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THERE couldn’t be two more contrasting businesses – the suave but hugely relaxed Oyster & Fish House, with glorious views over Lyme Bay, and the quaint Fox Inn at Corscombe, everything you might expect from a country pub right down to the open fires and thatched roof.
Both are now run by chef, restaurateur and food author Mark Hix, who despite the current restrictions on eating out and socialising, is rebuilding his empire. Could you think of a more challenging time to open a new business is these fragile times?
Opening a country pub in the middle of a pandemic may well be considered brave or foolhardy. But, as they say, “you can’t keep a good man down”.
In many ways Mark, despite his reputation as one of the most innovative chefs in the country, is a private man but he has opened up in many a recent interview on how heartbroken he was when his much-lauded Lyme Regis restaurant became the first high profile casualty of COVID-19.
His fight to save HIX Oyster & Fish House in is home county of Dorset and the battle to buy it back from the administrator, after its parent company decided to pull the plug (a decision not supported by Mark), has also been well documented.
But it was the first restaurant that he owned after a glittering career in some of the most famous and successful eateries in London. And he wasn’t going to let it go without exhausting every opportunity to rebuild the business.
Mark was left with no income and nothing to do – but not for long. Instead of wallowing in his own disappointment, he started to exploit his great love of fish and his relationship with the local fishing fraternity – and bought a mobile truck serving fresh seafood and shellfish from the car park at Felicity’s Farm Shop in Morcombelake.
Soon word got round that Mark was back in business, not in his whites behind the pass in some elegant restaurant, but in an inhospitable former Army hospital truck. His many admirers soon caught on and the queues started to form, especially for the Flodge smoked salmon with Hix’s very own to-die-for home cure.
It wasn’t long before the news got out that Mark was negotiating to return The Oyster & Fish House to local ownership and, after a flurry of activity, he was back in his beloved Lyme eatery that attracts customers from far and wide.
Despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 on the number of covers, The Oyster & Fish House, like many other restaurants in Lyme, enjoyed a better than expected summer and early autumn. Pandemic? What pandemic?
Mark’s experience and reputation was soon snapped up by another leading restaurant group in London, but he was seen more often than not back in West Dorset, where he grew up, and then out of the blue came some more surprising news – Mark is opening a pub!
Mark describes The Fox Inn in Corscombe as “a lovely contrast” to The Oyster & Fish House and admits that opening a new venture might not seem to be the best time. But he points out that he opened the HIX Oyster and Chop House in London during the credit crunch and it was an immediate success. Hopefully, a good omen.
There can be no denying it’s a country pub deep into West Dorset. On the opening night it was pouring with rain as we took the long and narrow climb in thick fog from Beaminster. The road then opens and there it is – the 17th century Grade II Fox in all its picture-card glory.
There’s a real rural feel inside, much bigger than you would imagine, with cosy sitting areas, a bar and a dining area called Bill’s Garden Room, named after Mark’s late grandfather, and a Fox Room featuring illustrations by his daughter Lydia.
There’s also a large area at the back of the building where Mark intends to launch his new ‘Kitchen Library’ experience when COVID regulations allow, with guest chefs hosting ticketed dinners in this exclusive space, very similar to the one he had at his Tramshed restaurant in London.
There is also an outdoor seating area with panoramic views of the Dorset fields and rolling hills, which will be hugely popular during the summer months.
There will be a number of minor alterations made next spring with the creation of facilities for overnight stays.
During lockdown the pub is only open three days a week but Mark is intending to extend this to six days as soon as the COVID restrictions allow.
The menu is very Mark – locally sourced food from the Dorset countryside – and very ‘countryfide’ in contrast to the fish-dominated dishes at the Lyme Regis restaurant.
Mark will be working with local farmers and gamekeepers offering local meat and game dishes and hearty pub classics, as well as traditional Sunday lunches.
Starters range in price from £7.75 to £13.25 and include Pennybun and chestnut soup, winter squash salad with pickled walnuts and pennywort, wood pigeon salad with elderberries, Heaven & Earth (black pudding and wild boar with potato and apple) and Flodge Hix cured salmon.
Game dishes feature prominently on the mains menu – roe deer hotpot with pickled red cabbage (£16.50) and Lyons Hill pheasant escalope ‘Holstein’ (£14.75). Also available: Bellair Haye bangers and mash with onion gravy (£13.50), Downhouse Farm mutton chop curry (£15.75), roast turbot with seashore vegetables (£28.75) and Hannan’s Himalayan salt aged sirloin (260g £25/500g £48).
Sides (£3.75) include chipped, parsley or mashed potatoes, buttered winter vegetables and lettuce heart salad.
Puddings are priced between £1.50 for a scoop of Mark’s famous Credit Crunch ice-cream, to £7.75 for Willies Peruvian gold chocolate mousse; bread and butter pudding (£7.50), apple pie with vanilla ice-cream (£7.25), and cranberry and hazelnut chocolate shards (£4.50). A selection of farmhouse cheeses served with crackers, chutney and Trish Maunder’s Somerset membrillo costs £12.
A bar menu is also available with such delights as Black Cow cauliflower cheese (£.75), toad in the hole with onion gravy (£8.50) and Flodge smoked herring with colcannon and poached Burford brown egg (£10.50).
The vegetarian and vegan menu offers such delights as steamed kale hearts with shaved Berkswell (£7.25) and autumn vegetable tart with a poached Burford brown egg (£12.50).
Children are welcome at The Fox and have their own menu options including minute steak and chips (£9.95) and a Foxy chip butty (£7).
As to be expected from one of Mark’s restaurants, there’s a full and varied wine list to suit all tastes and pockets and a selection of cocktails including one of Mark’s favourites – the Dorset Donkey (Black Cow vodka, Morello cherry brandy, lime juice, honey and ginger ale).
A warm welcome was extended to my family and I when we attended on opening night from Mark’s loyal marketing guru Jo Harris, the staff and Mark himself who was looking every bit the country gentleman in a tweed three-piece suit, in stark contrast to the shorts and T-shirt we often see him in when serving from his fish truck or pottering about in the harbour at Lyme.
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 10pm; Sunday, 11am to 10pm (last lunch booking at 3.30 pm).
On Sunday evenings just one dish is available. Bookings are essential on 01935 317555 or visit www.thefoxinncorscombe.co.uk