If there’s one trend in the restaurant industry that’s really come to the fore since the turn of the century it’s the rise of the second-career chef.
Men and women who worked in all manner of highly successful, and often high-paying, careers – lawyers, doctors, engineers, corporate managers, computer programmers, management consultants, hedge fund gurus – choose to give these careers up for the hard labour and long hours of a professional kitchen. There are many routes to this journey from an informal start running supper-clubs, short-term residencies or street-food stalls to a more conventional training and graduation from a professional cookery school.
Some, like my friend Mat Follas, win a TV cooking competition and take it from there. In the UK, winning Masterchef doesn’t come with any prizes; no monetary bursary to put towards training or setting up one’s own business, no book deal, magazine column or paid apprenticeship with a top chef. But it does give you a readymade reputation for reliably good cooking and a short-lived celebrity from which to launch a new career should you choose. After Mat won Masterchef in 2009 he strode through that door of opportunity with an immense steadiness of nerve, opening his own restaurant within just a few months.
Beaminster-based, The Wild Garlic restaurant was immensely popular with locals and visitors from further afield and the food was excellent. Pete and I visited a few times; well worth the trek from London.
After the restaurant closed in 2013, Mat cooked at a number of other venues including a summer beach cafe and a local hotel in Dorchester. He also wrote two cookbooks, the first Fish: Delicious recipes for fish and shellfish came out last April, the second Vegetable Perfection: 100 tasty recipes for roots, bulbs, shoots and stems was published a few weeks ago, (review coming soon).
Now he has launched his latest venture alongside wife and business partner Amanda, and long time colleague and business partner Katy.
The Bramble Cafe & Deli is located in a newly built area of Poundbury – the experimental urban development on the outskirts of Dorchester, built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The development ethos is to create an integrated community of shops, businesses, private housing and social housing and the architecture is a modern interpretation of classic European styles. As a fan of yellow brick, I like it.
Bramble fronts onto an elongated ‘square’ with all the properties facing in onto an open space, commonly used for parking. There’s a deep portico providing shade to the patio area in front; go through the front door into an airy interior with huge windows and plenty of tables. Behind the dining space is the kitchen, cosy and domestic rather than gleaming-metal; very much in keeping with the relaxed style of the space and Mat’s cooking. Everything is on one level, including the toilet, making disabled access straightforward.
The deli is set to open in a few weeks, with products to be displayed on a large set of shelves to one side of the main room. For now, the cafe is open Monday to Saturday from 8.30 to 4.30, offering pastries and cakes, light lunches and drinks. As of a couple of weeks ago, the cafe is also open for dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings; Mat offers a pared back menu with three choices per course and an affordable wine list to match.
During the day, customers can come in for a breakfast croissant, a hot or cold lunch, or perhaps an afternoon tea with a sweet baked treat.
The macaroni cheese with smoked salmon is one of the best macaroni cheese dishes I’ve had. I’m not a fan of the thick style where a block of stodge can be sliced with a knife; I prefer my macaroni cheese to have a slippery-slick sauce full of intense cheese flavour, coating perfectly cooked pasta and that’s just how this one comes – with the added bonus of two generous slices of smoked salmon, made flaky by the heat of macaroni cheese below and grilled cheese above.
Also superb is a crab and cheese toast. Crisped slice of bread is thickly covered with a generous layer of flavour-packed crab, heavy on the brown meat, and topped with sharp salty cheese, grilled till its bubbling. Served with some crisps and an unadorned salad, it’s perfect for a satisfyingly delicious lighter lunch.
On the counter are a few indulgent bakes, flapjacks and gluten-free chocolate brownies on the day of our visit. These are huge slabs – my photo shows a half portion of the brownie I shared with Pete! It’s good, dense and fudgy with a lovely crisp surface on top.
I enjoyed my share with an extra chocolate hit – a Jaz & Juls hot chocolate; Bramble offer a dark chocolate or a milk chocolate option.
The Bramble is currently open for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. Walk ins are welcome but book ahead to guarantee a table. The menu changes seasonally, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
Tempted by all three starters, we follow Katy’s naughty suggestion of sharing the Asparagus with hollandaise sauce (£6) as a pre-starter and then having the other two starters afterwards. The asparagus is excellent with lots of flavour, no woodiness, very fresh. And Mat makes a killer Hollandaise, glossy with butter and lifted by a real kick of lemon juice. Gorgeous!
Not what we expect from the description of Smoked salmon, tomato and pea (£7), this dish doesn’t feature any smoke-cured salmon, rather it is fresh hot-smoked salmon served in a jar with tomatoes and pea shoots. The theatre of Mat opening the jar at the table to release swirls of smoke is fun, but the dish isn’t a favourite – perhaps because I had expected smoke-cured salmon instead.
The Ham hock and wild garlic terrine with pickles and toast (£5) is enormous! Actually large enough for two to share as a starter, and could be the basis of a fabulous lunch plate too. Delicious soft and meaty pork with a hint of wild garlic, crunchy lightly pickled vegetables and crisp melba toasts.
Pork belly, crackling, apple sauce and smoked mash (£14) is so very delicious. It may not look it from the photo but the (enormous) portion of pork is cooked perfectly till the fat is melty, melty, melty and the meat is soft and tender. Crackling is gorgeous, though a little too salty for me. Mash is rich and buttery and with just the right level of smoke. Apple sauce has the sharpness to cut through all the richness. I may need to get out my indigestion tablets later after all this butter and fat, but it’ll be worth it!
On the side, cauliflower and broccoli cheese (£3.50).
Pete orders Rabbit cooked in red wine, served with a crusty roll (£13). It’s really not a pretty dish any which way you look at it, but it does deliver on flavour. The rabbit and vegetables are well cooked, the sauce full of red wine and meatiness, perfect for sopping up with the bread.
We don’t really have room for desserts but cannot resist, especially with a bit of gentle nudging from Katy!
My Chocolate and marmalade orange tart with clotted cream (£6) is a grown up jaffa cake on a plate – rich, smooth dark chocolate ganache over a marmalade orange jelly, inside a crumbly pastry shell.
Pete loves his Lavender pannacotta with raspberry powder (£6), so perfectly judged that it wobbles most pleasingly yet yields like creamy custard to the spoon.
At no more than £30 for a three course meal with a side per person, this is fantastically good value. Of course I appreciate that prices are lower outside of London but for good quality ingredients and cooking like this, it’s still a steal.
We booked a wonderful B&B a few miles outside of Dorchester to make a short break of our visit and took the opportunity to enjoy some of the gorgeous gardens nearby. There’s so much to do in Dorset, it’s one of our favourite parts of the country.