On a bright, lunchtime drive to Haywards in Epping, I thought how, over recent years, Essex has transformed as a lifestyle concept. Essex folk doing “Essexy” things – winebars, brunch, nail appointments, wearing leather leggings – is the winning formula for multiple award-winning TV shows. Rarely, however, do we see Essex’s fancier fine-dining side, which is a shame as the county excels at fantastic, old-school, multi-course, finesse-in-heaps hospitality, with places such as Dunmow, Dedham, Chatham Green and Bell Common all being destination dining spots for earnest foodie types. Essex hospitality’s bigger problem, of course, is it’s just too darn close to Soho, where the fine-dining scene transmogrifies weekly, overshadowing the likes of chef Jahdre Hayward, his wife Amanda and his small, friendly team. This is a great shame, because since Haywards opened in 2013, people who love a good lunch have pointed me there, talking of a renovated coach house and skittle alley, close to a 17th century pub, serving ornate plates of venison with parsnip and quince or fig with Pedro Ximénez souffle.

During the grimmest days of the pandemic, I wondered if independents like Haywards could remain afloat, so it was pleasing to enter its dining room of a Friday noon and be reminded how many ladies who like a three-course lunch live in the environs of Epping Forest, because it was fizzing with the kind of gossip about errant grandchildren and neighbourhood disputes that makes me want to pull up a chair and say things like: “She didn’t?” and “Not with those ankles”.

Stylewise, Haywards felt, and I mean this in the nicest sense, like being on the set of MasterChef: the Professionals – a pale room with strategic pops of tasteful marine blue, a wooden floor, single flowers in rectangular mini-vases, unframed aerial friezes of the countryside on the walls and a grey menu where the modern-European fine dining is revealed with scant clues as to how it may look; eg: “monkfish, leek, mussels”. On telly, this gives Jay Rayner and me the opportunity to explain airily how we expect the dish to look, only to be heroically wrong when our lunch finally bowls in.

Roast lamb rump, crisp belly and aubergine puree.
‘Beguiling’: Haywards’ roast lamb rump, crisp belly and aubergine puree.

We opted for three courses from the small, yet meaningful à la carte, kicking off with a very good, fresh-from-the-oven sourdough loaf and a plentiful wodge of salted butter, plus a surprise of veloute of pumpkin and a crisp, aerated cod-skin cracker dotted with delicate taramasalata, perched on rocks. By this stage, I knew Haywards was a great choice. It may not be as throbbingly of-the-moment as the newest multi-million-pound London or Lake District venture, but it has assured, ambitious dishes, using stellar produce, served by warm-hearted ladies whose feet never seem to touch the floor.

A starter of glorious cured mackerel arrived, skin glossy, flanked by puddles of mackerel tartare in a clear dashi broth, made pretty with radish. A starter of quail was both roast breast and confit leg with crisp skin, a poached quail egg arranged dreamily around heavenly artichoke puree and deeply moreish pickled mushrooms.

Preparing the venison at Haywards restaurant, Epping, for Grace Dent 26 Feb 2022
‘Hero dish’: preparing the venison at Haywards.

Things only got brighter over mains with a beguiling plate of roast lamb rump, crisp belly and croquette of shank, with aubergine puree. Unusually for restaurants like this, Haywards offered a plentiful side dish filled with steamed carrots, baby potatoes and hispi cabbage, lest anyone grumble that they left hungry. Oh how I have quietly pined for a potato at some world-class restaurants. Not here.

The hero dish was a roast loin of venison, with a homemade venison sausage surrounded by satellites of quince puree and shooting stars of roast artichoke. A further mini-saucepan of venison ragu appeared to spoon over the buttered baby potatoes and add to the fun.

That fig souffle at Haywards, Epping, for Grace Dent 26 Feb 2022 fig souffle 008
That fig souffle at Haywards, Epping.

Having eshewed booze and drunk only quince and ginger fizz, I had the perfect right to order a souffle all to myself. Tired of souffle, tired of life, I say. There will never be a time anyone presents me with one of these wobbly, featherlight highlights of pudding architecture and I don’t react like the Queen if you show her a racehorse. “Souffle,” I will gasp, as I did when a cream-coloured fig-flavoured souffle with caramel quivered as it neared my table, bringing along its friend, fresh almond ice-cream. It was five spoons of ecstasy that will rule me out of ever wearing leather leggings – without having to be cut out of them two minutes later in a changing room – but it was absolutely worth it.

Haywards wasn’t the coolest, newest or the most experimental place I ate at during that week, but it lives on in my memory as fantastic, and that makes all the difference.

Haywards, 111 Bell Common, Epping, Essex CM16 4DZ, 01992 577350.

Open for dinner Thurs 6pm-11.30pm; lunch Fri and Sat noon-5pm, dinner 6pm-midnight; lunch Sun 12.30pm–6pm. A la carte from £40 a head plus drinks and service.

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