If you have yet to experience The Red Lion in Soham, just 9 miles from Newmarket, then you are seriously in for a treat. We met up with Chef and Proprietor Lucy Jarman to find out more about this charming restaurant.
As a building itself, The Red Lion is beautiful, with its thatched roof, oak beams and inglenook fire place. What’s its history?
There has been a hostelry on this site in Soham since 1620. Prior to us taking it over in 2015, it had stood empty for several years and suffice to say it needed an immense amount of work. After two years of careful restoration, we opened in 2017, and like to think that we made a pretty good job. Much of this was down to the building’s owner, Peter Leonard, who is an established interior designer and ensured the place retained its character and relaxing atmosphere.
So, how did you get into the restaurant business, and did you always want to be a chef?
I often get asked this question and I aways tell the same story that having worked in a restaurant in my younger days I was convinced that the hospitality sector was not for me! Instead, I chose to study English at university and was in the process of deciding which career path this would take me when I stumbled back into catering. Under the guidance of a wonderful chef, I began to fall back in love with cooking and despite not having any formal training, began to make it my chosen career. And I have to say, I haven’t regretted that decision, despite the recent challenges.
But isn’t cooking in your blood?
Very much so, as my parents have run the Old Fire Engine restaurant in neighbouring Ely since 1968. Whilst establishing my own catering business, I too joined the family business and worked there for many years.
My mum, however, can’t and doesn’t cook, so it was my dad who did all the cooking when I was growing up. We travelled extensively during my childhood and it was dad that introduced me to Middle Eastern flavours and encouraged me to be creative with combinations. The person I liked to please most with my new dishes was him! Sadly he is no longer around, but I always think of him when creating new recipes.
You still have a catering side to your business, don’t you?
Most definitely and we also have a beautiful, dedicated function room, the Coach House, which caters for up to 80 people for a variety of occasions. I still really love doing the catering side, as there is something about being part of someone’s special event that makes the work so rewarding. I’m naturally a creative person and there is nothing I like to see more than a well-presented room with beautiful food displayed.
How would you best describe the style of food served in your restaurant?
British, rustic, modern food with a Middle Eastern twist. We go for the relaxed vibe here and are well known for the use of our enamel serving dishes and other nostalgic touches. You can expect traditional roasts with seasonal vegetables as well as the more unusual eel, guinea fowl and even goat which is one of our most popular dishes with its Middle Eastern kick. Puddings are popular amongst our regulars, with the likes of fruit crumble and bread and butter pudding being firm favourites.
You’ve had some fantastic press reviews lately. Tell us more.
Although it is always nerve racking if we know in advance that a journalist or well known foodie is booked to dine with us, we’ve been bowled over by the reviews we’ve had. Of note is the food critic Grace Dent who did a glowing review for the Guardian and Michelin star chef, James Knappet who did an equally wonderful review in the Telegraph. These reviews certainly get us talked about and brings in new customers.
The Red Lion is one of those special places that has a wonderful winter ambience with its period features and log burner but equally a fabulous summer vibe with its walled garden. Tell us more about your al fresco experience.
We are fortunate to have a secluded courtyard styled garden with a mass of native flowers growing against the aging brickwork. It really is the perfect place to dine in the summer or to just enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine. Perceived as a bit of a secret garden, we would very much like to welcome more people to discover the space. Our recommendation now for a Saturday afternoon tipple is a delicious crisp Provençal rosé which is best served on a sunny day!
How much does sourcing your products locally mean to you?
Our ethos has always been about quality and sourcing locally wherever possible. As an independent business ourselves, we like to work with neighbouring businesses and suppliers and have formed firm friendships with many over the years. For example, our wines come from independent wine merchants Corney and Barrow in Newmarket, all our meat is supplied by Eric Tennant, who sources wonderful Suffolk produce and our sausages, naturally, also come from Newmarket.
And finally, after nearly five years on, do you have any plans that we should know about?
Like most hospitality businesses, we have faced huge challenges over the past two years. So, right now we are just concentrating on serving our loyal customers as well as welcoming new diners. We hope to bring back some of our public events such as the popular Gin and Jazz festival and to encourage more people to join us for drinks in our beautiful garden this summer. Also, keep a look out for the announcement of our birthday plans later in the year!
The Red Lion opens Wednesday to Sundays for lunch and dinner as well as drinks whether served inside the atmospheric 17th century restaurant or within the walls of its Secret Garden.
Also useful to know is that a pre-booked, return bus service operates from Soham to Newmarket on a number of race days, which drops off outside the Red Lion making it the perfect venue for post racing dinner. Now how convenient is that!!
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