Very occasionally, if you’re very very lucky, you go for a meal that is so special that you forget all your cynicism and critiquing (not that I’m particularly predisposed to either, rarely eating out and even more rarely reviewing restaurants) and just sit back and enjoy the ride. So The Curlew has just won a Michelin star. So what? What is more important is that the food is honest, the staff friendly, the atmosphere relaxed and unpretentious and when you’ve eagerly devoured the final crumby morsels from your last plate, you leave feeling you genuinely may have just had one of the nicest meals of your life.
Sven and I had been looking for a place to have a “final fling” lunch (as we were calling it). That is to say, a real blow out special occasion meal to send us off into parenthood feeling sated and satisfied with our pre-baby lives. Whilst considering our options, we were reminded (by the lovely graphic foodie I believe) that The Curlew on the Kent/Sussex border had just been awarded a Michelin star. That piqued our interest and a quick perusal of the menu had us making a reservation two minutes later. The menu, like the restaurant itself, is bereft of pomposity. Your options are presented as “Pork” or “Cod”, with only the most matter of fact explanation of what will be on the plate underneath. But what will be on the plate, minus the flowery descriptions, sounds so right that you can’t help but get an itchy dialling finger as you drool onto your keyboard. Who wouldn’t want “onion jam potatoes”, whatever they are, or fennel gratin?
We arrived at the restaurant after a gorgeous drive along the very pretty road from Brighton to Bodiam. After cooing at the countryside and announcing resolutely that we would be moving to Burwash, we pulled up at an unimposing but sleek white slateboard building. The interior is quirky and modern: wooden floors, whimsical cow-print wallpaper, and grey walls adorned with retro plates. My only slight peeve was that our table was perhaps a tad too close to our neighbours, but even this was tempered by the fact that the table was occupied by an eccentric old codger who kept prattling on about the ruggers and the price of wine (which according to him was dear).
As we perused the menu, we were brought drinks and still-warm freshly baked bread accompanied by home-made rosemary honey. Apparently, the head chef, Neil McCue, gets to the restaurant at 5am every day to make his own bread, which is just a small demonstration of his obvious passion and dedication – and the honey, well, that’s just for fun. This attention to detail is something that runs throughout the food at The Curlew. It seems the waitresses are constantly pointing out something that the chef has made himself, or sourced from some small local producer. And fast-forwarding to the end of our meal when the hostess spontaneously introduced us to the chef, that passion came across clear as day as he casually chatted to us whilst tenderly cradling a beautiful slab of Gloucester old spot pork belly, which he apparently massages for extra tenderness.
Anyway, on to the food itself. I started with the Sussex Farmhouse double baked cauliflower cheese souffle, which was described very accurately by the waitress as like eating a cheesy cloud! Served in ironware and looking somewhat unpromising, the souffle was as light as could be whilst the creamy cauliflower sauce was at once comfortingly nostalgic and luxurious. It was utterly delicious.
Sven ordered the black pudding which came in a turnover, served with a dainty salad of watercress and apple. Completely up Sven’s street, who being a simple Lancashire lad grew up coveting anything covered in pastry. Obviously, this was way beyond anything you might pick up in your local greenhalgh’s. The crisp salad perfectly cut through the fatty meatiness of the melt-in-your-mouth Yorkshire black pudding. Sven was a very happy boy.
I punted for the Gloucester old spot belly for my main course, which was served with fennel gratin and samphire. It was obvious that the pork had been given a lot of love and attention, meltingly soft under the crispest of crisp crackling. I could spy through the semi-open kitchen a few water baths, so I should think that the pork had been cooked sous vide. However it was done, it was really rather special, and the salty samphire (which I love btw) surprisingly complemented the pork brilliantly. And as I said before, who wouldn’t want fennel gratin?
The real star of the day, however, was Sven’s Chop and Chips. I would go back tomorrow just for this champion of a dish. Sven simply described it as the best plate of food he has ever eaten. The “chop” is a huge slab of the largely neglected cut of beef (goodness knows why), the Jacob’s Ladder, which has been cooked slowly for about 2 days. The result is a piece of meat that goes beyond tender. I wish I had never before used the term “melt-in-your-mouth” (dammit, I’ve even used it in this review already) because nothing has ever melted in your mouth like this chunk of hunk. Accompanied by beef dripping chunky chips (and a coleslaw which if I’m honest I could take or leave) this dish was just perfect. Sven had the rib bone in his hands by the end, gnawing desperately for any pieces of meat clinging to the bone. Go. Go now for this alone.
The meal was finished for me with the hot chocolate pot served with malted milk ice-cream. The chocolate pot was only barely cooked so that when you broke through the cakey exterior you found a molten sea of chocolate. The cold malt ice-cream was the perfect accompaniment to the hot chocolate in that both were better eaten together than they were apart – which is surely the idea! Sven, on the other hand, was just finished. After The Chop he couldn’t face another bite.
And after all this finery, when our bill came we were perfectly delighted to hand over the mere £80 (including tip) that this nicest of meals had set us back, especially when we considered all the distinctly average and even disappointing meals that had come before and cost more. We felt even more pleased when we remembered that we had spent £50 at a chain restaurant not a week before. The food at the Curlew is Great British cooking at its best, using modern methods to their best advantage without a hint of the puffiness and haughtiness that all too often accompanies a Michelin star.
Oh do go, won’t you?
£80 for two people. We didn’t have a bottle of wine, but we had a few drinks each!