Monday 5 December 2022

The Union, Rye

Over the last, I don't know, ten or fifteen or so years - certainly since the expansion of the St John universe but also since places like Lyle's and the Sportsman and the Draper's Arms spread their wings - a kind of consensus has appeared on what constitutes a Modern British restaurant menu.

There will be a short list of tasteful snacks, usually involving anchovies or olives but also sometimes things like a house recipe Scotch Egg. There will be oysters - there should always be oysters - presented either with a zingy house dressing or just lemon and tabasco, shucked to order and presented on a metal tray filled with crushed ice. There will be a home made (or at the very least very locally-made) sourdough alongside a butter fused with something interesting like bone marrow or marmite. There will be a selection of strictly seasonal dishes of various shapes and sizes, comprising sustainable seafood, game (should the time of year allow) and one or two shareable large plates of steak or fish. There will also be dessert, usually one recognisable English classic (sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding) alongside whatever else the kitchen can dream up. There will be attentive, friendly service and you will pay 12.5% for it. You will go home happy.

The Union in Rye doesn't need to be anywhere near as good as it is. It's in Rye, for a start, a chocolate-box-pretty medieval town on a hill overlooking Romney Marsh and thronging with footfall both local and international all year round. They could be serving supermarket pizza and stubbies of Heineken and still be making a killing. Instead, I'm happy to report, they've settled on a Modern British menu of supreme taste and invention, served at prices that would be extremely reasonable anywhere up and down the country, never mind a low-beamed 15th century former inn in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

We started with cocktails (well of course we did), a pineapple pisco sour and something called Welcome to the Garden involving vermouth, vodka and fruit. Both were perfect. The wine list is heavily English, in fact not just English but heavily Sussex and Kent, listing bottles from the local producers Tillingham, Oxney and Gusbourne. We were pointed towards Ham Street Field Blend 21, a wine which uses a printout of the vineyard's soil sample as its label which was a nice touch. It was seriously drinkable and only 10% ABV which was probably just as well.

Oysters arrived first, great big Colchester rocks in fantastic condition, carefully shucked to retain plenty of nice saline liquor. There being half a dozen we each had one au naturelle, one with lemon and one with their house jalapeno relish, and both agreed the chilli hot, vinegar-spiked jalapeno relish was the best.

One of only one or two things that weren't perfect about the Union was the way they served their sourdough. It was toasted, which is a bit of a shame as if the original bread was in good enough condition I'd rather have it like that, and if it wasn't, then I don't want it at all. The onion butter was nice though.

Salsify crisps with seaweed powder were as moreish as they sound, dainty little ribbons of crunchy fried salsify rolled in a salty, vegetal seasoning. I seem to remember polishing off the leftover powder with my fingers.

House pickles were of a fine quality and variety. We particularly enjoyed the little florets of cauliflower dyed with beetroot, and the sticks of sweet celeriac.

Onto the larger plates, and a sliced fillet of venison draped in lardo (because I mean, why not) came with one of those lovely sticky, stocky sauces, this one spiked with myrtle berry. And no, I don't know what myrtle berries are either but they tasted fruity and sweet and pleasantly seasonal.

Then for the crowning glory of the savoury courses, a giant, gleaming "tranche" of halibut - think porterhouse steak, but from the sea - which was a good a bit of fish I can remember eating in a very long time indeed. With none of the mushiness or formlessness of some examples of this kind of thing (I've been served mushy halibut in some otherwise pretty fancy places), this example broke apart in clean, defined chunks - not flaked as such like cod, but perhaps closer to the dense, satisfying texture of perfectly cooked Dover Sole. And if that wasn't enough - and believe me this bit of fish would have been more than enough by itself - it was served with a completely giddying cod bisque, thick and sweet and rich, which I ended up drinking out of the little jug when I thought nobody was watching. Maybe I got away with it, maybe I didn't. To be honest, I don't care, it was worth it.

Dessert was never going to be anything other than tarte tatin, and very nice it was too. I admit to have been slightly spoiled on the TT front by the basically perfect version made at Galvin Bar and Grill at the Kimpton Fitzroy, but this was still incredibly enjoyable, and the whisky cream it came with added a lovely alcoholic kick.

In many ways, as I started off saying, the Union fits into the mold of many modern British restaurants that have - delightfully and rightfully - spread out across the country in the last few years. This means you sit down knowing more or less what you're going to order, how to order and - broadly - what it's going to cost. But of course that's just the start. To fulfil the potential of the template you have to know exactly what you're doing in the kitchen, and have a front of house capable of delivering it all smartly and efficiently. And the Union have all of that in spades. Add in the jaw-dropping setting of a medieval building in the centre of Rye and you end up with a completely unbeatable formula. Prepare to be smitten.


I was invited to the Union and didn't see a bill. However, totting up the above would have come to about £170 including service, about right for the amount of booze and food we had.

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