Eat easy, drink easy, Speakeasy
Eat easy, drink easy, Speakeasy
It’s easy to miss the Larder House at first. Perched at the end of a long row of usual-suspect shops (Boots, banks, bridal accessories), it looks to the untrained eye like a posh local eatery tying a bit too hard. What, after all, would a genuinely top-class restaurant and bar be doing in a rather plain suburb of Bournemouth? Why would it not be located a few hundred metres away, staring out at the crashing waves of England’s Jurassic coastline? Or two miles in either direction, in the lovely lanes of Christchurch, or upscaled-and-botox’d Sandbanks? Surely, one thinks, standing at the bus stop outside and staring in, the place breaks the cardinal role in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, where he cautions restaurateurs to consider location above every other factor.
The Larder House isn’t just a peach of a place – its way more than that. It’s the Lottery win, the chance encounter on a Friday evening that changes your life, the first swallows of spring, the sweet smell of sap in the air on the first day of a long and much-needed vacation. It’s staring at a longstanding friend and noticing their beauty for the first time. More precisely, it’s that place you stumble upon, quite by chance, and which beckons you back time after time, week after week, year after year, long after your teeth are chattering in a glass by the side of the bed.
The Larder House’s owner, James Fowler, is old school in that he arrived in the business via the tradesman’s entrance. No wealthy fathers-in-law or deep-pocketed childhood friends here. His sheer love of fresh ingredients allied with an amiable and enterprising spirit led him to set up a one-man al fresco juice business, serving fresh shakes to parched punters on Bournemouth’s beaches from the back of a van. Indeed, people loved his tipples so much, he soon moved into mixology, working his way through local bars and restaurants, gaining a rare knack for blending the right ingredients to suit our taste buds. When last year James won WorldClass GB the UK’s Barman of the Year contest, sponsored by Diageo and organised in partnership with British Airways, it was an affirmation of everything he’d been working for. By his own admission, the award propelled his business to the next level.
By then, the Larder House, still his sole outlet (James insists he has no desire to open more restaurants, though that may change as the place notches up awards and plaudits) had been open for four years. And each year, he adds a little extra to the residence, much as we do with our relationships, houses, and careers. The rear of the property now extends back a few extra metres, allowing added space for tables, and a second, quirky, working bar. Upstairs, a Speakeasy has slowly taken shape, serving dry martinis (each order is notched in chalk on the bar, as was the case in New York bars during 1920s American Prohibition). Everything in here has been bought, both to save money and to buck convention, from eBay, and the owners – James and his cheery, sharp-minded girlfriend Megan – have chosen well, if idiosyncratically. A giant stuffed fox hovers by heavy drapes; low-slung tables jostle for space with velvet sofas; lead-glass cabinets conceal a wealth of unusual liquors, from smoked Spanish brandy to a wonderfully dry Dorset gin brand, Conkers. Each bartender has their own cabinet screwed to the wall: a personal hidey hole that they typically fill with personal accouterments and a bottle of gin or whisky - all the better to pour a long drink at the end of a double shift. If this isn’t Fat Sam’s Grand Slam in Bugsy Malone, I don’t know what is.
But this is all merely an entrée to the main course, which is the Larder House’s great food. We arrived on a Sunday around noon and stayed until the moon loomed full and low over the skyline. We had diver scallops to begin: large, thick and juicy, with a hint of smokiness, pan-fried in their own sauce. Then a Sunday lunch of rare Scottish beef - thinly sliced, which allows the taste to drip down the tongue (too few establishments do this) – as well as Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, and some truly marvelous cauliflower cheese.
A chilled bottle of light, dry Spanish wine followed, along with one of James’s signature cocktails: a “Lady & the lamp”, that arrived ensconced in its own miniature glass cloche, complete with London lamppost and a thick belt of – very apt – a proper old-style London peasouper. Cloche lifted, the steam evaporated, but the smoke infused in the cocktail did not. Not only was the cocktail a wonder to behold – tart and strong with a lingering smoothness at the back of the tongue – but the presentation was world-class (take it from someone who has travelled widely, and downed cocktails from London to Bombay). It suggested an exceptional and playful mind at work, and an entrepreneur and restaurateur at the very top of his trade.
Moreover, James’s clear love of the region and its bounteous and inimitable produce shines through. Britain’s culinary revolution continues, introducing more of us every year to the wonder of Scottish raspberries, East Anglian oysters, and Wiltshire ham and asparagus. Yet this part of the UK, a little over an hour from London by train, is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Isle of Wight tomatoes, the briny ‘Dorsetshire’ sauce, jams and jellies galore, and the only wasabi farm in the world outside Japan. There is much to love and admire here, and James doesn’t let you leave without knowing it.
On the day we visited, the restaurant was in full swing. Outside, an old-style dray cart was surrounded by eager-looking punters learning how to make a Bloody Mary. We squeezed in, learning how to blend a dizzying array of juices and spices, from cardamom to chilli to star anise, in exactly the right way. Our banter was only briefly interrupted by the arrival of James’s dog, a simply enormous Great Dane with sleepy eyes and a gentle heart. Two of us won the star prize (a carrot – good for equalising acidity in the stomach). The other won a rather spectacular runners-up prize: one of eight judges overseeing the day’s big event, a competition to find the best Bloody Mary the region had to offer. Bartenders turned up from across the area to take part – James’s name is an increasingly big pull here – vying with each other to mix the best drink from the best local ingredients. A lovely chap called Dave Hall from the Urban Beach Hotel with a spicy number and an even spicier moustache stole the honours: a brass-and-wood plaque, and a big tick on his CV.
Then it was time to go. We had a long drive ahead of us, and a couple of us were rather the worse for wear. It had been a long day at the Larder House with James & Co, and one of the best, most enjoyable and most relaxed days out many of us had had in a long time. Before we set off, we headed for a short stroll down the beach. The sun had gone, but a Super Moon had risen over the horizon, illuminating the pastel sky. What a grand place this is, and what a lovely group of owners. The best days in life, as always, are often the ones you least expect.