When it was finally time for my sister to graduate after six years of medical study, choosing someplace swanky, unique and deliciously decadent was most definitely on the cards for a celebratory dinner. A five minute walk from my parents’ home in Ardleigh Green, we settled on the Ardleigh and Dragon – an intriguing juxtaposition of a British pub and bar matched with an oriental fine dining Thai restaurant. Eyebrows cocked with curiosity, we headed to the pub.
Muted and rustic, ‘the Ardleigh’ as it is affectionately known by locals, has an understated yet regal exterior, painted a pared down sage green in fitting with the location, the signage done in black and majestic gold to stand out, the only nod to Eastern influences noticed by a swirling dragon logo on the front wall. Walking through the roomy car park out front, I liked how neat and presentable the pub was – it had a quaint sophistication that was irresistible and drew you in. Upon entering through a side door, a faint ‘ooh’ of surprise and pleasure will escape you. Straight ahead is a decently decked out, highly polished wooden bar. The front of house is clearly the pub / bar section, offering small circular tables surrounded by blue, orange and white barrel chairs to enclose you comfily and provide a posh perch for your beverage. Trying not to slip on the gleaming wooden floor, to the left and passing more seating was an exit to the spacious beer garden, whilst to the right there was more seating up to the bay window at the front. It felt incredibly roomy with plenty of standing space by the bar, considerately thinking of the weekend punters wanting their nightcaps.
Behind the clusters of social seating was a modern striped partition, which acted as a divide between the bar and restaurant sections. Whilst being shown to our table, we passed a dazzling silver wallpapered wall with large lotus flower motifs, a firm stamp of the South East Asian influence that is imprinted across the menu and décor. Turquoise and duck egg blue create a really calming and zen like atmosphere, although you can’t help but feel you are in a very exclusive restaurant – they have really hit the nail on the head on creating an intensely glamorous yet not overwhelming venue; a place that promptly puts you at ease, yet also makes you feel like a VIP – perfect for Jess’s special day. We were seated at a large round table in the bay window, the hard back chairs embedded with turquoise cushions, delicate pink orchids in a rectangular vase swimming in space in the centre of the table. Presented with black leather embossed menus, I couldn’t wait to see what treats were within.
As most meals start, we began with the wine menu, deciding to hit the white wine, focusing on sauvignon blanc. Whilst menu perusing, we sipped a South African effort that was refreshing and full of flavour, whilst when we got down to the business of food, we swapped over to a New Zealand Tokamaru Bay one. Since Jess’s adventures in New Zealand, any wine from the region has become an instant must have, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the intensely tropical tastes of this full bodied wine; it’s fruity tones perfect with the fragrant Thai food. Instead of the British bread basket, we were presented with the Thai equivalent – a woven basket full of slightly spiced prawn crackers, dip dishes holding pools of sweet chilli sauce to dunk the curled and crispy crackers. Incredibly moreish and tasty, needless to say, these didn’t last long.
When presented with such an array of dishes, sometimes it is easier to opt for a set menu, like we did. For £20.95 a head, we selected the Tuk Tuk menu, also adding a new bits and pieces on to personalise it for the group. To kick things off, we had sharing starter platters, with two pairs sharing one plate each and then the remaining three of us sharing a larger plate. My favourite item was the sticky glazed spare rib, with sesame seeds scattered on top. Not usually a fan of ribs, these had a gorgeous gooey flavour and simply fell of the bone since the meat was so tender. Also on the platter was a chicken satay each and a beef satay too, both with nice chunks of meat ideal for plonking in one of the two dip ramekins – one holding the translucent yet speckled sweet chilli sauce, the other containing the distinctive nutty satay sauce. Completing the starter selection was a duck spring roll, the meat within steaming hot and full of lovely deep duck flavours encased in the gorgeously crunchy shell. You only received one of each item to munch on so you felt more like you were grazing than eating a meal. We soon had our platter plates polished off, ready for the next round.
Steering off the set Tuk Tuk course, we inserted a duck pancake round because of our mutual love for the tasty game birds. Shredded and succulent, we were once again given shared plates with a mound of juicy duck pieces, surrounded by straight cut piles of spring onion one side and cucumber the other, for added zest and crunch with the soft meat. Dip dishes held brown hoi sin sauce to smother inside the filo thin pancakes, presented in a traditional woven basket style container. Lifting the lid, I dove straight in, peeling back a pancake before slapping it satisfactorily on to my clean plate. Nabbing a heaped teaspoon or two of the sauce, I swirled this on to my pancake before loading up with tender duck pieces down the centre of the pancake in a vertical line. Garnishing with the pale green spring onions, I then wrapped up my concoction before taking a hearty bite out of one end – simply delicious.
After clearing the pancakes with a ready gusto, we were back with the Tuk Tuk and the main courses. We were given stir fried pork, sitting on a bed of damp lettuce, infused with garlic, coriander and black pepper. To be honest I couldn’t really taste the additional flavours here, maybe it was just too subtle for my palette, but the pork was nice. We were also given stir fried beef, with broccoli, ginger and mushrooms, which had a bit more about it but was still a tad bland in my opinion and similar to the pork. However, the third and final main meat of the menu was a complete star for me, and stole the main course entirely – the Thai red curry. The chicken was swimming in a sunset coloured sauce creamy with coconut milk and zesty with lime leaf, peppers and huge pineapple chunks lacing the loveliness. I absolutely adored this and could not get enough of it. I drenched my side dishes in the medium consistency sauce, thoroughly enjoying the fresh yet warmly musky flavour. Brilliant. We made another addition to our main by plonking in some crispy red snapper and I actually liked this alot too despite not really being a fish eater. The coating was a light batter and the fish chunks were big and a lovely texture. A very pleasant surprise.
Our side dishes consisted of a vegetable dish of stir fried broccoli, green beans, carrots and mangetout, the quick cooking process meaning they were still crunchy, vibrant and colourful. They included some of my favourite vegetables as well so I happy to tuck into these. The steamed rice was wonderfully fluffy and fragrant, sticking together in tasty clumps especially after I added the addictive Thai red curry sauce! The noodles were also particularly good, being lovely and soft and not chewy in the slightest. Everything seemed to combine and work really well together on the plate which I enjoyed.
Of course a bang up meal wouldn’t be complete without dessert, and I couldn’t resist going for the traditional banana fritters. No word of a lie, these were the best fritters I have ever had. Firstly, they were huge – long logs of squidgy and oozy banana, encased in a fantastically fried homemade batter that was exceedingly crunchy and crispy and the perfect opposite to the steaming fruity innards. The batter had a hint of oiliness to it, but oddly it enhanced the flavour instead of took away from the dish and I adored the contrasting composition of the textures. Again mixing up the temperatures, my hot fritters were served with a scoop of ice cream, and I requested to swap the normal vanilla for the more tasty sounding butterscotch. Creamy, caramel drenched with the odd butterscotch bite, the ice cream was fantastic and the perfect accompaniment for the banana fritters. An absolutely opulent afters that was really filling even for me!
For a Monday night, the restaurant was full, which alone is testament to the brilliant quality of the food and the level of service you can expect at the Ardleigh and Dragon. The staff were pleasant and polite, not really engaging too much in conversation, but flitting here and there doing their jobs well. Luckily for me I didn’t go near the bill, as the menu does have the reputation of being eye watering but once you have sampled the food, you can see why. Unfortunately there are rumours that this wonderfully unique venue is being sold and is going to return to yet another pub grub vendor, so I strongly urge anyone who hasn’t been to go and sample the food while you can, as it is truly excellent.