Muddy eats: Brebis, Newbury
Brebis sadly closed in July 2016. To find out about Chef Sam Mansfield and his brother James’ new venture check out: www.nomadicrestaurant.co.uk. They would love your support.
A couple of months ago, shortly after yours truly had launched this very blog that you’re kindly perusing now – I saw this tweet pop up in my Twitter feed…
…and it slightly broke my heart. A passionate plea from a plucky local restaurant? Muddy is on her way! No phone booth to spin around in, no red cape and gold boots to wear (I only get those out on Thursdays). So instead, I did what any normal lover of local indie restaurants does… er, I just picked up the phone and booked a table for dinner.
Brebis is a perfectly packaged French bistro sitting in a rather uninspiring street in the centre of Newbury (and location could well be its problem). It’s a family affair, run by brothers Sam and James Mansfield. Sam cooks (amazingly well) and his older brother James works front of house with effortless charm and easy going banter. Then there’s sous chef Harry (a family friend) and Maman Mansfield, who James tells me dips in and out doing a little of everything.
In fact, Maman is the very reason the boys set up Brebis in the first place. As children growing up, she took them to their grandparents’ in Provence for long Summer holidays and that’s where they developed their love of French food and cooking and the importance of provenance. And the food they cook here couldn’t get more local – James owns a sheep farm in Oxfordshire with a couple of hundred sheep (Brebis by the way is French for ewe). He also provides lots of the seasonal veggies used on the menu and they are big supporters of local producers.
Getting that relaxed Provence family feel is a heck of an ask (especially when you’re a million miles from Provence) but they have totally nailed it. This is way more ‘dinner in a friend’s front room’ than a formal dining experience, and all the better for it. I’ve never felt so part of the furniture in a restaurant before. I almost got up to muck in when I could see James was busy (I’ve done some pot-washing in my time I can tell you).
The day’s menu is scribbled up on chalk boards around the room and decor is simple – stripped wooden floors, whitewashed walls, white napkins and vintage cutlery, and not much else. Typically French, just let the food do the talking.
After much deliberating and head scratching in front of the chalkboard, we made our choices. I went for braised beets, whipped ricotta and cacao for my starter while my petit choux Mr P had what would probably be his last supper choice – duck liver and foie gras parfait and pickled shallot. Both £7.50. Both superb.
For our mains, I had roast guinea fowl, braised red cabbage and salsify (£18) and Mr P assures me he had ‘the lamb’ although I can’t quite remember (might have been something to do with the wine. I couldn’t possibly say). Anyway, my guinea fowl was beautifully cooked and there is no doubt, with the consistency of the dishes and sheer quality of cooking, that Sam is an incredibly gifted chef.
The boys clearly take their wine seriously and the wine list (again, chalkboard) is very good, with plenty available by the glass and prices starting at about £18. James recommended a robust red from their trusted supplier and it was rich and fruity and pretty darn yum (from what I can remember anyway, which I think we are beginning to deduce, is not much. HIC!). They often chalk up recommendations for each dish to help out philistines like me. Wine? Goooood! Too much wine? Baaaad! Is about the limit of my knowledge of the noble grape.
The desserts board was equally simple: artisan cheeses & wild apple jelly (£9.50); creme brûlée; chocolat surprise; creme caramel (all £6.50). I had the creme caramel which was nothing short of perfection and with the added bonus of the most delicious homemade rhubarb ice cream on top. It deserves an extreme close-up – check out the gloss and wobble on THAT.
I completely forgot to ask about the cheeses, but that is definitely a Barkham Blue to the right, and possibly a sliver of nutty Spenwood at the back, and maybe a Wigmore brie to the left? (which could have done with being left out so it could squidgy down a bit more – technical term). I’m not sure about the others – help me out here local cheese makers/food bloggers! Anyway, all delicious in equal measure.
There was a jolly party in the small private dining room to the back of the restaurant, and the boys are brilliant at supporting local charities with charity dinners, and hosting regular wine tasting evenings. The next wine dinner is on Weds 4 May by the way (ooh same day as the Muddy Awards kick off! Will Brebis get your vote?). The dinner costs £60 per head for a 5-course meal with wines to match the food. The Prix Fixé lunch is also amazing value – seasonal, fresh and locally sourced where possible. Two courses £19.50; three courses £23.50 and a half litre carafe of vin de table for £9. How is this restaurant not full to bursting at lunchtimes?!
So, big tick in the box for Brebis from Muddy. But as James pointed out with his cry for help a few weeks ago, it’s a simple case of ‘use it or lose it’ good people of Berkshire. And when the cooking is this good, why on earth would you not want to use it?
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: lovers of modern rustic French bistro cooking – this really is top notch. Perfect for a romantic dinner date, small tables of friends and family, or rowdier groups can use the private dining room (max about 10-12 people). Better suited to families at lunch times and on Saturdays I’d say. It’s a small intimate space in the middle of town on a busy-ish road, so if you have younger kids ready to let off steam in a large outside garden, this isn’t for you.
Not for: Sunday lunchers – unfortunately the restaurant doesn’t open on Sundays. Can’t think of anyone else who wouldn’t want to be carried away to Provence for a few blissful hours. Santé!
£££: Starters £7.50; Mains £17 – £22; Desserts £6.50. Wines from £18 a bottle.
Brebis, 16 Bartholomew Street, Newbury RG14 5LL. Tel: 01635 40527. www.brebis.co.uk. Open Wednesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.