Friday, 6 April 2012

The Gunton Arms and Cromer crab linguine

Firstly, I should just point out that we don't usually fuck off for little jaunts in the countryside on a weekly basis.  It just so happens that such behaviour has occurred twice this month.  Sorry. 

All of my third sector buddies - whose leave is also calculated according to the financial year - will be able to relate to the March panic where you suddenly realise you've been too busy saving the kids/curing cancer/eradicating poverty to use any of it and end up with an unseasonal spring holiday.  This year was the same old story, with one marked difference, a HEATWAVE.  Man were we feeling smug.  Everyone knows that decent weather is only meant to occur when you are sat at your desk, whimpering out of the window.  I'm waiting for the backlash of this stroke of luck, perhaps a local volcano eruption?

After being sent a link by my step father I selected The Gunton Arms; a pub come boutique hotel about 5 miles from Cromer, set in set acres of deer dotted countryside.  It's been open since Autumn last year and is the love child of a pair of art dealers and an ex Mark Hix chef. And with temperatures soaring to a balmy 18 degrees, our decision to opt for one night in a hotel 20 miles from home and 6 days lounging around the flat eating chocolate digestives, rather than a week in Magaluf, proved sensible.

Now, I would like to give this place a total thumbs up - as an independent Nofolk based business which has evidently had a tonne of money thrown at it - but whilst my thumb is creeping towards vertical, I have to say there were a few annoyances.  I'll start with the positives:

This place is beautiful.  Positioned in the middle of a sprawling country estate, with bambis prancing all over the place, it's pretty breathtaking.  And the inside doesn't disappoint either; our room was enchanting festooned in antiques and the sort of wallpaper which you absolutely wouldn't find in homebase, or even Laura Ashley for that matter.

And there was this badboy.  I spent about an hour ensconced in water up to my nostrils.

In the bar and restaurant the decor is a little more eccentric than the Victorian splendour of upstairs but similarly impressive. Again there's an enviable selection of wallpaper, accessorised with pieces of incredibly expensive art. The sort of expensive art which, unless you know art, you could easily confuse with rather questionable art. Think women with legs akimbo, drawn on an IKEA plate with a sharpie marker (honestly, could have been a Tracey Emin or the doodlings of the local regulars, I couldn't tell you). 

The major positive though has to be the food.  Ben and I are both fans of Mark Hix, so there was obviously a high expectation with his name being bandied about.  These expectations were further extended when we came downstairs to an entirely booked-out dining room.  This was a Monday night in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and there wasn't a spare seat to be seen, which is a rare sight in these parts.  And I'm pleased to say it entirely lived up to expectations.  Reasonable sized portions, local ingredients, careful balancing of flavours and none of the all-too-frequent tendency to cover everything in foams and jus and gels.  This was Everyman Food, done incredibly well.

I started with a mixed beet, binham blue and pickled walnut salad and Ben with lamb sweetbreads.  Both delicious; I think that Ben was about to pronounce the sweetbreads one of the best things he'd ever eaten but then he remembered, for his own safety, that that title is obviously only given to things which I cook him.  Then we moved on to some serious meat; local steak, frites and bernaisse sauce for me and a venison mixed grill for Ben.  One slight criticism would be the lack of explanation of what the grill actually entailed.  After chomping his way through, and at some points looking somewhat confused, he asked and was informed that along with steak, loin etc there was also liver and heart.  Now, Ben is a fan of  all things offal, but I think with a mixed grill this isn't necessarily what one would expect and others might not be so keen.  However, everything was superbly cooked and we ate to the point of severe pain.  Which of course didn't stop us ordering dessert to share - a nut brittle cheesecake - again V yummy. 

And the staff were all charming.  Particularly our waitress in the restaurant, who was all too happy to move us when we blushingly asked if we could move to a table that didn't wobble. 

Now to get to the not so good stuff.  As I said, the setting of this place is stunning.  Which is great, but you're not actually allowed to set foot in it.  When we arrived in the blazing sunshine we were keen to go for a walk and try and cuddle a deer or something, but when we asked where we could go we were informed, "errr, it's a private estate, you can't go anywhere".  Having read on the website that most of the estate is owned by the Gunton Arms owner I can only assume that by 'private estate' they actually meant, 'the owner's don't want the riff raff cluttering up their seven mile garden'.  Our request was met with a slight air of confused amazement, as if we were the only people who had ever asked, but I would have thought that anyone with this on their doorstep would have wanted a bit of a stroll, especially when it is such an advertised feature of the place.  It's a good job the views from the bedroom are so impressive.

My next critique could be entirely attributable to my own numbskullery, but I think is important to mention for other numbskulls out there.  Ben and I live above a pub - a very nice pub and a very nice flat - but sometimes it is LOUD, and we end up craving tranquillity.  So, this craving for tranquillity leads me to book a quaint hotel in the middle of a field....ABOVE A PUB.  Knowing that this place was essentially a pub should have perhaps rang alarm bells to me that it wouldn't be as peaceful as one might hope, but I have to admit that paying £150 for a 'superior' room I didn't expect to be able to hear clinking glasses, clacking pool balls and reggae compilations through the floorboards.  Maybe I'm being unrealistic but it didn't seem entirely inkeeping with the experience and it made me a total mardy arse for the first couple of hours of the evening. 

And there were other black marks stopping this from being the desired calm retreat.  During my mega-bath there was obviously an issue with thrice cooking a chip or something because the fire alarm went off a grand total of six times.  I can tell you, it is hard to decide in these moments, what level of clothing is appropriate to be seen in in front of your fellow hotel dwellers should you have to gather on the lawn outside. After the first alarm ceased I gave up leaping out of the bath and scrabbling around for a pair of knickers and just decided I was happy to burn there. 

Then there was the construction work taking place in the pub garden (the one outside bit which you're allowed in).  The constant circling by JCBs and diggers whilst trying to eat our sandwiches felt almost comical out in a field in the middle of nowhere.  I appreciate that places need to carry out improvements but I think there should be some sort of price reduction considering these guys were effectively writing off the only outside access on a warm day, banging and crashing for the whole afternoon (and from 8am the next day).  And the bread of my sandwich was stale. 

So in conclusion this place is impressive in many many ways, and overall worth a trip, but there are definitely some teething issues to iron out to make it really worth the substantial price tag. 

On departure we went off to Cromer for the day.  We came home with a Cromer crab, as you do. 

Cromer Crab Linguine

1 Medium dressed crab
1 glass white wine
Handful of chopped parsley
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 lemon
pinch of chilli flakes
Slug of oil
200g linguine

Fry your garlic in some oil for about a minute, still starting to brown, then add your glass of wine, lemon zest, chilli flakes and seasoning and simmer until reduced by half.  Once reduced add in your crab meat and give it a minute or two to heat through.

Whilst all that is going on boil your linguine until al dente, or whatever firmness you like.  Then throw the pasta into the crabby pan, add another slug of oil, the lemon juice and chopped parsley.

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