At the Gunton Arms they cook hunks of meat above a roaring fire… It makes Jay want to rip his shirt off and howl
Cromer Road, Norfolk (01263 832 010). Meal for two including drinks and service: £120
The Gunton Arms, not far from Cromer in Norfolk, has an Elk Room. In the Elk Room is a vast open fireplace with, above it, the skull of an ancient elk with huge flat antlers like the sails of some battered old yawl. Beneath the skull, flames leap and lick in the brick-reinforced fireplace and smoke dances, pressing itself against the underside of a thick slab of steel. On top of the superheated metal they cook meat. Lumps of prime rib, a few inches thick, the brilliant colour of the outflow from a severed artery, are oiled and salted and seared.
If ever there was a room crying out for the use of exclamation marks, it is this one: Elk! Fire! Smoke! MEAT! There is an overt, comedy maleness to the whole thing. Excuse me while I rip off my shirt, daub myself in ash and beef fat and indulge in a little primal screaming. What else should I do while I await this lunch? Certainly it’s worth waiting for – the Gunton Arms is there to feed you. It’s the kind of place where, having eaten, you crave a lie-down.
But not everything is quite as it seems. Oh, sure it plays the part of country pub. The heavy lump of old pebble-dashed building sits on the very edge of a rolling deer park. You have to go through the metal perimeter fence to reach it. It’s all but impossible not to stand on the grassland and just stare out at the sizable herd of fallow deer that are farmed on the estate, striding about in the distance against a winter sky like soured milk.
Inside, the rooms are knowingly scuffed. Men – proper grown-up ones, who might talk soon of knee replacements and prostate issues – play pool, pints of frothy ale perched on the edge of the table. It’s all very country pub. Until you walk into one of the dining rooms where is hung a neon sign in a handwritten font that reads: “I said don’t practise on me”. There is another that reads “Trust me”. I have seen something like this before. They are by Tracey Emin. Out by the loos there is a Gilbert and George. And look, here are a couple of the butterfly paintings by Damien Hirst. (Apparently in the women’s there’s one of his spot paintings.) Back in the Elk Room there are glorious pen-and-inks by Paula Rego of women in various states of booze-inflicted disarray; vomiting never looked so artful. There is one of Julian Opie‘s cartoonish portraits, the chap’s pupils like full stops. And then there is the oil by Jonathan Yeo which seems to be just curling leaves until you look closer. “Lots of lady parts and boy parts,” says Simone, who runs front of house, pointing out the images of genitals curled into the foliage. “The young farmers do like that one. And the old ladies think it’s just leaves.”
I do a little maths. The art on the walls and around the building – there is a piece by the sculptor Anthony Caro in the garden – is worth more than the building itself. At least it wears all this lightly, or as lightly as you can wear a couple of tonnes of red-painted steel by Caro. It is just a pub. With a Saatchi’s worth of art.
And so to the explanation: the pub is owned by art dealer Ivor Braka. He’s a friend of the chef Mark Hix, long known for his involvement in the British art world. When Braka bought the pub he approached Hix for advice on what to do with it. Hence the former head chef of the original Hix Oyster and Chop House in London, Stuart Tattersall, is installed here, bringing the flavours of Farringdon to the Norfolk countryside.
Or perhaps, to be more accurate, returning the flavours of the countryside whence they came, for there has always been something self-consciously farmyard about the cooking of the Hix empire, as if a bunch of urbanites nipped across the M25 one night and swiped the lot. It’s all animal fats and largesse and appetite. So, of course, there is pork crackling with Bramley apple sauce on the menu (as there usually is at a Hix restaurant) only here it arrives properly hot and thick, the muffin top of salty fat under the crisped skin melting on your tongue. The portion is huge for £2.50.
After last week’s disappointing devilled kidneys experience, the opportunity to have devilled venison kidneys from the specials menu is irresistible. Here, on a deer park, they will never want for deer offal. I have no idea whether deer wee is especially unique, but I can say that the organs which do the filtering of it are; they have an uncommon richness and creaminess, even when slightly overcooked. The sauce is dark and sticky and fiery and right. By contrast a single fried duck egg with nutty brown shrimps, sea vegetables and a squeeze of lemon juice brings sunlight to the table.
And then the beef, which we watch being seared and then rested and then sliced so that the rosy muscle unfolds like the pages of a good book. There are goose-fat roasted potatoes with crisped, golden, crenelated edges and the seriousness that only lubrication with animal grease can offer. There is a huge jug of frothy béarnaise. The rib of beef for two costs £60. Except it would easily feed three. We have beef left over. I have failed this test of maleness. I am boy; hear me squeak. We get them to make it into a sandwich to take away. There are roasted root vegetables the colour of gnarled logs and sprout tops with shards of bacon. Could you cook all this at home? Sure, if you had an Elk Room with a huge bloody fireplace and a massive elk skull over the top. Which you don’t.
For dessert we have Eccles cakes of crisp, sugared pastry with the massively sweet hit of currants alongside the salty punch of the Norfolk hard cheese, Dapple. There is a thick-set posset flavoured with the fruity tones of sea buckthorn. As a man of appetite I conclude the real art has been not on the walls today but on the table before me.
We drink a reasonably priced carafe of chenin blanc, admire the art some more and, as the sunlight drains out of the broad Norfolk skies, slip gently into a meat stupor. I want to go back to the Gunton Arms. I want to go back soon.
Jay’s news bites
■ The Harwood Arms in Fulham, south London, a collaboration between Brett Graham of the Ledbury and Mike Robinson of the Pot Kiln in Berkshire, has described itself as a country pub in the city. It may have won a Michelin star, but its approach is anything but prissy. It is the place for ox tongue braised in stout, or belted Galloway beef with creamed potatoes. And don’t miss out on their doughnuts (harwoodarms.com).
■ The best excuse for drinking beer yet: the Two Fingers Brewing Company has been founded to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, which kills one man in the UK every hour. All profits from its first beer, a 4.8% golden ale called Aurelio, will go to the charity Prostate Cancer UK. Aurelio is available at 200 Tesco stores nationwide and each purchase will raise 10p for the cause (twofingersbrewing.co).
■ Good news for sweet-toothed vegetarians. A new company, Freedom Mallows, has launched animal-gelatine-free marshmallows, using a binding agent from lilypads. Available online from freedommallows.com.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit theguardian.com/profile/jayrayner for all his reviews in one place. Follow Jay on Twitter @jayrayner1
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