I’m a big fan of Matt Gillan, the Sussex chef who achieved a Michelin star at The Pass restaurant in Horsham and who also won the BBC Great British Menu in 2015.
Easy on the eye, gentle, diligent and charming. What’s not to like? Pike and Pine is his first solo venture, a restaurant which in the evening is Pike and Pine and in the day is Red Roaster café and coffee roaster - a much loved Brighton institution on the edge of Kemptown. Its location represents a controversial ‘gentrification’ of this part of the city, and one which has not been altogether welcome as early Trip Advisor reviews would indicate. I am unapologetic in my appreciation of gentrification. I like nice things and nice places. Don’t get me wrong, I love the diversity of Brighton, the gritty alongside the elegant. But I don’t see anything wrong with making something that was a bit tatty, a bit more glamorous. And after all, there’s still plenty of tatty and gritty to go round.
I really do like the new incarnation. It’s beautiful. A glamorous, chic and modern space; light, airy and expensive looking. White marble, gold, and green foliage are the order of the day. You can sit at the counter and watch the chefs (great for fans of Matt), or at one of the tables lining the wall. There’s casual seating at the front near the door and some tables outside on the pavement in the summer.
On this particular evening, my dining companion, Maarten, and I were seated at one of the tables along the wall. The tables are pretty close together and you can hear neighbouring table’s conversation - I don’t mind this because I’m nosy and sociable (usually). The odd thing was that the ‘sofa’ lining the entire length of the wall, which although extremely comfortable and stylish, is strangely low. Lower than the accompanying chairs opposite and a little too low for the table, so I felt a bit like a child reaching up to dine. A minor quibble in the context of an otherwise beautiful and comfortable space. And let’s face it, I am a short arse.
The service was polite and efficient. Our waitress was very friendly and cheerful. The menu is divided into snacks/nibbles, small plates (or starters), main courses and dessert. Me being me, I wanted to try lots of different things. I started with duck (£3.50), a Bao bun filled with flavoursome shredded duck. It was delicious, a modern Asian version of ‘dirty food’ and ideal to soak up booze. Talking of which I was impressed to see Shramsburg Californian sparkling wine (£10) amongst the usual suspects (such as Ridgeview Bloomsbury £7.90) and also two premium champagnes by the glass; Perrier Jouet and Ruinart, the latter of which is one of my favourites. Clearly I’m their target market. Weirdly I didn’t fancy any fizz (Maarten asked if I was ill) and instead opted for a Riesling.
To start we ordered crab - claw meat, fregola, puffed paprika crisps, shellfish emulsion, lime (£8.50), and an artichoke dish - baby artichokes, Jerusalem artichoke puree and pickled shallots (£7.50). The crab dish was a tiny but intensely flavoured dish, the fregola bound with a bisque-like sauce. The paprika crisps were paprika flavoured puffed rice which I didn’t feel added anything and I would have rather had more crab meat instead, which I struggled to find in the dish, but overall the flavours were great. I was looking forward to the artichoke as this is one of my favourite autumn/winter vegetables (I long for the deep fried Jerusalem artichoke ‘chips’ that Plateau used to do). Here the plate was strewn with tiny artichoke crisps and the shallots were scattered over the plate. In the centre were artichoke hearts on a bed of puree. The puree, a smear, I would have preferred more of it. As such, the tart pickled flavour of the artichoke heart overpowered, when I would have preferred the autumnal earthy flavour of the puree to have dominated more. The dish felt a bit unbalanced in this sense, but enjoyable nevertheless.
My main course, halibut in a parmesan crust with carrot puree and caramelised carrots (£18) was a perfect dish in every sense. Balanced in both flavour and texture, the fish perfectly cooked, soft and yielding encased within a crisp and savoury crust of parmesan, the sweetness of the carrots working perfectly.
Never one to decline dessert, I ordered a chocolate mousse with blackberry sorbet, pistachio and marzipan. The marzipan was actually the best thing on the plate, cubes of it caramelised and contrasting with the sharpness of the sorbet. If anything, the chocolate mousse seemed unnecessary! Much more interesting was Maarten’s lemon cheesecake parfait, which arrived as a sphere of parfait with meringue tubes, green tea cake and marshmallow. This was an impressive dish.
There were a few service hiccups during the meal. Chefs approached the table with the wrong dishes and a long wait time and possible mix up with our starters, but I have real empathy with this as I know only too well the challenges of getting it right. A seemingly small issue can totally throw off service and I won’t criticise a restaurant when this happens. We are all trying our best in what is one of the most challenging industries. And while there may have been a few hiccups on the night, knowing Matt and his high standards, I am betting he’ll have these sorted in no time.
Matt wasn’t in on the night I dined, but when I have visited previously he always takes the time to sit and chat with customers, a welcome element in creating a good customer experience.
All in all my view is that Pike and Pine is a welcome addition to the Sussex food scene, adding glamour and finesse. Matt is an undoubted Sussex talent and he deserves to succeed with Pike and Pine.