I remember interviewing The Boathouse owner Emma Cole just before she opened the doors to the Woodbridge restaurant.
The former teacher had taken the plunge and started a new business in the middle of a pandemic. Her dream? To offer really great food and drink, made using local produce and served in an enviable setting. The closest restaurant in town to the river Deben, with views overlooking the Tide Mill.
Covid put paid to many of the new restauranteur’s plans. The menu swiftly had to become takeaways only, and last Christmas, with hopes of finally bringing in a festive crowd after a terrible year for the industry, there was Boris’ ambiguous’ go out but stay in ‘message.
To top it all off, Emma contracted Covid during the holidays.
But none of that has prevented the businesswoman from having a spring in her step. Speaking earlier this year, Emma said she had big plans for 2022, including more events using the brilliant outdoor space around the venue. The ‘menu proper’ was also able to launch, featuring global small plates, supplemented by bigger dishes, and hand-crafted cocktails.
I visited with a friend on a dreary, miserable early March night where the weather was somewhere between mist and drizzle (or mizzle as they call it in the West Country).
The Boathouse is found in a new enclave of Woodbridge, set apart from the town center at Tide Mill Way. A clutch of shops, from a designer jewelery store, to an interiors shop and board game specialist. Through the dark, the development gleamed with a warm light. The restaurant itself emitting a glow that said ‘come on in’.
Glasshouse-like in construction, there’s no doubt the eatery is in a prime position for sunny days, when the rays can beam in, and the huge deck (with almost the same amount of seating as inside) can be put to use.
But that same glass, under the cover of night, wraps the premises and gives it a cozy feel. Inside, the look is rustic industrial chic. All hanging rope lights, lanterns, metal and wooden tables, with faux fur throws adding texture.
Jazz floats in the background, mingled with the tinkling of plates being set on the pass of the open kitchen.
It was quiet when we stopped in at 7pm on a Friday, but soon we were surrounded by couples and groups of friends cradling glasses of wine.
Talking of wine, there’s a decent list, including vegan options, but it’s cocktails The Boathouse prides itself on, so …. well, we had to give them a whirl didn’t we?
I liked the fact the mocktails options were equal to the boozier concoctions. Drivers, or those watching their alcohol intake are well catered for.
My veggie mate Rach broke the mold by ordering an espresso martini to begin. “That’s a dessert cocktail!” I told her. Then she reminded me she’s a teacher and needed the jolt of caffeine to keep her awake for dinner. Fair enough.
The drink (vanilla vodka, Kahlua, espresso) was expertly blended, not too sweet, and had that creamy, indulgent layer of froth on top.
My tipple of choice was the alluring-sounding honeycomb sour, which matched honeycomb rum (get me some immediately) with lime juice and prosecco. It really did taste like a sum of all its parts. No one thing overtook the other. Refreshingly sour but with an almost buttery sweet honeycomb undertone.
Onto the food. You can order three tapas-style plates for £ 20 – maybe sharing a load between friends – or take the small plates as starters. We went for the former, sitting back, tucking in our napkins, and taking a deep breath before diving in.
Charred leek was served over a feisty romesco sauce, slapping the palate with pepper, vinegar and spice, and a crunch of almond. Superb.
I ‘don’t do’ goats’ cheese, but Rach assured me a cheese mousse of the stuff, with balsamic beets, walnut brittle and leaves was delicious.
The bowl of aubergine, spinach and lentil moussaka (which I think must have been vegan) was redolent with warming, gently humming Middle Eastern spices. The softened aubergines melted into the dish, and, crucially, the lentils had kept their shape, but lost their chalkiness. “All veggie food should be this good,” Rach said between mouthfuls as I nodded.
Now I call her veggie, but my friend’s fork DID find itself attacking an enormous mound of crayfish popcorn – the tiny critters coated in a light paprika flour seasoning before being fried into moreish bites. Served with a tangy lime-infused mayo, it was the kind of thing I could imagine myself devouring by the seaside in summer.
Well-seasoned duck bon bons came with a tangy hoi sin sauce – my kids would love these.
And the ‘starters’ were rounded off with skewers of satay chicken, the ginger / turmeric marinade shining through a sweet and savory peanut sauce.
Everything was faultless. The veggie options so flavorsome even the most hardened omnivore wouldn’t miss the meat. And the portions generous. Three plates could easily be supper – especially with chips on the side.
My only gripe is that every dish, including the main courses to come, arrived with a handful of coriander cress on top.
Anyway, moving on, we were starting to feel very full, but persevered.
The meat-free ‘big plate’ offering was a bowl of chickpea and vegetable curry with rice, which confirmed both our opinions of the vegetarian food here. Really really good. Run through with a coriander chutney, the chickpeas and veg were tender, the sauce had an inoffensive kick of heat with sharp sweetness from the chutney, and spinach was added right at the end before serving so it didn’t wilt into oblivion.
Over on my side of table was the kitchen’s own take on that pub classic – pork belly. It was ever so slightly over, but still managed to be soft inside, with a thin ribbon of fat rendered under toothsome, salty crackling that didn’t threaten to break my teeth!
Instead of mash or the like, here the team had served up the pork with pearl barley bound in a savory sauce. A risotto of sorts, and a welcome change to the usual carbs. Spinach brought a bit of green. There was a well-made cider gravy. And I was overjoyed someone had decided to eschew the ubiquitous apple sauce, choosing instead to garnish the pork with a spoonful of sweetly perfumed quince puree.
You’d think we wouldn’t have room for pudding. And you’re right. But in the interests of journalism we plodded on. I have to say, dessert is where the meal fell slightly short for me. Both dishes looked wonderful, with their floral garnishes and artful presentation, but they promised a bit more than they gave.
My chocolate and salted caramel delice (usually a moussy affair) was more of a dense ganache, veering into fudge territory. ‘Sounds amazing’ you might be thinking. Yes, the flavor was right up my alley, but it was not a delice. That being said, the segments of orange, and jolly, bright orange sorbet on the plate livened up each bite.
Rachel’s white chocolate and mint panna cotta was overset, but thankfully had a creamy mouthfeel, rather than being rubbery. White chocolate and mint is a combination that can be hard to judge, and while the vibble of the fresh mint layer was perfection, its flavor was completely lost amongst the chocolate. An infusion of mint into the bottom layer of the panna cotta could have bolstered this, and a lighter set, made for a very lovely pud.
We rounded off dinner with a couple more cocktails. A textbook great passionfruit martini, and a moreish, sherbetty Cherry Fakewell mocktail of cherry puree, grenadine, cherry syrup, lime and lemonade. Absolutely lush.
I can’t wait to go back here – especially on a sunny day, for tapas and cocktails on the deck!