Harriet Mansell had some ideas about what she wanted to call her first restaurant, but one thing for sure was that she didn’t want it to be named after herself.
“I sometimes tell people I didn’t want my ex-boyfriend to know I was back in the area,” says the West Country-born chef with a chuckle. “In reality, though, it just would have been too conventional to put my own name on the door.”
The name Robin Wylde came about organically, designed by Mansell as a pseudonym that ‘evokes connotations of luscious country landscapes and old English charm’. There’s certainly more than a touch of Poldark about it.
“I wanted [the name] to be striking and unusual, but also representative of what the restaurant is all about” she explains. “The use of foraged ingredients is a major part of our concept, and the ‘Wylde’ spelt in the old-English style is a reflection of that.”
Located a short walk from the seafront on Lyme Regis’ cobbled high street, Robin Wylde’s opening marks the culmination of a journey some 18 months long. Mansell, whose CV includes time spent cooking at Noma in Copenhagen, originally conceived Robin Wylde as a pop up, which took up residency in Lyme’s rotating culinary events space the Pop-Up Kitchen for four nights every week between April and September last year. It was a sell-out success, and before her tenure there had even finished, Mansell’s mind was already fixed on turning it into a permanent venture.
“Lyme has a thriving food scene, which I think comes as a surprise to a lot of people,” she says, reflecting on the concept’s early success. “We have Mark Hix [The Oyster & Fish House] and River Cottage nearby, which has helped turn it into a real foodie spot; people visit here with the intention of coming to dine out, and the pop-up gave me the perfect platform to build my own following.”
An experimental, ever-changing menu
Mansell's culinary style takes inspiration from the natural world. Experimentation with raw ingredients – including pickling, preserving and fermentation – all play a prominent role in her cooking, with all the dishes on Robin Wylde’s ever-changing tasting menu built around the availability of local resources.
“I guess you would call it a very typical chef’s concept,” she says. “We’re working as locally and seasonally as possible with the ingredients we’re using, with all fresh produce sourced from farms and suppliers close by. Originally, I planned to only rotate the menu every six weeks, but as the availability of produce changes every day so too do the dishes.”
There are some semi-permanent staples that Mansell has been developing since she first launched the pop up. They include a crab bisque with sage oil and ash; Portland princess oysters served warm with a house butter made with vermouth and herbs; and ‘Cobbett’ cheese that’s been wrapped in fig leaves and barbecued, and served with honey-fermented plums and apple marigold.
Mansell describes the food as being carefully presented and delicately flavoured, but she’s loath to label it fine dining. The space itself, a former pottery workshop that holds 32 covers, is smart and inviting, with bucolic design features and emerald-green seating. Prices are accessible, with the eight to 10-course tasting menu costing £55 per head with an optional wine pairing available for a further £40.
Like the food, Mansell intends for the drinks offering to be constantly evolving, with a focus on low-intervention wines from Europe and sparkling West Country wines sourced from the Furleigh Estate.
“When it comes to the wine, I want people to know they can come back and try something they haven’t had before,” she says. “People tell me I have really serious wine purchasing problem. We have a huge selection of wines available to us, but we're choosing to only showcase a small number of bottles at any one time.”
The goal, she adds, is to eventually secure a smaller second site nearby to Robin Wylde and open a wine bar that serves a small selection of seasonal small plates alongside a lengthier drinks list.
Opening her first restaurant amid the pandemic has been a significant challenge for Mansell. Mere days after our original interview in late October, England was plunged into a second, month-long national lockdown, which forced Robin Wylde to shut its doors after just seven days of trading.
Worse still, being a new business has meant Mansell was unable to access the Job Retention Scheme in order to furlough her staff through the second lockdown, and with the area currently facing Tier 2 restrictions that prohibit the mixing of households in indoor settings, many post-lockdown bookings have been cancelled.
Speaking to us again in early December, Mansell says she fears what damage a third period of lockdown in the new year could bring. Despite this, though, she remains optimistic about the future.
“Closing down society does not appear to be the solution to this crisis,” she says.
“Having received hardly any support from the Government whilst being forced to close, that we now have to play along with inconsistent and nonsensical guidelines really irks me. And we have had many cancellations as a result of the new rules on households mixing.
“Having said that, though, we’re confident we can build our bookings back up again through local word of mouth.
“We’re pressing on and are excited to be opening doors again so that we can do what we love – cook great food for people and give them a fab night out."
Silver St, Lyme Regis, DT7 3HR