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

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