Dry January? Pah! I lasted 14 days. Admittedly most of that was spent at my favourite spa in Thailand, strategically scheduled to follow a five day booze and food fuelled New Year in Amsterdam.
What a fantastic city! I found that the best food was not to be had at the two Michelin starred Bord’eau, but actually in a number of local bistros dotted around the city. I have finally concluded I am rather bored of ‘poncey’ food. I want a proper plate of food with thoughtful, honest, unpretentious flavours and textures all working in harmony. I don’t want fashion or whim on my plate.
Nevertheless I indulged in it all, retox preceded detox, and then (once I was back to Brighton) ran straight into retox. My detox was broken by Skyfall in Hove, who invited me to the launch of their new winter menu. Regular readers know of my previously mixed experiences at this Hove haunt. On the whole I have to say that the food I sampled on the night was pretty good, with some promising cooking from a young and enthusiastic kitchen team. It wasn’t without some technical errors such as a burnt celeriac crisp accompanying an otherwise lovely scallop dish, and an undercooked slice of pear and almond tart (which seemed to be just my serving, suggesting inconsistency). But there were also some real highlights. A perfectly cooked steak with an inspired roasted Jerusalem artichoke puree, the most carroty carrots I have ever tasted leaving my dining companion Andrew Kay and I wondering how on earth they’d achieved it, and finally one of the best cheesecakes (baked, New York style and a proper biscuit base) I’ve had in a long time, accompanied by excellent homemade ice cream.
I think this is a kitchen that is developing and getting into its stride. I still wouldn’t recommend the wine list unless you’re very easily pleased (an ex boyfriend recently stated ‘it all tastes the same after the first pint’ – he’d be fine here) and don’t get me started on the live music. I’ve already commented previously on the problems with this, suffice to say that all my dining companions that night felt the same. It’s a real shame, as I will only ever go there for lunch and not dinner because of it.
The following week I attended a dinner at Blanch House. This is a beautiful hotel with a fabulous bar. They don’t have a restaurant as such but they do cater for private dining events. I have eaten here twice now and have been very impressed with the food. Here I had one of the best sticky toffee puddings I’ve ever had. On that particular night, one of our fellow diners took a shine to one of the residents also on our table, and opted instead for a somewhat more ‘carnal’ dessert. We were all more interested in diving into her abandoned pudding than in the ensuing scandal. That’s how good it was.
This week back at Blanch house again, I enjoyed a beautiful silky Jerusalem artichoke soup followed by a sublime sea bass on crushed potatoes with a crayfish sauce, rich with white wine and cream, and then a light but rich chocolate tart with a caramel sauce. Even the petit fours, deeply chocolatey morsels of heaven, were homemade and perfect. It’s almost a shame that this talented chef isn’t cooking in a restaurant where we can enjoy his food all the time, but good for Blanch House.
That chef is Colin Gibbons, a classically trained chef who has been cooking since the age of 16. He has held two AA rosettes and was previously Head Chef at the lovely Alexander House in Turners Hill. He’s extremely passionate about food - where it is sourced, seasonality, flavours and presentation - and it shows. I keep vowing to return to Blanch House to use the bar in a social setting, but there’s also much to like from a business perspective. It’s a great venue for private dining, meetings, training courses and away days. Because they are quite a small venue, they are more easily able to offer exclusive use of the entire hotel. This would work really well for team building and training days (I wish I’d known about them in my previous corporate roles), not to mention special events such as birthdays etc. And under the watchful eye of the fabulous owners, the attention to detail and level of service is first class.
The very next night, I attended a Riedel (high-end wine glass producer) wine dinner at Hotel Du Vin. A fabulous four course dinner was served with matched wines, interspersed by a fun tutorial by the Riedel rep. Now as regular readers know, I recently completed my wine qualifications and learned to appreciate the importance of using the right glassware. However I hadn’t before directly compared and contrasted the difference in a tasting session – it was revelatory! The atmosphere on the night was somewhat raucous and jolly, making for a fun night. Do look out for similar future events.
My month ended with a trip to London with the girls and for this we chose Jason Atherton’s Social Wine and Tapas. They didn’t put a foot wrong. Standouts were ham croquettas (some of the best I have had in the UK), crispy duck egg with confit duck leg, grains and winter truffle, chargrilled carrots with burnt aubergine, miso and walnut pesto, a honey truffle burrata with Brogdale apples, pear and chestnut, and a rich and earthy octopus stew. All of this was washed down with their house Cava which was top notch (better than a poor quality champagne) and pretty good value at £39.00 a bottle.
So despite my best intentions January’s culinary experiences were, on the whole, pretty lavish. But if you can’t start the year with some fabulous dining, how do you set the bar for the rest of 2017?