I miss London, especially the food. One of my favourite things about living there was having every type of cuisine I could dream of within my grasp, day or night…
Croque-monsieur from the French bakery on my morning stroll to work? That sounds lovely.
Peking Duck feast in China Town for lunch? Why not?
Twenty pints of Belgian beer at Belgo after work? Ok then!
Two o’clock in the morning salt beef and mustard bagel from the twenty-four hour bagel shop on Brick Lane? Yessshhh plz.
So when I heard that the French brasserie 'La Petite Bouchée', a Best Restaurant winner in the Time Out Love London Awards, which began life three years ago as a four-seater restaurant in the back of a 1971 Citreon HY Campervan in South East London, had moved this way… I couldn't contain my excitement.
Having upped sticks, pets, pots and pans and moved to Devon earlier this year, chef Anita-Clare and her wife Caroline have now parked their handsome vintage van and their amazing story in the village of Witheridge, beyond Nomansland, along the twisted roads past Puddington and Black Dog, where they have set up their restaurant in the village square, in the dining room of their magnificent house which was once the old butchers.
Their philosophy is “Create the perfect ambience, add fabulous food and a glass of fizz and you’ve got an experience you won’t forget”. Their ingredients are locally sourced, responsibly sustained and where possible homegrown, and they offer a varied and seasonal menu which changes each month. Their wine is sourced from small, French family vineyards.
There has been a buzz around La Petite Bouchée since its unique dining experience arrived here, and the restaurant has rapidly gained a following of both curious and loyal customers, with bookings now flooding in months in advance. We were lucky to get a table at short notice, with friends who had dined there earlier in the summer and were desperate to return, and I was doubly excited because mussels were on the menu and I’d been suffering from severe moules frites withdrawal symptoms since my recent holiday in France. The four course menu is £30, which we were soon to discover is staggering value for money. Anita-Clare asks that you place your orders in advance so that she can organise just the ingredients needed, to minimise waste.
My husband Billy and I employed our usual tactic of ordering different things from the menu so that we could try a bit of everything. The starters of rich pork rillettes and delicate smoked salmon pâté were delicious and partnered by the tasty tang of handmade, pickled vegetables - who knew you could pickle a mushroom? I now want to pickle everything. These were followed by an amuse bouche course of Champagne sorbet and ‘Brochette Maison’, a petite skewer of saucisson, cheese, tomatoes, olives and cornichons; the perfect, palate-pleasing way to mark the interval between the starter and main when I’d usually scoff the rest of the bread basket.
Then came the main courses, which have to be seen to be believed. When the short-rib carbonnade was placed in front of Billy there was an intake of breath from the whole room. How can you not fall for a restaurant that serves slabs of meat the size of your head? Marinated for twenty-four hours in Exeter-brewed, Black Tor ale it was spoon-yieldingly soft with an intense, slightly sweet flavour, and served with 'aligot', a silky, garlicky, cheesy, comforting mash. As for the moules, well... for a start there was a KILO of them served in a proper moules pot, the sight of which made me clap and bark like a circus seal, and they had been cooked in a boozy seafood bisque which I slurped up in greedy spoonfuls. All of this was accompanied by generous bowls of crisp frites and a fresh, herby salad. Our table was heaving with food, our wine glasses were topped up at all times by the attentive waiting staff and I was transported gleefully back to France.
Before dessert Anita-Clare took a well-earned breather from the kitchen to greet everyone; a wonderful personal touch to the evening and clearly a sincere desire for her to connect with her customers and make us feel at home. I could have talked to her for hours about damson gin-making tips, the art of pickling, London tales, Jack Tzus, the awful story of the vandalism of the van, the accolades on the walls alongside a beautiful old photograph of Anita-Clare’s parents. It would seem that all roads to Witheridge are winding, but it has been well worth the journey.
Dessert was a pretty-as-a-picture slice of Tarte Aux Myrtilles, a sweet, blueberry-studded tart, which would have been treat enough on its own but was served with a last-minute addition to the menu, a divine blueberry and Crème de Cassis sorbet which I predict I will have dreams about in which I am merrily swimming in it. Cheeses were a selection of Comté , Bleu d'Auvergne and Boy Laity, a Camembert which could not have a more brilliantly Cornish name, and yet another unexpected treat of macerated cherries which achieved the unbelievable in making a cheeseboard even more satisfying.
All of the special touches; the candlelit pathway leading to the restaurant entrance, the mini jam jar salt and pepper shakers, the magnificence of our mains, the chance to meet the chef, the sorbet, the cherries, the excitement of there being a Border Terrier puppy in the house (maybe that’s just me, but I met him and he is incredible and on my 'To Steal' list), were all a reflection of the generosity of our hosts, their passion for feeding people and their willingness to go the extra mile to make your experience memorable… and ours certainly was.
The French chef Auguste Escoffier is quoted on the restaurant’s website, “Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness”. Monsieur Escoffier speaks the truth and he would be as happy as a clam to dine at La Petite Bouchée.
La Petite Bouchée I 19 The Square | Witheridge | Devon I EX16 8AE
T +44 0 1884 860654 M +44 0 7738 703 450
Dinner Fridays and Saturdays 7pm to 10pm. Bookings only.
*Disclaimer: I was invited to dine at La Petite Bouchée in exchange for sharing my experience on social media. All opinions are mine, apart from the claim that the beef was the size of my head... that was actual fact, I picked it up and measured it.