You may think, from its modest, Parisienne style shopfront, that San Fairie Ann is a little coffee shop/cafe. You may think it serves only cream teas and red wine. You may even think that you’ve been there before. Well, think again…

Hiding away, just seconds from the bustle of the town centre, San Fairie Ann sits peacefully on Southend’s historic Alexandra Street. It has experienced many changes, but none so dramatic as the last few months thanks to new Executive Chef, Raoul Speakman,  Food Designer/Pastry Chef, Harriet Austin and owner, Sonia Edwards.

Despite a Michelin history – he has worked at the Waldorf, Ramsay’s and the Hilton, Paris – Dover lad, Raoul is as down-to-earth as they come. ‘I’m not trying to be fancy,’ he tells us, ‘I just want to use locally and ethically-sourced ingredients to give people something different – something they’ll enjoy.’ With the creative guidance of Harriet, who specialises in artisan pastries and desserts, and Sonia, who, during an enlightening stay with Tibetan monks, discovered vegetarianism, fruitarianis, and all kinds of plant-based diets, the actual mission may be a little less modest – To create food that is nourishing and nurturing, filling you with vitality, health and radiance. To show that dietary requirements, such as gluten-free or lactose-free are not restrictions but open you up to the wonderful spectrum of super and healing foods.’ Wow, now we really don’t know what to expect as we are welcomed inside…

The Big Reveal

Stepping over San Fairie Ann’s threshold is like stepping into another dimension – no, it is not a little coffee shop/cafe. It’s big. Well, to be more precise – long. And it’s astounding. There is colour and creativity everywhere you look – pots, pans, bottles, painted canvases, statuettes. A tailor’s dummy, a life ring, a grand piano, a buffalo head!? Dresses, parasols and bunting dangle from the Sistine Chapel inspired ceiling as Sonia tells us that there is even more to see in the cocktail lounge and function rooms below!

As we are led deeper and deeper into this Aladdin’s cave we wonder whether it’s worth rubbing the film set lamp to see if a genie pops out. Which table will we sit at? No two items of furniture are the same, but all look equally inviting. We choose a table under the large skylight and look to the heavens. Alice, we have gone through the looking glass.

Drink Me

Continuing the eclectic blend of influences, we are offered the House rose – le Cazelou Pays d’Oc (£4.25 for a 175ml glass) – and Crouch Vale Brewery’s equally refined Essex Boys bitter (£4.25 per bottle). Water is attentively brought to the table too, served in a shapely, blue jug. However, the best is yet to come: the Rainbow Garden of Southend (£7.95) is an allotment of vegetables – carrot, fennel, asparagus, radish, onion, beetroot, courgette flower – all either raw, candied, or marinated in brandy, garnished with pansies and artistically presented for exhibition. At first glance, a carnivore’s nightmare. At first taste, a magical mystery tour of Mother Nature’s finest that could turn even the hardiest meat-eater veggie, each bite cracking with different and exciting flavours.

At the end, the pot doesn’t contain gold, but a veloute vine tomato Bloody Mary dip, infused with lavender. It is clear that a great deal of thought, effort and passion has gone into producing this nutritous dish.

Next, we are presented with a biscuit of crushed, roasted flax seed, chia seeds, cashew nuts, walnuts, pine nuts and herbs, stacked with red onion jam, candied beetroot and marinated goat’s cheese coated with toasted chia seed, surrounded by sweet and sour strawberries marinated in red wine and reduced syrup, and dressed with leaves, edible flowers and a balsamic raspberry vinaigrette. We ask Raoul what it’s called. ‘Er … Goat’s Cheese and Strawberries,’ he offers, unpretentiously.

Again, each mouthful has been lovingly crafted. The strawberries, soaked with flavour, burst in the mouth and are a treat unlike anything we have tasted before and, despite the wine, sugar and cheese content, it all feels so natural and healthy that the only guilt we feel is paying just £8.95 for such a complex creation.