A real neighbourhood restaurant in the heart of harpenden

Sebastian Harris of Jays in Southdown.

Sebastian Harris of Jays in Southdown. - Credit: Archant

Southdown ‘village’ on the edge of Harpenden is a rare find these days, with a useful collection of truly independent shops and cafés. Jay’s has been there for almost 10 years, and is a busy coffee shop in the day. The reason I am writing about Jays for this column is that they are now working with a great new chef, Sebastian Harris, who trained at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and has worked for Marco Pierre White and Tom Aikens. His last job was cooking for Harry and Wills at the royal palaces.

Sebastian has just started his new evening menu so we booked a table and went over last Friday. You do need to book as word has got round among the regulars, and the restaurant was full. Jays has a more grown-up feel in the evening, with pale grey tablecloths and candles. The short, seasonal menu reflects that everything is made by the small team in the tiny kitchen but there was plenty we wanted to order. I chose the roasted cauliflower soup, with Norfolk stilton and fresh honey. For £5.50 this was terrific value and well presented, with a generous bowl of soup and a little pile of cheese and a copper pan of honey that you spoon over your soup, which worked really well. Bloody Mary King prawns seemed to be popular as nearly everyone around me ordered those. My partner's blue cheese polenta with wild mushroom cream looked and tasted delicious.

I chose a falafel and avocado burger with hummus and fries (£11) from the 'butcher's block' menu which is probably a better name for the steaks you will also see on there. It was a very tasty burger, served with a gherkin all skewered with a knife. Steve's braised steak cottage pie was topped with tiny slices of crispy potato and was just like the best home-cooked cottage pie; generous and full of flavour. It came with a good pile of cabbage and roast beetroot, keeping it seasonal, although some green vegetables might have looked zingier. The roast chicken with black garlic and crispy chicken skin at the table near to us looked amazing again; I don't think I have seen such good portion sizes in a local restaurant for quite some time! If you prefer fish, they had a sea bass dish on the menu, and I think vegans/veggies will be very happy with the cauli dishes on offer. The short drinks menu has something for everyone and I had a decent glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo with my burger for just over a fiver. It is lovely to see local producers represented with Side Pocket ale on the short beer menu. We were given tap water happily.

We really didn't need puds but I had a look at the menu in the name of research. The waiter explained that Laila's homemade doughnuts, either chocolate or peanut, with raspberry sorbet and popping candy is named after Jay's daughter, as they are her favourite. Seb's Edible Allotment sounded amazing too, with edible soil, salted caramel and flowers. We chose a sticky toffee pudding with fresh honeycomb to share (£6.50) and it was so worth it - light with a delicious sauce. Jays do a few 'dessert drinks' too if you prefer, including an espresso martini and I noticed they do a decaf version which seems a good idea.

Small and cosy, Jays is a rare thing; a real neighbourhood restaurant, run by a local family and with a chef who oversees the menu and can cook what he wants to. I think the prices are fair and I liked the relaxed, friendly feel of the place, with Jay and Seb walking around chatting to customers, many of whom were regulars. If you are bored of the identikit chain restaurants, then give them a ring to book (01582 713389).