MasterChef: The Professionals finalist Andi Walker has been in residence upstairs at The Riverside Inn since the summer; offering a six-course fixed tasting menu for the shockingly reasonable sum of £39 a head. That menu changes weekly, built around whatever the chef’s suppliers deliver him that week – showcasing both the quality of the area’s local produce and Andi’s capacity for innovation.
Located within a refurbished 17th-century mill, The Riverside Inn’s upstairs dining room is a beauty – low beams, glimmery grey wallpaper, a cosy-yet-festive feel. We’re served our opening ‘snack’ course not by a waitress but the chef himself – he’s operating as a one-man band, a notion that will become all the more impressive as the meal progresses.
Crisp, well-spiced pumpkin bhajis are anchored to the plate by dollops of tangy aged yogurt, whilst spoonfuls of mackerel tartare with Asian flavours offer a cool, clean contrast. Like everything that will come after, this course is delivered on a beautiful hand-made dish which simultaneously flatters and enhances what’s served upon it.
The appetiser is a reminder of just how hungry we are, so the arrival of a plate of sourdough bread with a dish of whipped truffle, dried mushroom and thyme butter is very timely indeed. We want to scoff the lot but we try and go slow, because when it comes to tasting menus caution is often your friend and saviour.
Next up, roasted duck breast – cooked rare and served cold, dressed with roasted hazelnuts, squash ketchup with a smoky bacon flavour, and an absolute revelation in the form of pressed sheets of maple syrup-cured rainbow squash. The result? Bright orange ribbons with the crunch and flavour of an unripe peach. Red watercress provides a nice bitter foil to the indulgent flavours elsewhere. This is a thoroughly autumnal plate, and it’s a triumph.
The fish course delivers a blowtorched fillet of succulent fleshed mackerel with a soy, chilli, ginger and lemongrass marinade that The Fathership points out is beautifully balanced – ‘none of those ingredients dominate’. It’s sweet, smoky and simple, teamed with nothing more than spring onions, cucumber slivers, and a single leaf of charred baby gem.
From the table next door comes a small hallelujah at the presence of an eaterie of this quality in the area. I murmur an amen and steady my fork for the main course. And Lord, it’s good. The Fathership zeroed in on this one as soon as the menu was presented, and he proves to have a keen instinct for picking a winner. A rare and very well-rested chunk of roasted lamb rump is accompanied by a goats’ cheese and cauliflower puree topped with a garlicky, buttery cauliflower crumb, shavings of raw cauliflower, and clouds of chevre that’s been frozen then microplaned to fluff it up.
The meat – from Knight’s butchers, aged twice in-house – is juicy and strong on bold, umami flavour; the rest comes together like a cauliflower cheese with Michelin aspirations.There’s also, praise be, a lilliputian, suet-crusted lamb shoulder pie. Carbs are a lesser-spotted element on tasting menus – their absence typically reducing both bulk and ennui – but in this case, I couldn’t welcome their pastry-based inclusion more warmly.
A super-savoury main is always the best way to prime the palate for dessert – here, a narrow ingot of chocolate pave with an intense cocoa flavour and the texture of clotted cream. It’s decorated with dots of a salted caramel whose compelling bubblegum character I can’t pin down (and forget to enquire about), salted peanuts, and teeny tiny wildflowers.
Bear in mind, dear reader, that this perfect pud comes from the kitchen of a chef who detests chocolate and was knocked out of MasterChef: The Professionals because his chocolate-based dessert failed to set. I think it’s fair to say he’s made his peace with his former nemesis tonight.
We’d roll home happy right now but we’re not quite done. The final course takes the form of an almost-too-pretty-to-eat assembly of lemony rice pudding, apple sorbet, diced apple, cinnamon-y oats and edible, citrussy violas, all dressed with a sort of apple jus.
It’s a refreshing finale, and savvy menu planning on the chef’s part. The usual expectation is an inter-course palate cleanser before a dessert that sends you into the night feeling overindulged and overwhelmed; this flips the script and works a treat. Keen palates are common but the ability to make clever decisions about the ebb and flow of a meal is rarer – Andi possesses that skill in abundance.
As we take our leave, Andi beckons me into the kitchen. It’s a tiny, ship’s galley affair, and it makes what he’s achieving from within its confines all the more impressive. Just imagine what this man could do given another few square feet…
Make it happen
UPDATE: Andi Walker has now taken over The Riverside Inn’s full food offer, with a casual dining room downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs.
Where: Victoria Rd, Chelmsford CM2 6LJ
Find out more: To visit the website, click here