By the time I pulled into the car park of the winner of the Weetabix Food and Drink Awards Booker Dining Venue of the Year I must admit I was a little bit slack-jawed.
It’s not because the Willow and Brook in Apethorpe pulled off this feat during an opening year which featured a once in a generation pandemic and a freak flood which they thought might wash their dreams away – but they did.
Neither is it because Jim and Suzanne Millar have also scooped a clutch of other awards this year for their combination of a warm welcome and traditional English food with a twist – they did that too.
Forgive me those county folk already in the know but it’s Apethorpe that left me dumbfounded… what a beautiful bit of the county. It just goes to show what you miss zipping along the A43 and A15, passing signs to places like this and wondering what they might be like.
Buttery yellow ironstone and black Collyweston slate in abundance, it is like a living tribute to heartwarming Sunday evening television with Willow and Brook nestling in the middle of it – the kind of country dining venue we always hoped we would discover back in the days when people used to ‘go for a drive’ as a weekend leisure activity.
You might think I’m going a bit over the top but Suzanne is almost apologetic about how idyllic their setting is.
“It is nice isn’t it,” she smiles patiently as I react to the scenery and I realise later, when photographer Dave Ikin arrives in the same awestruck manner, that Suzanne and Jim must get this a lot, especially from townies like me and Dave.
“It’s not just the beautiful village. It really is a fantastic community. When the field flooded at the back the water was pouring down the street up to the window level but there were people out helping us to see what they could do. People were so good. We feel like we know all the customers. Sometimes our children Freddie and Ryan like to come in to the restaurant and if they know someone they will take their order,” says Suzanne.
The Willow and Brook offers a range of different eating experiences: bar meals, table dining and a comfortable courtyard area that can be a bit of a sun trap. There is a relaxed family-friendly feel to the venue underpinned by quality food and quality service.
“We are family friendly and we take good service very seriously. I am out here all the time and we have worked really hard to ensure our service is good,” says Suzanne.
Perhaps part of the magic is achieving the friendly pub feel while providing high quality dining.
“People do pop in for a drink or light snack but our bar area is not really enough for us to call ourselves a pub. We are food led,” says Suzanne.
The Weetabix Food Awards uses ‘secret shopper’ style judges who visit incognito to grade venues on a range of criteria. A winner is decided over the course of several visits and puts the seal of approval on the whole experience of dining at the venue. It is not just the food that gets judged although it is obviously a critical part of the mix.
Chef Patron Jim handles the food side and Suzanne is “everything else”. Sometimes she is the voice of reason checking Jim’s creative inspiration.
“You wanted a rabbit’s leg on a dish. I thought that was a bit too much,” she smiles.
“There is usually something on the menu with a bit of theatre. We will bring out food under a cloche or something that is eye catching when it is brought out,” says Jim who modestly describes his offering as “simple good English food.”
“We try to source as much as we can locally like the asparagus and the blueberries but it is always English. You sometimes get menus with one asian dish and one chinese dish and you lose the sense of what the place is really about. We have worked hard to have an identity but it is basically just good English food. On Sunday we do a roast with a huge pile of vegetables,” he says.
Neighbours will occasionally offer up some interesting ingredients such as local potatoes or game. It is clear that Jim and Suzanne are inspired by the challenge of keeping their loyal returning customers well fed.
“We could go the route of trying to earn a Michelin star but in introducing that way of doing things we might take away some of what is special now,” says Jim.
On May 20 Willow and Brook (named after a nearby stretch of water) reopens offering a seven course taster menu, giving people a chance to sample more of the items on the menu than on a normal visit.
Vegetarian and gluten free versions of meals are also available, not least because son Ryan is coeliac and the couple were determined that customers requiring gluten free food could relax and order what they like.
Championing English ingredients including drinks, has been a point of principle.
“We were amazed when we looked into the drinks that are available in this area. There are gins, vodkas, wines… we are big fans of Warners which we brought in as our premium gin when we started. Just recently I have tried a gin by Nene Valley Spirits called Londinium, which is something special,” says Suzanne.
Right now it is all hands on deck preparing for May 20. Suzanne and Jim have spent most of their careers so far creating restaurants for other people and their first year running their own has been a real rollercoaster.
Suzanne says: “Above all we would like to thank our staff and lovely customers. Without them we never would have got there.”