruit (for those not in the know it has a meaty texture but is rather bland, and there to soak up flavour), was tender, counteracted by the crunch of veg, and grains of crushed peanut. Tasty. It invited you to go back in for more. Mildly spiced. A little sticky with tomato. The sauce was like the lovechild of satay and barbecue.
Tentatively there was movement towards the bowl on the other side of the table. And then silence. Before. “Actually, I really like it.” And that abject look of fear turned into surprise…and then delight.
The star turn of the whole evening was my own main course of beer-battered artichoke (globe not Jerusalem) with hand-cut chips, homemade herb and caper mayonnaise and pea puree.
I could eat this any day of the week. I’ve only sampled banana blossom as a fish alternative, and while I’ve always found that to be OK, it can go a bit wet on cooking, leading to soggy batter.
Not the case here. The artichoke flaked beautifully in its super-crisp batter, and with a smear of the tangy mayo and fresh pea puree, tasted absolutely gorgeous. Even the chips rated highly. Bone dry and crunchy outside, with a fluffy middle.
I was just as impressed by the lavender panna cotta dessert, which Chef had enacted some kind of molecular gastronomy wizardry on to give it a proper wobble with agar agar as a setting agent – usually that turns everything solid as a shot put. Not here. The flavour of lavender was prominent without being soapy. And a biscotti of orange and chocolate added texture. But I would have liked a little more citrus on there. Maybe a few segments of fresh orange to counter the floral element.
There were smiles all-round for the chocolate fondant tart. A bourbon biscuit-alike crust, holding a melting, cocoa-rich, not-too-sweet filling, crowned with homemade plant-based pistachio ice cream.
Daryl came to the table as we finished. “How was it?” He looked to Mr J, who’d already aired his voice on ‘scary vegan food’ earlier in the evening.
“When can we come back?” The reply.
While I don’t think I can give up my Saturday morning bacon sandwich, it was refreshing to eat plant-based fodder that put flavour and nutrition first. There’s a place for vegan ‘junk food’. It’s very popular. And there are plenty of places in Suffolk that do that kind of food brilliantly. But…for a romantic plant-based night out…or spa day together, this place could prove to be in a league of its own.