Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Four Legs at the Compton Arms, Islington

The movie critic Mark Kermode says a feature of any good-but-imperfect movie is that once the story and characters start to grip you, the flaws, such as they are, fade into irrelevance. Much the same can be applied to restaurants. You can be annoyed by an arcane booking process, disappointed in your allocated table, put off by the prices, but if the food is good, and the service compliments it, you'll be planning a return trip before you've finished your starters.

But that's only if the food is good. If it isn't, all of those flaws, instead of fading away, become all you can see about a place. It's not like Four Legs at the Compton Arms is a terrible restaurant - objectively it isn't, and some dishes were very nice - but in the end, they didn't do enough to distract from the reality of eating in a dark, noisy, hugely oversubscribed pub in Islington, and I can't really say I enjoyed much about the evening.

Things started promisingly enough. Rock oysters came with a "hot sauce" which was more a kind of chilli oil but which worked very well - I'm a big fan of oyster and chilli, and as long as you have nice fresh oysters there's not much you can do to mess it up.

Also decent was a bowl of cockles and clams, which didn't really need the cubes of bone marrow dotted about but still impressed with a nice lemon/butter sauce that mopped up extremely well with the house bread.

But that was where the good times ended. The biggest disappointment of the evening was the cheeseburger, which supposedly used Dexter beef but still tasted of nothing but warm grease, perhaps because they'd overcooked the two thin patties to grey. They'd used two types of cheese - traditional American processed and some kind of cheddar I think - but they didn't really work with each other and the cheddar-a-like was already solid and chalky by the time it had arrived on the table. The bun was fairly devoid of personality but did at least hold together, which is something, but there were no chips available, and I think if you're selling a burger you need to offer chips. so we attemped to fill the spot with a portion of "fried new potatoes", which were "fried" insofar as they were quite greasy but had no texture or crunch to speak of, and the aioli dumped on top burned with way too much garlic. The burger actually only cost £11 but just served to prove that if the product is subpar, no price point becomes a bargain.

Pollock is a cheap fish, and will never have the taste or texture of cod or haddock, but still deserved a better treatment than this, a bizarre presentation that involved a vaguely currified spinach and pea slop and a clumsy seasoned flatbread. There was actually something faintly enjoyable about the spinach slop, despite it being swimming in oil, but the fish was mealy and dry, and the flatbread - sorry, "fried pizza dough" - was a chore.

All of which would have been distressing enough had it not been served in a tiny, noisy, dark room (hence the terrible photos) on table way too close to the bar, meaning I was eating much of my dinner with my face level with some Islingtonite's arse. To be fair, the other dining space at the back looked a little more bearable, so maybe we were just unlucky, but I do think some places should just find a way of being happy as a bar rather than trying to climb aboard the gastropub bandwagon. Or maybe I'm just getting old and have very little patience for eating overcooked burgers in the dark. More likely that, really.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Despite the odd Compton Arms-shaped blip I've eaten pretty well in the last few weeks, so I'm not about to extrapolate one disappointing evening into wider point about London dining. I didn't like Four Legs, and that's that, no harm done and no need to dwell. There's far more exciting places to write about. Watch this space.


Friday, 6 March 2020

Fenchurch, the City

There are many benefits to spending an extended period in Southern California, not least, for this pasty Londoner, seeing the sun for more than a few minutes a day, but it wreaks havoc on the old blogging schedule. Believe it or not, this visit to the Fenchurch Grill at the top of the Walkie Talkie happened all the way back in August, an invite to investigate the changes made under a new kitchen regime and (from a personal point of view) a chance to see how the plants in the Sky Garden had matured and bedded in over the last 4 years. I'm still slightly obsessed with the whole Sky Garden idea; I grew up on Sci-Fi concepts like Empire Strikes Back's Cloud City and Silent Running, and the idea of a lush temperate rainforest sailing half a mile up above the polluted streets of a city is quite thrilling.

And yes, I know the ol' Talkie has its detractors (blimey does it have its detractors) but this is one of those times when being a complete pleb when it comes to architecture and the visual arts generally has its benefits - however aesthetically bruising buildings like this are to others, I can quite easily enjoy an evening in them, because I like being 50 floors up having a nice dinner in a sky garden. So there.

A dinner, incidentally, which began with a little amuse of cauliflower mousse with hazelnuts and truffle which made a very tasteful and interesting start to proceedings. I always think it's a gamble for kitchens that decide to serve an amuse; get it wrong - too boring, too big, too clumsy - and you're better off just leaping straight into starters, but get it right and it's a nice little overture for the food to come, a dramatic opening fanfare (like the one at the beginning of the Star Wars movies, but tastier).

Starters were equally poised, precise and enjoyable. Quail had been portioned into breast, beautifully tender with a layer of crushed hazelnuts delicately spread on a golden brown, crisp skin, and the confit leg had a great texture, neither too chewy or too dry. Neither of these things are by any means a given when it comes to quail. There's something about the combination of poultry, toasted hazelnuts and cream/white wine sauce that takes me back to childhood - I think my mum used to make something similar, possibly an old Delia Smith recipe - so I found this starter particularly evocative.

Steak tartare rarely survives being buggered about with (technical term) too much, but by virtue of high quality meat, tenderly braised beets and a presentational eye for the colourful and geometrically precise, the other starter was received just as well. It's a good control variable, steak tartare - everyone knows what a good one tastes like in theory, but not very many kitchens can make that theory a successful reality. This more than passed muster.

I was looking forward to my main even more after I discovered how well they'd treated the quail, and yes, this chicken had a similarly lovely crisp, bronzed skin, an invitingly soft flesh and was complimented perfectly by grilled corn, girolles and some salty cubes of pancetta.

The other main was cod & fennel, a tried and tested combo, and was a nicely cooked bit of fish but I do wonder at the logic of putting soggy green leaves (spinach?) on top of what looks like would otherwise have been a nice crisp golden skin, and then putting croutons on top of that. Surely it would have been a better texture - certainly better visually - to leave the cod skin as-is, and put the spinach & breadcrumbs on the side? But there was more than enough to enjoy in the cod itself, and the sides were strong.

To be perfectly honest, I have completely forgotten what these desserts were, which either tells you how much wine I'd drunk by that point, or that they weren't particularly memorable. Anyway they look nice enough don't they? Look, if you want professionalism, buy a paper.

And if all the above doesn't convince you, and you needed any more reasons to visit Fenchurch, consider this. Most nights the queue for the Sky Garden stretches right out of the security area and halfway down Philpot Lane. But a booking at Fenchurch not only guarantees you a lovely Modern British meal with friendly service and cracking views, but the ability to smugly skip the queues for the lift and still leave you with the option of mooching around the Sky Garden before or after dinner. Personally, I'd recommend before, as later in the evening they have DJs playing loud music and it tends to get a bit more full-on, but some of you may not be quite so middle aged.

However you enjoy your visit, Fenchurch stands as yet another nail in the coffin of the old Tall Restaurant Syndrome, which states that the quality of food in a place is inversely proportional to the quality of the view. Not only is the Sky Garden well worth a visit in its own right, but if the dishes here - precise, intelligent, attractive - were served in a nuclear bunker 200 feet underground it would still be worth a wholehearted recommendation. And a wholehearted recommendation is what I'm going to give - after so many years in this lofty space, with presumably all the temptation in the world to serve bland international bistro fare only good enough to keep the tourists happy, Fenchurch continues to improve and now stands as one of the best restaurants in the City.


I was invited to Fenchurch and didn't see a bill, but the above with a glass or two of wine would have come to about £80-£90 per person based on the online menu prices.

EDIT: I am reliably informed (thank you PR) that the desserts were Roasted peach, olive oil biscuit and Wigmore ice cream, and 64% Manjari chocolate, caramelized hazelnut, and cereal milk ice cream.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Mowgli, Liverpool

There is very little to dislike about Mowgli, and so the fact I came away from an evening there with little more than a vague sense of disappointment has provoked a certain amount of soul-searching. Could it be that the room was just too busy and loud, the clientele just slightly over-represented by hen-, stag- and office-do's, the service just a dash the wrong side of brusque? Objectively the food was fresh and competent enough, and yet could it have just felt a bit by-the-numbers and flat because of the atmosphere in the room, or was it really missing a bit of heart? I hate situations like this, when I know I'm not happy but can't say exactly why. Makes a bit of a mockery of the business of writing a food blog.

So I'll do my best. As I said, nothing about Mowgli is awful but nothing exactly ran smoothly. We moved table twice in the first five minutes, once at our request because they'd put us right underneath a very powerful and very cold air conditioning unit, and a second time because they needed to rearrange nearby tables to accommodate a large party of walk-ins. It was handled politely enough, but as pretty much the only table that wasn't numbering 6 and above, we did feel a bit squeezed out.

Food arrives when they decide it should arrive, so the meal began with a tray of lamb chops and chips. They were actually very good - not overcooked, nicely charred from the grill, and a decent thickness. I could have done with a slightly more aggressive spice mix, but other than that there was little to complain about other than the fact lamb & chips would have been better as a main than a starter.

Chat 'bombs' were nice enough - quite thick casings which tends to suggest they were designed to be made quite far in advance, but in fact the ingredients were nice and fresh and they went down pretty well.

Then appeared the most un- butter chicken-like butter chicken I think I've ever come across. Either they'd brought us the wrong dish, or Mowgli's take on the classic really is a dark oniony sauce, with little to no sign of yogurt and with a very subdued tomato element indeed. The best butter chicken is light and smoothly tomatoey, kind of like a posh Heinz cream of tomato soup (I hope I haven't offended too many millions of people with that remark, but it really is) studded with huge chunks of tandoor-grilled chicken. This was a generic high-street curry, flat and unremarkable. Perhaps I'd have been kinder if they'd even attempted something approaching the real thing, but I guess we'll never know.

I don't know whether there's any precent for adding rhubarb to dahl, but whether this is a traditional Indian recipe or something dreamt up by the fusion fans at Mowgli, the rhubarb flavour was (probably mercifully) absent, leaving us with a fairly ordinary bowl of green dahl.

"Tea-steeped chickpeas" came as part of the veggie/vegan "Indian School Tiffin" menu and were solid enough, if a bit watery and thin...

...and the same criticism could be levelled at this potato and tomato affair ("Picnic potato curry"), which was eaten, but not enthusiastically. There's increasingly a financial motivation for restaurants to expand their vegan offering these days, and the task should be easier than most for Indian restaurants with the Hindu culture of vegan cuisine, so it's disappointing when the best a kitchen can come up with is, well, a bowl of boiled potato in a thin tomato sauce.

But I should repeat, nothing at Mowgli was awful. Nothing was undercooked, overcooked, underseasoned or clumsily presented. All the food, in the manner of so many proto-chains, was considered, contained and politely done, neither too experimental nor too basic. It clearly has its fans, judging by the raucous crowd on a Monday night in late December, people who are more than willing to pay slightly over the odds for what is only just decent Indian cooking, perhaps because Indian restaurants are not Liverpool's strong point and perhaps because nice colonial-era décor and smart service are more than what most people need for a nice night out. And good luck to them, why not.

Unfortunately (or should that be fortunately) for me, I have been to Dishoom and Roti Chai and Masala Zone, all living proof that an Indian Subcontinent proto-chain (in fact in the case of Dishoom, actual nationwide chain) is not only not doomed to be inoffensive and blandly crowd-pleasing but every bit as exciting, rewarding and dynamic as the very finest examples of the cuisine can be. I don't mind that Mowgli wants to be a chain - I mind that it really feels like they want to be a chain. And that's not a good look.

Anyway, if you're in Liverpool and you fancy some dahl and puri, I imagine you'll end up here, and you probably won't hate it either. The bill came to £58.40 for 3 with two glasses of wine, which is by no means unreasonable, and even after the relief of escaping that noisy room died down we didn't regret our evening. They are, after all, doing a lot of things right, and these uncertain times a Liverpool food success story, however much it fails to satisfy snobby food bloggers like myself, should be applauded. I just wish I was able to applaud it a bit louder.


Wednesday, 5 February 2020

You Decide 2020

Well, with a due sense of resignation and dread it's that time of year again when I open up my next review subject to public vote.

As ever, I'll start you off with a short list of places I actually want to go to, for you to completely ignore and instead add the usual list of ripoff chains, all-you-can-eat buffets and misguided vanity projects. Or will we have another shock result of somewhere not diabolically awful

Rules, as usual:

1. I can't have reviewed the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)

2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)

3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.

I'll close the voting in 48h, so midday on Friday. That should be long enough for a representative sample.

AND THE WINNER IS... So|La! Thanks to everyone who voted, you guys rock.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Ember Yard, Soho

I've often told people that with a restaurant obsession as unhealthy and fanatical as mine, the only other city in the world I could live in is New York. The depth and maturity of its restaurant scene, the variety of its cuisines, their service culture and a love of eating out that's embraced at all levels of society, it all adds up to one of the truly great food cities, somewhere I'm very sure I could find a happy home.

There is a downside to the place, though, and one that's almost a dealbreaker for a food blogger. New Yorkers like their restaurants dark. And while I'm sure that's great for a first date, or cultivating that traditional New York speakeasy vibe, it plays havoc with the illustrations on a review. The lighting scheme at Ember Yard takes me right back to New York City, places like Maison Premiere or the Breslin, where the gloomy candlelit dining rooms are only occasionally pierced by people turning their mobile phone torches on to read the menu. What I mean to say is, sorry about the pictures you're about to see. It was very dark in there.

Fortunately lighting aside, Ember Yard is a blast. The fusion Italian-Spanish thing done so well by their sister restaurant the Opera Tavern shines just as brightly here, with hand-carved Iberico ham offered alongside various premium Italian charcuterie, both Spanish and Italian cheeses, and a largish list of dishes that skip daintily but confidently around the Mediterranean. Padron peppers, blistered attractively, went incredibly well with a glass of La Gitana. Yes that is a photo of a bowl of padron peppers and a glass of sherry. I promise.

Next, boquerones, sharp and sweet like mini pickled herrings, also excellent quality and not overly pickled and mushy like they can sometimes be.

If I was so inclined, I could criticise the ham at Ember Yard for being carved a bit clumsily and thick, but in all honesty it was still soft and perfectly easy to eat, and with that nutty, earthy flavour of the finest Spanish pig. In fact, the thick slices just meant we ended up with more ham, and as any Iberico fan will tell you, More Ham is always a Good Thing. Even if I'd ended my evening at Ember Yard here, I would have come away with a smile on my face - the care that goes into the food is evident from the smallest snack to the largest sharing plate.

I didn't get to try this, the courgette flower stuffed with Monte Enebro (goat's) cheese, but given the rate it disappeared I'm sure it had plenty to recommend it.

I would have been very annoyed if I didn't get to try any of the octopus and chorizo skewer though, so I made sure to leap in there quick and grab my share. The octopus was beautifully tender with a good "crispy bit" quotient, and the chorizo was soft and fatty and spicy as the best examples always are. If you like chargrilled octopus, and you like chorizo, and you'd have to be pretty odd not to, then this is a must-order.

I'd noticed early on that the Ember Yard rib-eye comes with 'chicken jus' and from that moment knew I'd have to end up ordering it. It didn't disappoint - a huge amount of beef, carefully charred in the Josper, dressed in a thick, umami-rich chicken gravy that somehow didn't battle the natural flavour of the beef but enhanced it. I think I'd prefer it if they'd presented it charred-side up rather than laying all the slices down on their sides, but that's a minor niggle. Also, all this lot cost £28 - not a bad price at all for so much cow.

"Cheesecake" was in fact more of a caramelly mousse on a bed of biscuit crumbs, dressed in a sauce made from carrot and blackcurrant. The dulche de leche made a great base for the dairy, and the carrot & blackcurrant sauce wasn't as weird as it sounds, as the carrot flavour was fortunately quite subdued. A very enjoyable dessert, this one.

And finally churros, a straightforward and familiar dish perhaps but one you'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy. Fried pastry, chocolate sauce and chantilly cream. Perfect.

I was always going to like Ember Yard. The Salt Yard group are distinct and sophisticated restaurant operators that know good food and know how to cook it, and if you've ever had a bad meal at any of their places you must have been very unlucky indeed. Restaurants like these - tastefully realised, authentic enough, keenly priced - are the backbone of the London dining scene, the kind of friendly and flexible space you can pop in for a plate of ham and a sherry or settle in with a group of friends for a long session; on the evening we visited there were plenty of people doing both.

And it got me thinking, perhaps I couldn't live in New York after all. I don't think NYC really has any answer for these kind of places, or countless other uniquely London restaurants that take a cuisine and reinvent it for a local audience without losing the glow of authenticity. Or I don't know, maybe it does, I've not been for a few years and it all could have changed. All I do know is that New York doesn't have Ember Yard. And I'd certainly miss that.


I was invited to Ember Yard and didn't see a bill.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Lardo, Hackney

There are a lot of restaurants a bit like Lardo. Pizza, pasta, short wine list, a smattering of cocktails, coffee and a selection of ice creams and sorbets. The mid-range Italian bistro is recognisable to pretty much anyone who's ever eaten out in the UK, and forms the template from everything from nationwide chains like Pizza Express to current foodie darlings Padella or Bancone. It's one of our most tried-and-tested restaurant formulas, accessible and recognisable, fun for all the family.

But settling on a successful template is only half the battle. For every stonking Italian bistro success story there are, lurking on high streets all up and down the country, plenty more places that will make you wish you'd never trusted them with your dinner money. I have my own issues with Pizza Express - I'm aware that huge numbers of people rely on it as the only place you can take the kids and not end up wanting to kill yourself, but I've never left a branch anything other than disappointed - but don't get me started on dross like Zizzi, Ask, Strada, and Jamie's bloody Italian, where the only thing more depressing than the experience of eating in one is that they're absolutely bloody everywhere you look. Well, apart from Jamie's Italian, which went into administration last year, thank God.

Lardo, then, simultaneously feels very familiar, and yet by virtue of so many of its ilk being so very rubbish, also feels like a giant leap forward. With no table booked on a rainy Sunday afternoon we were shown to bar stools overlooking the frenetic activity in the open kitchen, the kind of seats I'd have asked for even if I had booked. From here, we were able to decide which of the dishes looked like they were worth ordering - which turned out to be pretty much all of them - and just how much care and skill goes into ostensibly quite simple bowls of pasta and salads. House bread was a gorgeous sticky sourdough, possibly from E5 Bakehouse nearby, to be dipped in fiercely grassy olive oil. A great start.

Fried salsify were greaseless and crisp, a gorgeous golden brown and served with a nice homemade mayonnaise. Salsify is an interesting vegetable - sort of a cross between a potato and a parsnip - and giving it a crunchy batter and deepfrying it makes perfect sense when you think about it. These didn't last long.

Smoked cod's roe was a beautiful thing indeed - smooth and salty and fresh, and incredibly satisfying to smoosh down onto the toast to eat. The cod's roe bar really has been raised in London in recent years, with everywhere from Quality Chop House to the Drapers Arms offering an impressive take. In fact it was about the only thing at Norma that I'd order again.

The endive in this pear & blue cheese salad had clearly been very close to direct heat at some point in its history - the taste and aroma of woodsmoke was heady and evocative. The pears had been gently pickled, and the cheese provided a nice sharp counterpoint, and in fact there was very little to fault at all. Even the £7 price point seemed more than reasonable considering.

Lardo should be very proud indeed of their pasta work. Maltagliati (literally "badly cut") were bold, thick shapes, firm and with a good bite but not chewy or hard. They came soaked in a rosemary and lemon butter, which was obviously brilliant, and studded with crushed chickpeas which added a nice earthiness to it all. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the best pasta dishes are vegetarian; give me a buttery spinach & ricotta ravioli, or an umami-rich cacio e pepe over any number of winey ragus and crab and chilli linguines any day of the week.

Having said that, in order to boost our meat eating credentials, as a second main we'd ordered the lamb shoulder with polenta. For £19 you get a vast chunk of meat, with a fantastic mix of dark crispy bits and gooey fat, on a bed of polenta soaked in lamb juices. I was really very good, vibrantly flavoured and lovingly cooked, the kind of marriage of technique and top ingredients that only few restaurants are capable of producing. We were completely stuffed by this point but because we were enjoying ourselves so much seriously considered a dessert. In the end though, because we'd spent a bit more than planned and because the Tranmere - Man U game was about to kick off and we wanted to save a spot indoors at the pub, paid the bill and headed off into the rain.

Only two minor negatives brought the score down a bit. Firstly, although I was happy with the position of the bar stools they were immobile - "no bar fights in here!" as my friend pointed out - and the foot rests positioned quite low down, so sitting on them eventually became rather uncomfortable. This is presumably not too much of an issue for the length of time it takes to have a cocktail and a bowl of pasta, but you wouldn't want to linger. Secondly, £44/head for two snacks, a salad and two mains is by no means unreasonable, but is perhaps at the top end of acceptable considering this is Hackney not Covent Garden. By way of a comparison, a similar meal at Bancone cost £33/head, and that is right in the middle of the West End where presumably rents are higher.

But these are, after all, merely niggles. Lardo is a very accomplished little operation, one of the few joints in town doing this kind of thing genuinely well, and has quite rightly found many fans amongst Hackneyites. It's the kind of local pizza/pasta place that everywhere wishes it has, suitably family-friendly as befitting the area but mature and classy as it needs to be for an evening audience, the kind of flexibility and charm that ensures continued success. So, well done them. Now can someone please do the same for Battersea?


Friday, 24 January 2020

Sussex, Soho

The sadly-departed Arbutus on Frith Street introduced many Londoners to the joys of mid-range fine-dining, and holds a special place in so many memories. Classy without being stuffy, precise and refined without being ludicrously expensive, it sat in that sweet spot of accessible and good value, the first-choice of many people who wanted a special evening out but didn't want to go full-blown tasting menu. Any restaurant closure is regrettable to some extent (meh, possibly not Jamie's Italian) but Arbutus left a mid-range bistro hole in Soho, a place not overly blessed with decent mid-range bistros.

Taking over this prime spot on the top of Frith Street (if you ignore the short-lived Flavour Bastard, and I very much suggest you do) is Sussex, and it's a pleasure to report they've very much taken the warmth and vibe - and price-points - of Arbutus and blessed Soho once again with the kind of place you can pop in for a bar snack and martini, or sit down to four courses and a bottle of English sparkling. Sussex doesn't reinvent the wheel (although admittedly some of its creations are rather left-field) but it is, by design, a friendly neighbourhood spot that will keep huge swathes of Soho society happy, and judging by the crowds on a cold Wednesday night it's already hit the ground running.

The bar menu at Sussex is the first thing to catch the eye. Marmite éclairs, oysters with bloody mary gel, torched langoustine tails with lardo - this was an ambitious list of snacks, and pretty keenly priced. But we weren't about to start eating perched at the bar when we had a nice comfy table waiting, so after checking if all the bar menu items were available on the main ALC (they were), we drained our daiquiris and headed next door to the main dining room.

These are the Marmite éclairs. Not the prettiest of things to look at perhaps, but the pastry was soft without being soggy, the mixture inside a lovely smooth mushroom parfait with only a touch (thankfully) of the advertised Marmite, and the little pickle on top was a good balance to the richness inside. These are a bit of a signature nibble of this restaurant group and have certainly improved since I tried them at Rabbit in Chelsea (also run by the same people) a few years back.

Langoustine tails, though not overcooked and still nice and plump and moist, had just a vague whiff of something slightly less than fresh - whether they'd been frozen, or whether it's just a side effect of the 'torching', I can't tell you. Even so, they were nice enough, and paired well with the chunks of lardon, and all said and done £12 isn't too bad for 3 langoustine tails in a nice restaurant in Soho.

Bar snacks out of the way, it was on with the starters proper. Monkfish cheeks were fantastic, with a golden crust like seared scallops and dressed in a light lemon velouté. They gave a surprising amount of resistance on the bite, which I'm going to assume was deliberate because I thought it just made them that much more interesting to eat - meaty and dense.

Beef tartare was fantastic, and for whatever reason there's not often you can say that in this town. I've had pretty dreadful versions at otherwise very well-regarded places, and paid through the nose for them too - this had a lovely loose hand-chopped texture, the cheddar crisp on top was actually a welcome contrast in texture and umami taste, and even the little blobs of beetroot jam, which could easily have been an affectation too far, played a welcome part. Right up there with the best tartare in town (see also: Zedel Brasserie, and, if you're feeling flush, Bob Bob Ricard).

As a little extra off-menu treat between courses, we were served a squirrel raviolo soaked in veal jus. Now I don't know how much the kitchens at Sussex knew about my personal obsessions before I sat down that evening, but whether through design or sheer chance they landed on every single one of my favourite things - game, pasta, veal jus - in one dish and by jolly it was glorious. The squirrels, apparently, are trapped on a farm somewhere down south, and are not only free range and organic (probably) but vermin, so you're doing the world a favour by eating them. Well, that's my excuse, anyway.

Mains, if I'm going to be completely honest, weren't quite up to the levels of what had arrived before. My venison was nicely cooked but the sauce was a bit thin, and I'm afraid the faggot - essentially the main reason I ordered it in the first place - was unforgivably dry and difficult to eat.

Cod was better - Sussex really know how to get a nice brown crust on their seafood, which is good - and the crab ravioli another winning way with pasta, but the whole thing was incredibly salty, spoiling it a bit. For someone who inhabits restaurants as often as I do to have an issue with salt levels, well, something must have really gone wrong somewhere. That said, pretty thing isn't it? So a slightly more careful hand with the seasoning and they'll have themselves a top fish dish.

I don't know why shoestring fries are such a rarity in this country - in the US it feels like they're becoming the default side for diner food - but I always order them when I see them and these were great, dressed in a clever vinegar powder like a posh bowl of Walker's crisps. I like how Sussex have really thought about how to make every element of the menu more interesting and attractive - I've mentioned how well the bar snack menu reads but the full a la carte is full of little twists and surprises as well. It's a place that almost certainly would reward repeat visits.

Completely stuffed by this point we just about managed to squeeze in a cheeseboard before admitting defeat. Tor goat's and a washed rind who's name escapes me were both immaculately kept and a perfect temperature, and came served both with lovely house made fennelseed crackers and also some sugared walnuts which were so insanely addictive I don't know how we managed to leave the place without raiding the kitchen for another fix. Sussex didn't need to serve house crackers or sugared walnuts with their cheeseboard, and indeed if what had come before had been less successful I could easily moan about them loading the 'board with unnecessary extras, but here it just felt right. Hey, I don't make the rules. No wait, I do make the rules, and so I'm allowed to be fickle if I want.

So although not perfect, and with various mistakes here and there enough to dock it a few points, Sussex is a restaurant with its heart in the right place and showing enough personality and ambition to set it apart from so many Bistros in town where mid-range is too often synonymous for middle-of-the-road. Time will tell whether it's a worthy successor to the legendary Arbutus, but in the first few months at least they've found a few fans. And quite right too - there's a lot to like here. An awful lot indeed.


I was invited to review Sussex and didn't see a bill