With innovative food and a stylish setting, The Boat Inn in Lichfield is turning into a serious contender when it comes to fine dining in the Midlands, as Amy Norbury discovers
There’s something rather exciting going on in the Lichfield dining scene at the moment. Discerning diners are demanding that little bit more from their eating out experiences and restaurants are slowly but surely stepping up to the plate.
The Boat Inn, on the outskirts of Lichfield is one such restaurant. After a change of ownership earlier this year, there have been changes afoot. And all for be positive.
Chef patron is local boy Liam Dillon, who has returned to his home city after a decade working at top restaurants around the world. Liam’s pedigree is impeccable; he cut his teeth under Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley in London before posts at Quay in Sydney, Eleven Madison Park in New York and L’Epuisette in Marseille. A stint at Copenhagen’s famous two Michelin-starred Noma, which is a three-time winner of Best Restaurant in the World is another highlight on the chef’s CV, while closer to home Liam counts La Becasse in Ludlow and Tom Sellers’ Michelin starred restaurant Story on London’s Southbank. After helping to open Tom’s second venture, The Lickfold Inn in West Sussex, as sous chef, Liam decided it was time to strike out on his own.
So expectations were high for something truly special from a chef who clearly knows his stuff. And – spoiler alert! – we were certainly not disappointed.
We were invited to sample The Boat’s exciting menu just a day after major refurbishments were completed. And what a transformation it’s been. The somewhat dated decor has been replaced by it’s been. The somewhat dated decor has been replaced with stylish and comfortable furniture in modern palette of greys and quirky touches like the deer antler chandeliers; old carpets have made way for wooden floorboards and the kitchen itself – visible from the dining room – has had its own makeover.
We were greeted by Corin, who runs the front of house operation, and shown to the new bar area, which is furnished with comfy wingback chairs and a Chesterfield sofa, perfect for relaxing with a pre or post-meal drink.
The well-rounded menu makes the most of seasonal produce, using the very best of what’s available from local suppliers; we perused the options while enjoying a drink in the bar before being shown to our table in the main dining area.
To whet our appetites for things to come, we were presented with a complimentary chef’s snack – the enticingly named ‘Pig’s head with burnt apple’. This mouthwatering morsel of braised meat in a crispy coating is a nod to Liam’s nana, who taught the young chef to make the most of his ingredients and not to waste anything. Served in on a pig’s skull to emphasise the point, it was a delicious, unexpected treat.
Fresh bread served with salty chicken butter was also a thing to savour.
Our starters, then had quite a precedent to live up to. And boy did they. Fresh Dorset crab with charred leeks, brown crab emulsion and heritage tomatoes was a beautifully light and delicately flavoured dish, the sweet white crab meat had been treated with care to create a dish which made the most of its star billing.
My dining companion’s roasted and poached beetroots, goats’ cheese, raspberry and garden herb salad was, she proclaimed, simply stunning. The goats’ cheese was smooth and airy, balancing nicely with the earthiness of the beetroot and leaves.
For the main event I was tempted by the slow cooked pork belly and crackling with braised cheek, onion, roasted apple and mash, as well as the Cornish brill with pumpkin, samphire, puy lentils and a shellfish sauce. But it was the locally shot game options which really caught my eye. In the end I plumped for the Sussex wild duck, served with fig, black cabbage, celeriac remoulade, game chips and bread sauce.
And what a feast it was. Now wild duck – for the uninitiated – is quite unlike its farmed counterpart, with a much more intense flavour. It’s a lot less fatty too, so is best served on the rare side, as this was, to make the most of that gamey punch. The meat is deeply rich and full of flavour so you need something quite sharp or fruity as a natural match to really cut through that richness. Here, the figs and a scattering of blackberries worked perfectly to lend a sweet balance to the powerful meatiness of the duck, while the celeriac remoulade and black cabbage were lovely seasonal accompaniments.
My dining companion was equally impressed with her fillet of sea bass, served with cauliflower stem, mussel, sea herbs and a white wine and seafood sauce. It smelled divine from across the table and she assured me that it was a triumph, with gloriously crispy skin adorning fish which had been cooked to perfection.
The dishes themselves are perfectly proportioned, meaning we both had just enough room to indulge in a sweet treat to end the meal.
As a good custard tart is one of my personal favourites, I had to go for the The Boat’s version, with apple sorbet and ginger sponge. And what a little slice of heaven it proved to be. Rich, luxuriously creamy and peppered with nutmeg in a fine pastry case, it was a real delight. The other half of the pud – the ginger sponge – was lovely and light, with a nice warmth from the spicy ginger, while the delicious apple sorbet added a sweetly sharp contrast which balanced the dish just right.
My dining companion’s almond sponge with pear chutney and almond ice cream hit all the right notes too; every last morsel of both desserts was polished off.
We were finishing off with coffee when the main man himself popped out of the kitchen for a chat before getting ready for what was set to be a very busy evening service. It’s always nice to put a face to the name – and Liam Dillon is a name you’re sure to be hearing a lot of.
Liam’s aim at The Boat is to create a go-to venue for fine dining in the Midlands, something of a foodie destination. And he’s already well on the way to achieving his goal. The Boat is a place which takes eating out to the next level, with exceptional food accompanied by exemplary service.
Lichfield’s very own first Michelin star? Watch this space.