We must have looked so smug when we pulled into the main street of Aldeburgh last weekend. It is notoriously difficult to find a parking space here, but the day we visit the new Sur-Mer restaurant, there is a deluge of rain, and the day-trippers have either stayed home or huddled together, holding small children, dogs and shopping bags, under store awnings.
We find a space practically outside the Suffolk (the hotel Sur-Mer, which will open soon, is inside). The competitor in me does an imaginary punch of joy. Yes, I’m so sad.
Avoiding the downpour, so fierce that some look drenched to the skin, we take the path to the entrance to Sur-Mer, where the slapping of rain on the pavement is replaced by a cacophony of chatter – the sweet sound of laughter, gossip and clinking glasses. It’s an energy that I missed during lockdown, and that I’ve rarely heard since. This place is busy.
But it’s new, and there’s a legitimate curiosity about the restaurant, which started as a pop-up on a whim during the height of lockdown, bringing Soho’s L’Escargot experience to the coast, and has now become a permanent fixture in the city.
Sur-Mer is chic, but not overtly. Dashes of navy blue, scalloped seating and floor lamps in the dining room, and Aldeburgh-themed prints are the only nod to its seaside location.
Otherwise, the focus is on the food. In fact, we spend almost no time ruminating on the decor. We are too distracted by puffs of lobster bussed to the tables as we enter.
Although we couldn’t see through the tall windows, we grabbed a table closest to the beach and were given some of the smartest menus we’ve seen in a while – bound in touch books and a world away from fat , fingerprints – stained pieces of paper.
At a glance, what I can tell you is that Sur-Mer is not cheap.
Starters cost £8-16, main courses average £25 (with necessary sides/veg, at £6 a pop) and desserts are around £9.
But then, Sur-Mer does not present its stand as a low-cost alternative to the big chains. The owner’s ethos is to take the best local and British ingredients the kitchen can get its hands on, and make those main elements the star, with little fuss and lots of attention to classic technique.
Seafood is landed locally (including native lobsters), complemented by hand-dipped Devon scallops and crab. Dairy products come from Fen Farm in Bungay. Salads are picked up on the road at White House Farm. And the rare breed meat comes from Salter & King, just across the road.
The menu is complemented by a tantalizing cocktail list and carefully chosen wine selection, with several bottles stepping outside the classic Old World and New World sphere.
Let’s take the example of Les Voltes from the Greek winery Monemvasia in Tsimbidi. It’s not what one would typically suggest next to seafood – but with a light sherry-like salinity, a burst of ripe melon and hints of grapefruit, it’s a perfect shellfish pairing.
We order a drink. And I also taste the Suffolk Sailor cocktail, only because I like its name and can’t make up my mind otherwise.
It’s tangy, yet round and easy to drink, blending golden rum, currant, peach, plum and lime juice.
My heart sings as two plates of appetizing sourdough arrive. One plate each. No fight to the last crumb (or is it just me?).
Shortly after, our starters arrive – and there are three of them because we really couldn’t make a decision.
When simplicity is your USP, there’s nowhere to hide. Luckily, every plate hits the mark.
The hand-dipped scallops, served in the shell, are fresh the way you like it, cooked to perfection, and smothered in a melting puddle of Dingley Dell’nduja, which ignites, but doesn’t overpower their sweetness.
The crispy cod cheeks are just as sublime. Lightly coated, they are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. A dollop of homemade curry tartare on each is sensational. A little spicy, a little spicy. There is a salty smell from time to time due to the seaweed powder sprinkling. At this point, I just want a bucket of these bits and a plate of fries!
Both entrees above arrive in shells over seaweed – the only concession the chefs have made to simply dress the plates. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine to eat, but it’s not part of the dish – and you still have that person… that person… who doesn’t get it.
His appearance reminds me of a few stories. One at a well-known restaurant where a customer tried to eat the raw barley grains her canapé cone had been presented in (she complained).
And another from a former colleague of mine. While visiting what was considered a high-end chain store at the time, she ordered a platter to share, which arrived on a board, on top of two cans of olives.
The staff didn’t question her request for a can opener, but were mildly shocked (she was mortified) when they came to clear the table, only to find she had opened the cans and eaten the contents , thinking they were part of the meal. !
Anyway, back to those entrees, and the biggest surprise for me is Sur-Mer’s version of dressed crab. I know deconstructed food falls on some people’s nerves but, done right, it can be as good as, or even surpass, the original.
And I think Sur-Mer has created something quite special in concocting its dressed crab. Stripped of the shell (which is pretty to look at but serves no purpose on the plate), it features lightly pressed sweet white crabmeat, tied in a vinaigrette with chunks of chives and served with a lightly smoked avocado and lemony mash, pickled cucumber and a quenelle of dark meat, bursting with the essence of the sea. A round of toasted bread is perched to the side for scooping. As my son would say, it’s “absolutely slamming”.
My husband hits the jackpot with his main course of grilled monkfish in a golden crust on a tangle of sweet leeks, drizzled with a round, rich and indulgent butter with a hint of spice. It’s faultless.
I opted for the specialty of the day: the back of cod stuffed with lobster in a lobster bisque.
It’s nice enough, but it didn’t thrill me. It looks a bit sloppy – and would have benefited from the bisque being poured at the table so as not to splash the bowl. The bisque lacks a bit of seasoning for me. And although the cod is tender, the lobster stuffing inside is a bit rubbery.
We had ordered a few sides (including a bowl of greens to make us feel a little holier).
Home fries with skin on are amazing. Really. Completely dry and chewy on the inside, with a pleasant crunch that makes us both “ooh”. We are given a pot of homemade garlic aioli for dipping. It’s happiness.
However, there isn’t much smoky flavor in smoked hasselback potatoes.
Plating our final dishes is an exercise in restraint. You won’t find mint leaves or dustings of icing sugar or cocoa powder on your pud at Sur-Mer.
We hear the chef who designed the lemon pie has been making it for decades. And that skill shows. The batter crackles under the spoon. The curd/custard filling is brilliant with the kind of clarity that only patience and good judgment can achieve. And it’s creamy and sharp all at once, with a burnt sweetness from the finely burnt top. Tremendous.
My chocolate delight dessert could, I think, do with an adjustment. Delice usually has a ratio of about a quarter to a fifth of sponge cake or biscuit to mousse/ganache filling. Here it’s more 50-50, and somehow the two halves didn’t fit together – the chocolate layer falling on the plate when I cut it. That said, it’s tasty. The quality of the chocolate is evident. And the salted caramel, with an almost ashy caramel flavor, is good to lick off the spoon.
All in all, a respectable meal that pays homage to Suffolk’s multitude of brilliant producers, run by staff who seem to care passionately about what they do.
We will return. Maybe when the roof terrace is open where we can perch and enjoy the view of the shoreline.
It is advisable to book through the-suffolk.co.uk where you can also make advance reservations for accommodation. There is no on-site parking at Suffolk/Sur-Mer but there is free on-road parking (with a time limit) and the premises are within walking distance of the town car parks.