Chef Merlin Labron-Johnson left London behind to create magic in Bruton. David J. Constable falls under his spell
It was the long Easter weekend, with no April showers forecast. The south of England was unusually bathed in glorious sunshine as I stared through the train window, leaving Paddington for Somerset and travelling west into magnificent countryside. Everything was calm, with a certain non-capital stillness, a Constablesque landscape all the way to Westbury. Then a train swap for the remainder of the journey to Bruton.
You’d never know that only 16 miles away, 200,000 hippie revellers descend onto the Pilton plains and peat bogs for Glasto. Bruton is something other, though. The Saxon town, which takes its name from the River Brue, has undergone a more bouji boom. It’s not poppers and rock and welly boots in Bruton but upmarket galleries and weekending Londoners. The town’s standing was further enhanced in Autumn 2019 with the opening of Osip, Merlin Labron-Johnson’s small “farm-to-table” organic restaurant at No. 1 Bruton High Street.
I can still recall, during bedtime flights of dreamy jouissance, the wild-game pithivier
Merlin’s name might sound familiar. No, not that one. The chef was once the youngest (24) in the UK to be awarded a Michelin star, opening London’s Portland in 2015 to rave reviews – I can still recall, during bedtime flights of dreamy jouissance, the wild-game pithivier – followed by Clipstone a year later. He also took over the fourth-floor restaurant at The Conduit at the end of 2017 before parting ways to focus entirely on Osip and a move to Somerset with his partner Michelle.
I was here for lunch, entering through No. 1 Bruton, the town’s boutique twelve-bedroom hotel. Osip branches off to the left, a soft pastel dining room with artfully hung bunch-dried flowers of little floret heads and small sprigs of foliage; the sage, creams and oyster colourings retaining a gentle luminosity. There’s a menu du jour (£55), a six-course (£85) and a nine-course (£110) available, but there’s no menu or catalogue of ingredients, and deliberately so. Merlin decided last year to forgo such a structure and instead, what comes from the kitchen is dictated by the month, the season, the weather, availability from neighbourhood farms, and the two garden plots he cultivates, with help from a farm project manager, “Harry the Fish,” and on-site grower Rory.
The farms and allotments help the kitchen stay local, producing postcode produce minutes from the kitchen. Some early teasers during lunch, most eaten with fingers in one mouthful, include Icicle radishes from the nearby plot with whipped sesame, and a terrific fried artichoke with black garlic and togarashi. It’s all about the product, food from the forest floor, the back door, the woodlands up the hill, the dairy around the corner – Somerset on a plate.
You don’t have to travel far from the capital to experience such picking and pulling of allotment produce. We, the hungry, paying masses, can hear the ubiquitous cry of eager chefs promoting such seasonal fare. Indeed, it’s commonplace for chefs to talk about the stories and sourcing behind their ingredients, promoting a local, seasonal and organic narrative, but how many actually travel to the source of these stories or work the land themselves? Merlin has plots of land where sheep graze and rhubarb grow. He tramples the Somerset flats, picking pears, pulling beets, scrubbing the crud from radishes. And he visits nearby Westcombe Dairy, where chef-turned-cheesemonger Tom Calver tells me that he’s always seeking to implement local products into the menus. Westcombe Cheddar is used in Osip’s cheeseboard and their saucisson (from local Tamworth pigs) at his other Bruton venture, The Old Pharmacy, a few doors up from Osip at No. 3.
Lunch moves on, and a gorgeous amber-coloured “Osip” cider (4.5% alc) is poured, produced in collaboration with Martin Berkley of Pilton, followed by a roasted vegetable tea with burnt garlic oil. Then treacle and ale bread, served with smoked, whipped butter. The bread is dark and moist, springy with airy pockets, almost caramelised. It’s damn good. There’s a dish of stumpy leeks in an almond praline and Westcombe ricotta base, and a white onion royale with nutty morels, more wild garlic, and the delicate lifting aroma of vin jaune. A vibrant spring taco is like the perfect little annular garden patch, smeared with a piquant mole verde and piled with a garland of purple broccoli and wild cut flowers. If it were to enter the Chelsea Flower Show, I’d put money on it to win. Paired with a deliciously vibrant Grüner Veltliner 2019 from Austria, it was a standout dish.
Next, charred white asparagus with yeast and slithers of salty pork jowl, a teasing introduction to the first course of bona fide protein: roast chicken breast with hen of the woods mushroom and a bearnaise sauce. Accompanying was a glass of crisp Grecanico and a chicken sausage. I say sausage, and you might picture a porky Richmond banger; however, this was a stub-end, more recognisable as a boudin blanc, loaded with chicken meat, pork jowl blood, star anise and pepper, and it was all I needed. Dare I say, the best sausage I have ever eaten, wiped through a zingy cider mustard. The combination of flavours and textures and methods is brilliant. Everything is pretty and sophisticated, passed off with engaging solicitous. Serious thought has been put into the ceramics and tableware, too, with a series of faux broken plates and stylish designs by local Collette Woods (on Bruton High Street) and Ana Kerin (of Kana London), with wood-fired porcelain by Sue Paraskeva.
A pear tart with pickled walnut introduces desserts. It arrives towered with shavings of fine Millstone cheese, a local organic sheep’s milk similar to pecorino. The whole thing is ferociously buttery, the cheese softening with the flakey pastry, paving the way for that hit of tangy pear. Then a quenelle of pink rhubarb sorbet with a dash of Campari and pistachio oil, adding a needed tartness and glossing the inside of the bowl. There’s not much better than the sour-sweet smash of springtime rhubarb. I’m a slave to the perennial vegetable in all its many forms. A chocolate tart made with Pump Street’s Ecuadorean dark milk chocolate has a rich, crumbly pastry and silken ganache. The tart is paired with a sobacha tea; the herbal infusion of roasted buckwheat contributes a deep, nutty taste, like licking your knife after you’ve buttered your morning toast and added a spreading of Nutella. And to sign off, the best of the bunch: a caramel-coloured quenelle of treacle-like sourdough ice cream with a black sesame breadcrumb, and popcorn cake on the side topped with lashings of brown butter.
Osip is everything I thought it would be and everything it sets out to be. A small, happy, family restaurant with smiling customers engrossed in each other. The service was knowledgeable and charming, and the cooking complemented the county and surroundings. Each plate had a surprising variety of clear, fresh tones, and there wasn’t a course or an ingredient that hadn’t earned its place on the menu. It was Somerset at Easter, and I loved it; perhaps enough even for a permanent move to Bruton? C
Osip, 1 High Street, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0AB