Food review: The Boat House, Lichfield
It’s the details that are striking. Walk into The Boat Inn, on the outskirts of Lichfield, and you’re greeted by staff who treat you with warmth and respect. The Michelin sign is on the exterior wall – the venue’s not yet starred, though I’d predict it will be within two years – and the interior design is breathtaking. Silver salvers line one wall, there are long, tall candles on every table and stunning rock’n’roll paintings in discreet corners.
Oh yes, and then there are handbag stools. So that women (and some men) can place their handbag or manbag on a stool, rather than the floor. And that, my friends, is class.
So let us mark your ticket now regarding a chef who very soon will become the Poster Boy for Staffordshire and beyond. Liam Dillon is the brains and talent behind The Boat Inn. And his star is about to shine.
Liam’s led a remarkable career – so remarkable, in fact, that we featured him across two pages earlier this month – but we won’t dwell on that here. We’ll gloss over the fact that he’s worked in the best restaurant on the continent in Europe, America and Australia – as well as some of the best in the UK – and cut to the chase. Let’s do food. And let’s do it Liam Style.
The Boat Inn is a breath of fresh air. It’s run by chef-patron Dillon and his family, who invested in realising their kid’s culinary vision. They’ve done him proud.
I visited on a midweek evening, expecting a cold, dark Thursday to be notable only for the sea of empty tables. I was wrong. Those in the know have already learned about the qualities of Dillon and his team and the venue is attracting trade from Staffordshire and beyond.
Make no mistake. The Boat Inn will become a destination restaurant. On the week of my visit, it had been named The Best New Gastropub in the UK. And over the next couple of years, as standards continue to rise and word gets out, it will earn for itself the same reputation as places like The Coach, at Marlow; Freemasons, at Wiswell; The Pony and Tram, at Bristol; or Stephen Terry’s much-loved Hardwick, at Abergavenny.
For Dillon is a consummate professional. An assured restaurateur and breathtaking chef, he focuses on giving his customers the best experience possible amid comfortable surroundings. And the food he serves is to die for.
There were two front of house staff working the floor when I visited. A debonair and smooth waiter showed me to my seat and talked me through the menu when I arrived while a bearded Scottish/Staffordshire hipster had equally impressive skills and was polite, charming and utterly engaged throughout the evening.
Though The Boat Inn does the best plate of steak and chips in the region, it has starrier aspirations. It’s a fine dining restaurant with a sublime tasting menu and sensational a la carte offering. So unless you head into Birmingham to one of the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants, you simply won’t get a better plate of food in our region.
I started with a delicious snack: a small cube of deep-fried, breaded pig’s head – delicious – with a burnt apple puree. It was served in a presentation container and exemplified Dillon’s nose-to-tail approach, where nothing goes to waste. Well-seasoned, beautifully presented and packed full of flavour, it was exceptional.
Next came a nugget of Liam Fried Chicken. Created to Dillon’s own secret recipe, it was exquisite. Bursting with hot, peppery pyrotechnic flavour, it was cooked perfectly. When the waiter cleared my plate and I told him I’d happily eat a plate full of it – he replied that the chef would be happy for me to do so and would I like a plate of chips to go with it. On this occasion, no. But there’s always a next time.
Next came the bread. A spelt and beer loaf, cooked that morning, was served with cultured butter and chicken butter. The cultured butter was dreamy and mild, infused with a little yoghurt, while the chicken butter was sensational. If I ever find myself on Death Row and the guy with the switch asks me what my final dinner should be, it’ll be chicken butter. Made with butter and chicken stock and served with crispy chicken skin on top, it was a big, sexy umami kiss. I think I may have fallen in love there and then.
Right, 250 words to get through a marvellous tasting menu. Check on. Let’s go. Dorset crab was served with small cubes of pear and charred leeks. The bitter char was a delightful accompaniment to the fresh, sweet crab meat and robust pear. Exceptional.
Next was a pig’s cheek with celeriac mash and a little spice. Brilliant. The cheek had been slowly cooked so that the meat fell apart under the knife. It was unctuous, moist and as explosive as nitroglycerine. The mash was comforting and a spice mix on top delightful. It was a hug in a bowl.
The next course, squid spaghetti with butterbeans and chorizo with tempura squid demonstrated Dillon’s talent. Though his menu is family-friendly, you won’t find spheres, foams or leathers anywhere, there’s a sense that he’s got more in the tank. As a chef, Dillon feels like a Ferrari that’s moving along at 70mph on the motorway when he’s got the abilty to take it to 180mph. There’s much, much more to come.
A main course of venison with cauliflower a brilliant and buttery potato galette and a small venison sausage was sublime. Perfectly cooked, seasoned with rare skill, it was a beautifully balanced dish that showcased the chef’s skills.
The pre-dessert was a rhubarb and custard number with maximum finesse; the sort of dish you might find at Dillon’s first placement, Marcus Wareing’s The Berkley. Tart and sharp, sweet and creamy, it was everything a diner might hope for and more. The final course was a deconstructed carrot cake with candied walnuts, which was mind-blowing. Service was exemplary and the bill entirely reasonable.
Dillon’s place is both the perfect destination for brilliant pub food and exceptional place to visit for special occasions. He has a rare talent, maximum drive and a good, emerging team behind him. He’s been inspected by Michelin and, in this critic’s view, should achieve a star within two years – as well as gongs from AA, Harden’s, The Good Food Guide and more.
Dillon has rare skill and outside of Birmingham, his restaurant is the best in the region. The number’s at the top of the page.
Pick up the phone. Treat yourself.