Aromantic mini-break in Cheshunt is rarely included in elegant broadsheet “Tips to Save your Relationship” articles, because people are very shallow. Paris or Lisbon, they always say, as if two, maybe three days just off the A10 would not bring back the magic, too.
Well, those people don’t deserve Birch, a mind-bendingly ambitious project that’s taken over a hotel and conference centre and its 55 acres of nature, and parachuted in the well-respected chef Robin Gill to open The Zebra Riding Club in what was once a stable block. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to change the spotlights in my kitchen right now – I’d rather cook in the dark – so it’s comforting that someone out there is thinking, “Why don’t we open a ginormous, almost indefinable community drop-in experience with candle-making lessons and gong baths and ping-pong and 140 bedrooms.”
Birch sees itself as a wellness-focused community where customers can release and re-set – you can read all sorts of this cosmic mumbo-jumbo on the website, which positions the place as a hinterland between Babington House and a Branch Davidian ranch. This would all seem to point to Gill serving some sort of purging, waist-sculpting, freegan, chakra-balancing juicing menu, and to The Zebra Riding Club being a bit po-faced and joyless. But that is completely untrue.
This is very much a Gill restaurant along the lines of Darby’s, one of my favourite places in London. Here, he is working alongside Ben Rand, from another Gill success, The Dairy in Clapham, and Sussex farmer Tom Morphew to provide a farm-to-table menu for both here and a more casual, all-day restaurant called Valeries. The Zebra Riding Club serves a five-part tasting menu consisting of several snacks, smaller courses of soupy things and one larger main that is, however you dress it up, Swaledale salt-marsh lamb with potatoes. This is food that aims to feed you and send you away jolly.
On the Wednesday evening we visited, it was pleasingly busy, which was surprising, because trying to get a reservation through the main switchboard had involved an arduous maze of dropped calls or phones ringing out, possibly because the staff were all too busy running the Bauhaus plate-painting session or the Sass & Soul dance workshop. Birch says it wants to create a festival ambience, which sounds like more hot air, except when you enter the large courtyard at the entrance to The Zebra Riding Club, they’ve lit pit fires, so the drifting smoke combines with the scents of the 55 acres of arboreal splendour and the sudden bolt of fresh air from leaving the city to give you an odd sense of opening your car door at Glastonbury. The restaurant is in a huge, capacious, open barn, with a visible kitchen. Staff are bright and charming, and not remotely airily cool.
We began with some snacks of the freshest, most delicious Cantabrian anchovies on toasted sourdough, then a small, pleasing tartlet featuring one solitary, but meaningful slice of grezzina courgette. This was followed by grilled ox tongue Reuben-style and some warm, fresh sourdough made from Gilchesters porridge and served with smoked cultured cream with miso and a side of pickled beets. Then came one of those moments when Gill and his team always win my heart, wherever they’re cooking. “We’re calling this a hug in a mug,” the server said while leaving me with a small bowl of what the menu calls “heritage grains with Kentish corn”, but which was instead a sort of warm, spicy, enveloping, Thai-style, vegetable soup fragrant with nam pla and fresh corn and barley.
The next offerings were from the sea: red mullet wrapped in nori, Cornish crab and Porthilly oysters. Star of the show, officially (although I’d give that award to the fabulous soup), was the aforementioned lamb, which turns up with enough extras to make it a banquet. This is where all semblance of a tasting-style menu leaves the building and you are faced with not just the meat, but also a rich ragu and bowls of Badger Flame beetroot, fresh coco beans, wood-oven-baked Cornish midi potatoes and a generous garden salad.
Pudding was a large scoop of blackberry ripple ice-cream with peach and a fresh, warm, rosemary-scented sablé biscuit. I’ve thought of this pudding often since. It would make sitting through a macramé plant-hanger workshop quite tolerable. Life’s a Birch – or at least it is when Robin Gill is there in the midst, making magic.