Brighton had been bathed in sunshine since early morning and I’d spent much of the day at the beach much like a member of the Famous Five: eating crab sandwiches, drinking ginger beer and looking for adventure. The evening was glorious and, after a short Vespa ride, my fiancé and I arrived at The Restaurant at Drakes for our early evening sitting.
The view from the bar is wonderful, looking out over the seascape and Brighton Pier; some sorrow then to find that the restaurant is in the basement of the hotel and has no view at all. The dining area is compact and tables are at a cosy but not intrusive distance; the set-up and decor failing to fully escape the feel of a hotel restaurant.
We were the first diners to arrive and were greeted by Kevin, our Antipodean-sounding, Irish-born, Brighton-bred waiter. Relaxed and chatty, he made wine suggestions and gladly offered personal insight into the dishes into which we expressed an interest.
Whilst we awaited our aperitifs, a harissa lamb and couscous amuse-bouche arrived topped with a purple pansy (the first of many). It was tender, with a pleasantly spicy kick. First drinks were a Boulevardier - an amazing colour due in large part to the Campari, mixed with bourbon and sweet vermouth, all garnished with redcurrants and a twist of orange zest; and a virgin Candido - rosy and heavily perfumed with a hint of citrus.
I opted for the chicken consommé, poured at table onto poached chicken oysters, artfully mounded with a ball of carrot, slice of leek and two slivers of courgette. It was salty and satisfying – a nourishing treat. Fiancé went for cured salmon – an imposingly large fillet sitting on noodles of cucumber, surrounded quite beautifully by bright orange balls of salmon caviar, deep purple cress, beetroot and lemon gels and yet more pansies, this time in deep purple and yellow.
Accompanying the starter was a surprise winner in the form of a Sussex-produced white - Bacchus Albourne Estate - crisp and light with grapefruit and elderflower notes; a stellar example of domestic viticulture.
Herb-crusted loin of lamb soon followed for us both and boy, was the platter busy! Along with the loin, which had a beautiful texture and faint hint of rosemary, was a deep-fried fior di zucca, stuffed with ratatouille and sat (somewhat soggily) in the rosemary jus and aubergine puree. I wondered whether such a weighty item quite belonged beside such delicate lamb, and a barely-warmed and quite inedible mini aubergine did little to reassure.
Braised shoulder, shredded and moulded as though neatly popped out of a cat food tin tasted simply divine. However, atop this artfully miniature tower of meat was an unidentified (at least on the menu) sweetbread, which might only be described as distasteful. No sane or civilised diner would relish any unrequested bollock, and the smallest of samples confirmed its non grata status.
The accompanying red was a Chateau Sainte Michelle Merlot from Colombia Valley, Washington State. It was light and smooth, with soft tannins providing the right hint at body, and an open berry bouquet with a tint of plummy tar.
A subsequent consultation with Kevin resulted in our learning that the sweetbread was in fact some sort of gland rather than the orchid we had surmised. We failed to establish which gland exactly, though Kevin pointed quite distinctly to his armpit whist referring to it, which was nearly enough to see us back on the Vespa without so much as a glance at the dessert menu. And what we would have missed…
Whilst playing “Mallet’s Mallet” in an effort to rid ourselves of offally bad memories, we were brought an interim course of a French-style bread and butter pudding made with croissants, served with an amaretto ice-cream, raspberry sauce and what turned out to be chocolate popping candy and a (by-now-signature) purple pansy. It was a true delight and thus far the highlight.
For dessert proper, we were presented with ‘compressed’ local strawberries (though they looked to be of normal stature), accompanied by basil and mint granita, balsamic meringues and clotted cream ice cream (oh, and pansies). Presentation was truly artistic and flavours sublime.
The brûléed passion fruit tart was served alongside zingy passion fruit sorbet akin to a whizzed up Solero; and a chocolate mousse so light and heavenly that I might well have eaten even the lamb’s gland had it been dipped therein. And pansies.
The Restaurant at Drakes would be well worth a visit for the wines and desserts alone.