Opening of the Suffolk Hotel in Aldeburgh in 2022
George Pell’s enthusiasm for Suffolk is infectious. His face lights up as he speaks of the generosity of spirit of the people, the ease with which bonds and relationships were forged, and the vast beauty of the place he has come to call home.
Living in a cottage a stone’s throw from the River Alde, post-pandemic life is much different for the restaurateur and hotelier – a far cry from Brixton’s urban soundscape. And George loves it – which he says is hilarious as he had barely heard of the county before Covid reared its ugly head.
The owner of Aldeburgh’s soon-to-open boutique hotel, The Suffolk, and his restaurant, L’Escargot Sur Mer, arrived in the seaside town in spring 2020 with several members (“we were like a happy gang of bandits”) of his team L’Escargot in tow. They were looking to escape the culinary landscape of London, where restaurants without terraces struggled to survive.
Founded in 1927 by the French Gaudin family, L’Escargot, in the heart of Soho, is one of the grand dames of the London foodie scene – the city’s oldest French restaurant. Frequented by celebrities and royals, if the walls could talk, the Greek Street building would have a lot to say.
George, who was previously at the Arts Club in Mayfair and Home House in Marylebone, joined the business in 2014 when it was “on the verge of taking off”, taken over by private investors.
“It was definitely a passion project. Just like Suffolk,” he says. “I think with these properties, we’re just stewards of the fabulous buildings.”
With no idea at the start of 2020 what the future held for restaurants and the hospitality industry as a whole, George felt like getting away from it all. Maybe somewhere on the coast. Lyme Regis was touted as a possibility.
As fate would have it, two of L’Escargot’s investors owned 152 High Street, Aldeburgh, and thought George, with his visions of a pop-up restaurant, might be onto something.
On a whim, he loaded up a public transport van with booze, tables and chairs, with the ambition of operating a seaside version of L’Escargot for a month, taking four room attendants and four kitchen attendants.
“We met in Liverpool Street that first day. Six members of the team didn’t even know where Aldeburgh was! It was like a magical mystery tour,” laughs George. “We arrived with our backpacks and suitcases with no idea what was about to happen.”
Just being near the coast proved a respite from what was happening around the world, he adds.
“After being limited to what we could do due to Covid, there was a sense of lack of joy in London. It was something to look forward to. Something wild and a bit crazy.
“We wrote the menu on the train,” he adds.
One month turned into two months, then three. George, and many of those who had followed him into Suffolk, did not want to leave.
And then the whole building became available. George met with local investors and quickly gained enough support to do something really exciting in Aldeburgh – turning 152 into a permanent restaurant, lounge and six-bedroom hotel.
“It was in the process of gaining full ownership that the building’s whole brilliant history came to light,” he says. “It was the Commercial Inn, a former coaching inn dating from the 17th century. I became a little obsessed with the restoration project, I must say.
“I want to bring this place back to glory. The building, as it was, had been knocked down a bit and the rooms, especially upstairs, had lost their romantic glow.
George was heavily involved in the transformation of the property, with local firm ESH carrying out work based on designs by East Anglian architect Charles Curry-Hyde.
He shows me around the hotel, where the final stages of construction are taking place. Downstairs, on the main street side of the property, will be a mid-century style lounge, complete with a hand-built bar.
“I was sent photos of the original building plans,” George explains. “What we did, without realizing it, was to turn this part back into a lounge/wine bar. It gives us a slightly less formal place where we can serve snacks and small plates – things that celebrate regional cuisine. Pinney’s finest oysters…dingley dell charcuterie platters. We’ll make fun bits like cod cheek nuggets with curry tartare and oyster katsu sandos.
The cocktail menu has a hint of the sea, featuring drinks such as Sur Mertini (gin, oyster liqueur, Martini Bianco and lemon bitters), The Coral Spritz (rosé wine, rhubarb syrup, blackberry purée, sage and club soda), and The Suffolk Sailor (golden rum, gooseberry, peach, plums and lime juice).
Currently isolated from the main restaurant by a dividing wall, once the lounge is completed it will flow into the dining room.
Sets of charming higgledy-piggledy stairs lead to two floors of accommodation, all configured to be high-end double bathrooms – some with city views, others with pebble beach and sea views beyond.
Diners, drinkers and guests will have access to the first floor roof terrace, which will be open all year round (with blankets and heaters in the colder months).
Back downstairs, the restaurant (by local interior designer Kate Fulford) is, according to George, the “wacky aunt” of L’Escargot’s “crazy uncle” vibe.
Like the menus, which are clean, simple and understated, Kate drew inspiration from the eastern shores to give Sur-Mer a sense of place that doesn’t veer towards kitschy seaside clichés.
“For me, it’s a great place,” says George proudly. “It’s wrapped in windows, so it’s super light, and it’s not stuffy at all. We kind of, in design, let the space tell us what to do.
“It all comes down to this clean, sleek style. We wanted it to feel coastal, but without going too far or being too big.
Rather than being too idiosyncratic in an effort to ‘stand out’, Sur-Mer has been put together to make it rather quiet and calming, decorated in soft blues, with the warmth coming from the handcrafted wooden tables , and a nod to Maggie Hambling’s beach sculpture echoed in the scalloped banquettes.
George and Head Chef James Jay (formerly of The Grundisburgh Dog, The Anchor in Woodbridge and The Easton White Horse) went to great lengths to introduce the kitchen team to the superb produce that is (in some cases) literally at the door. They went to Fen Farm, to sea with Bill Pinney and to see Mark Hayward at Dingley Dell.
The fish comes from Wightmans in Lowestoft and Mike Warner of A Passion For Seafood. There are Pinney’s native shellfish. Gerard, across the road at Salter & King, dry ages some “amazing” Suffolk beef…the list goes on.
“But it’s about keeping it super simple,” George reiterates.
“We want to celebrate the main protein on the plate,” adds James. “It’s about making it the star.”
“Good food doesn’t have to be extravagant,” says George. “Let’s take our beef rating for two. It’s cooked to perfection in the charcoal oven, served with our own fries and a little béarnaise. Celestial. What more could you want? And people travel for our garlic butter lobster. Again, so simple, yet well done. We do all the work for you – cracking the shell and breaking it down, resulting in that level of refinement that makes it more enjoyable to eat.
James selects some of his favorite dishes from a refreshing and concise list.
“The bisque entrée is a classic. For me, it’s the sea in a bowl. It’s so delicious, with a kick of alcohol.
“Our hand-dipped scallops are superb. Just like the grilled monkfish tail. We put that with a very good sea fennel butter.
“And I would say our dressed crab is the best there is. He’s breaking the rules and he’s not dressed as one would expect. We take white crabmeat from the Devon Crab Company, which is quite simply some of the best you can get, and layer it, with a dark meat dumpling and mashed avocado on top.
“It has all the elements of a dressed crab,” George adds, “but we think it’s a better way to eat it.”
The pudding is simple, offering lemon tart, creme brulee, a version of Eton’s mess made with local strawberries and Fen Farm mascarpone, or a Pump Street chocolate delight.
Or top it all off with a game token topped with whipped Baron Bigod and chutney.
“It’s all made here,” George points out, adding that this does not include the bread (currently supplied by Harvey & Co in Rendlesham), but their own breads will soon be appearing.
Wine is close to the restaurateur’s heart, and he’s looking forward to introducing more unusual and unique bottles to Sur-Mer in conjunction with longtime supplier Hallgarten and WPJ – who are able to get their hands on “truly cool that you just won’t find in the supermarket or on the high street”.
“We have, absolutely, the French staples that work brilliantly with seafood – I love a white Burgundy,” says George. “But we do off-piste too.”
He pulls out some current favorites. Eggo is a Malbec made from specially created concrete eggs and aged in the famous wine region of Mendoza, using a modern process inspired by the ancient amphora. And he calls Western Australia’s Franklin River Syrah “incredible”.
Fizz is largely from Laurent Perrier, with George soon to add English sparkling wine to the list – and it’s sure to blow some corks once the hotel and restaurant are finally open in unison.
“The people here have been lovely. So welcoming. So generous with their time, reaching out to me and my staff, inviting them to parties. Living here has been awesome. We can’t wait to fully open the doors now !
Sur-Mer is currently open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday and lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Visit the-suffolk.co.uk for reservations and to find out more.