Nestled away, almost in the clutches of France, Jersey – the largest hub of the Channel Islands – has, for decades, been almost a byword for nostalgia. A land of verdant hedgerows, Morris Minors, cream teas and somnambulant afternoons finishing off crosswords in hotel lounges where grandfather clocks chime with solemnity and certainty. Despite being so close to
the French mainland and surrounded by waters rich in wet fish, the dining scene has, until recently, remained centred around retro relics from the questionable fashions of 1970s cuisine.
Now, quietly and with a typically Jersey-esque lack of fanfare and bombast, signs of change are evident. Even more surprising is the fact that locals, and not just curious visitors, are embracing recent openings, which are finally taking a serious interest in the rich offerings of local provenance and ingredients.
Take the Oyster Box. Situated on the shores of St. Brelade’s Bay, with vanilla sands yawning out in front of the block furniture and Conran-esque fittings, a typically well-heeled Jersey crowd flocks here at the first glimpse of sunshine to devour local oysters from Grouville Bay, crab cocktails, linguine made from Jersey ‘Chancre Crab’ and local lobster thermidor – to prove that even the most retro of dishes can be saved from irrelevance if the quality of the produce truly sings.
As one would expect from an island which, thanks to offshore finance, has the third highest GDP per capita in the world, prices here aren’t cheap. The difference these days is that, for perhaps the first time, diners with international experience of the best dining tables will feel they’re getting a culinary experience which is commensurate with the cost. No more so than at Shaun Rankin’s dining outpost Ormer in the island capital of St. Helier. Named after a rare shellfish found in local waters, this Michelin-starred retreat of turquoise banquettes and wood panelling, is the result of nearly two decades Rankin has spent working on the island honing the very best of local produce. Results include some positively symphonic pairings, such as scallops served with glazed chicken wings, creamed corn and basil, or bass with roast baby fennel, marinated grapes and peanut butter.
Unusually for a restaurant of such repute, Ormer is also open for breakfast. There are few more civilised experiences than spending a summer’s morning on the restaurant’s roof terrace, tucking into a plate of local free-range eggs, perfectly whipped into an omelette with ham and mushroom, as the sky, marbled with high clouds, comes ever clearer in the insistent sun.
Headed up by the multi-award-winning chef Steve Smith, Bohemia restaurant in St Helier further enhances Jersey’s Michelin-starred offerings. A selection of tasting menus feature an array of outstanding recipes, such as Jersey scallops paired with smoked eel and truffle, and Anjou pigeon with Cevennes onions and pastrami on toast. The emphasis is on inventive combinations of ingredients, locally sourced from Jersey and France, resulting in tantalisingly fresh and flavoursome dishes.
Having learnt his craft in the renowned kitchens of Albert Roux and Jean-Christophe Novelli, Mark Jordan now presides over Jersey’s most celebrated restaurant, Ocean at the Atlantic Hotel. Sublime as the dishes are amid the somewhat-hushed reverie of this environment, his latest opening Mark Jordan at the Beach provides some levity with a tablecloth-free, wooden-floored space overlooking the Beaumont coastline.
The food here shares the same dedication to local produce as Ocean, but flip-flops rather than furs feel like a more apt sartorial accompaniment to the food, which includes Scotch eggs made with pork from Manor Farms in the nearby town of St. Peter, devilled whitebait with mustard mayonnaise, and a wonderfully unctuous ‘Crab Bon Bon’ with guacamole and crab ketchup.
Yet perhaps the most relaxed denouement of this combination of informality and ingredients comes in the form of the Crab Shack at St. Brelade’s Bay. Tumbling in from a morning on the beach, this is a place where you really don’t need to worry about trailing in sand or sunblock on your feet.
Beloved by families, this humble joint pulls off the oh-so-rare feat of being child friendly but without making adult diners feel like they’ve just fallen into a ketchup-strewn crèche.
Here, local seafood is presented, not as a delicate privilege, but as a source of sustenance to be devoured. Moist chunks of crab meat spill out from the gargantuan crab taco and the local oysters are served without ceremony, to be slurped and swallowed by the dozen as the afternoon sun continues its lazy arc across the sky.
Late afternoon on my visit and the rain started to fall, collapsing like applause on the roof of the Crab Shack. Driving across the island, I saw a group of workers lugging sacks of the famed Jersey Royal potatoes across a narrow country lane. Further down the lane was an honesty stand outside a gate where fresh local strawberries were on sale; the passing motorist need only drop £2 into an unguarded jam jar for payment. Jersey may have ostensible wealth in terms of property and banking. But, increasingly, locals are realising that the soil and sea hold a plenitude of riches that are every bit as rewarding.