This year’s most exciting new restaurant?

Some chefs cook dishes to feed their vanity rather than customers.

Liam Dillon, the young chef-patron at The Boat Inn near Lichfield, isn’t among them.
His menu is full of items that people want to eat – old favourites such as whitebait, steaks, Sunday roasts and fish and chips, but also more contemporary dishes.

This starter of crab with charred leeks, tomatoes and a herb oil illustrates well the restaurant’s style.
All dishes are produced by a craftsman whose skills have been honed by experience at places such as Marcus Wareing’s kitchen at The Berkley in London, Eleven Maddison Park in New York and the legendary Noma in Copenhagen.
Front-of-house is far from shabby, too, with relaxed but informed and efficient service overseen by general manager Corin Ireland, formally of Simpsons and Sat Bains.
Let’s go out on a limb and suggest that The Boat isn’t far off Michelin star standard even though UCB graduate Liam’s only recently taken it over.
It’s brilliant value, too, and arguably the region’s most exciting new restaurants this year.

The place

It’s a rustic pub alongside a canal that’s currently been renovated.
Shelves are lined with pickles and other jars of produce made by Liam and his brigade.

There’s a smart but comfortable bar area and a restaurant that’s light and airy with stripped wooden tables.
Outside is a spacious beer garden.

The food

The kitchen successful marries classical techniques with some modern trickery to create dishes that are coherent and satisfying.
Home-made spelt bread was wonderful and came with a whipped butter cut through with reduced chicken stock and sprinkled with crisp chicken skin.

Beignets of bits of a pig’s head were superbly rich and complemented by a burnt apple puree.
An incredibly pretty arrangement of various beetroots variously prepared came with peppery nasturtium leaves, fragrant basil cress and a delicate goats cheese.
A few soft, sweet raspberries added delightfully fresh notes.

This was a subtle dish full of colour and contrasting favours and textures.
Opposite, Dorset crab came with charred leeks, heritage tomatoes and a zingy herb oil.
The wild duck that I ate next was precisely cooked – pink, moist and packing a gamey punch.
Figs added a fruity note. Strands of celeriac in a dressing zingy with grain mustard brought sharpness.
Sweetly-spiced bread sauce came as both a puree and in the form of deep-fried sphere.
Kale provided verdancy.

Game chips were beautifully crafted.
A locally-shot partridge was served with the same accompaniments and was equally well received.
A side order of heritage carrots – slow-cooked in, I think, lots and lots of butter – was enlivened by caraway.
A dessert of custard tart was an absolute triumph – the pastry thin, the filling perfectly wobbly and fragrant with vanilla.

An apple sorbet, slices of zingy fresh apple and crumbs of spiced bread were clever matches.
But even cleverer was a dusting of dehydrated milk that provided a tantalising lactic acidity.
This was a dessert that ranks among the best I’ve eaten this year.

The service

The young team brims with enthusiasm and are well briefed on the details of the food they’re serving.
They’re friendly in a genuine sort of way – not the faux ‘hey guys, how you doing?’ way that so irritates me at chain restaurants.
Corin is a reassuring and thoroughly professional presence in the background – discreetly watchful in the way a maitre d’ should be.

Let’s hope his background as a sommelier is put to good use because The Boat’s short wine list, though ticking plenty of boxes, isn’t yet exactly thrilling.
I’d have loved to have seen a northern red Rhone to accompany the wild duck pictured above.

Need to know

Starters kick in at £5.50 and rise to £10.50 for scallops.
Mains are priced between £12.95 and £25 for venison or sirloin.
Desserts are around the £6.50.
There are vegetarian options.
It’s child-friendly and dog-friendly.
There’s plenty of car parking.

The Boat Inn
Walsall Road, Lichfield WS14 0BU. 01543 361692.

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