I don’t often go out to smart restaurants. By and large I prefer places that are simple and down to earth. However I’d had it in the back of my mind to try The Curlew near Bodiam for a while and when I searched out reviews and found this from a while back by Jay Rayner, I decided that there was no excuse not to. His write up is a hymn to simplicity and inspiration, viz; “With their still-warm bread they brought us a cube of salted butter and a disc of salted dripping flavoured with thyme which melted into a puddle of something that could only be mopped.
“Now I knew everything would be fine. The food here is evolved without being fetishised, each dish designed around a single ingredient that gets a role commensurate with its billing.”
I enjoy Rayner’s reviews. He knows what he likes and he knows what he doesn’t. When some affected, self-promoting pretender is foolish enough to demand his attention they are invariably summarily put down. If you’ve yet to have the pleasure please do read Rayner at his acerbic best.
The opportunity to try out The Curlew was a visit from a Finnish friend and colleague who has been that nice to work with that I reckoned she really did deserve the best meal this part of Sussex has to offer. After all she took me out for an excellent dinner last time I was in Helsinki. So off to the Curlew we did go, having made use of it’s incredibly efficient online booking system. When we got there sure enough they had our names and our request, on a warm evening, to sit outside.
The restaurant is just as Rayner describes; plain, whitewashed Sussex weather-boarded exterior, adult interior with panelling in Farrow and Ball shades. Serious but cosy in a C21st Georgian sort of way.
The service was what you’d expect of a place with a Michelin star; attentive without being obsequious. They even tolerated my taking pictures of the food (there were no other diners outside to offend with my appalling manners I hasten to add). Good waiting staff never forget that you’re the customer but never surrender their self respect or their right to be treated as professionals. You wouldn’t patronise your accountant (if you feel the need perhaps you have the wrong accountant). By the same token why would one treat good restaurant staff with any less respect?
The head of house was French (a brave foray into a part of Sussex that still hasn’t forgotten the sacking of Rye and Winchelsea in the 14th Century), our waitress local to me; she rows on Bewl Water and is hoping to compete in Rio in 2016. If she does, let alone if she wins, I’ll happily cook her dinner and wait upon her to repay the compliment.
Dinner started with small aperitifs; tiny cheese brioche, decent olives and jalapeno popcorn. The popcorn lacked the fiery poke that ‘jalapeno’ promised. Perhaps the clientele likes the thought of eating dangerously more than the reality. I suspect most of their patrons are of a conservative disposition.
The wine was pretty good but, at almost £10 for a glass, had no excuse for not being.
My friend ordered the potted crab with fennel cream, pickled mouli, ginger and crab biscuit. I had the tuna. I can’t remember how it appeared on the menu (I went for the three courses for £25 option, my companion for the a la carte) but it comprised chopped tuna, minced onions, capers and white beans with dabs of what I suspect was pea puree and something resembling lemon curd around the edge of the plate.
The crab was apparently good. My tuna was fine but a little ho hum if I’m honest. Tuna is delicate and its flavour was overwhelmed by the capers, it’s texture undermined by being chopped up. I’d have been tempted to do an English riff on sashimi and replaced the lemon curd with something hot and mustardy, ease back on the capers and let the tuna shine through. Never mind.
My main course was cod on Provençal vegetables, my friend’s wild sea bass on ‘leek and potato’, shrimp, caper with vermouth.
It was a very good piece of cod, beautifully cooked. The vegetables were perfectly nice. It was dull. I simply couldn’t help thinking that it lacked imagination. I’d expect that somewhere that commands a Michelin star would, at a minimum, transform a classic dish by simply doing it so well you couldn’t imagine it being done better. But I’d hope to encounter the work of a chef whose command of their craft and understanding of the ingredients they use would allow them to surprise you so your fish or meat or vegetables would be revealed to you anew. It shouldn’t be pretentious, but it could be imaginative, playful and insightful. This wasn’t.
As for desert I didn’t even finish mine. The petit fours were far better. They really were clever and playful. If I’d known they were coming I’d not have bothered with the third course.
Apparently the chef is relatively new and the Michelin star has been inherited from his predecessor. I think he’ll have to work at retaining that star; not an impossible task but nor is it something he can take for granted. Moreover it seems they’ll need to do something about their hygiene if the local inspectors were right. Scoring lower than most local pubs and take aways should embarrass the hell out of a restaurant with The Curlew’s reputtion. However I should add that the inspection was more than a year ago and a glance into the Curlew’s kitchen when I visited gave no hint of any problem; it all looked spotless.
So there you have it, The Curlew. The bill included three glasses of wine and came to £90 (excluding service I believe).
Will I remember the meal? In the run up to 2016 I’ll remember our waitress. She was great. The food? I’ve had far more memorable meals, many of them quite humble but excellent, so probably not. Pity.