Some years ago, I used to live in Sussex – Lewes to be specific – and this may have affected my preconceptions about Sussex Restaurant in Soho. When it comes to food, I associate Lewes (a town fond of tradition and the kind of gentle weirdness at which Britain excels), and Sussex more generally, with the local, the hearty and the creative. It’s actually a fitting name for this Soho establishment, where Chef Director Oliver Gladwin showcases what is locally farmed, foraged and hunted, and finds inspiration in the best of seasonal ingredients when creating his menus.
We arrived on a wintery night, stepping out of the cold air into an immediately warm and welcoming dining space in the heart of Soho. Lighting is pleasantly dim, décor is a mix of British brasserie and art deco with unobtrusive music and an island where the cheese begins eyeing you up from the first five minutes. More on that later.
We were shown to our table and presented with a glass of Nutty Vintage 2018, from Nutbourne Vineyards (in Sussex, obviously). Light and elegant, it was the perfect start as we perused the menu and ordered a couple of sharing nibbles: the shallot dip was excellent and the caraway crispbread a delightful twist, but why must chefs persist in serving things in threes to parties of two or four? We almost fell out over meticulously splitting the third Iron Age boar chipolata, which is a testament to the quality of the food, if not the serving choices.
The menu at Sussex restaurant, one of which was individually edited for Charlotte to exclude dishes containing her allergies, is constantly changing, but mostly features European dishes. Charlotte opted for ricotta and spinach ravioli with truffle oil, vinaigrette and hazelnuts, while I chose beef carpaccio with wild herb dressing and pickled girolles. Both dishes might have benefited from a little refinement (thinner pasta, thinner carpaccio), but the accompanying Nutbourne Vineyards Bacchus 2020 was a good match, with a tartness that brought the food alive.
For the main course, Charlotte chose the venison and found it perfectly cooked, paired with a silky artichoke puree, charred baby leek and cherry jus to balance the dish. My dish was a little more of a puzzle; listed as langoustine bisque, cockles, ravioli and wild leeks, I was expecting a punchy flavoured sauce from the shells and maybe some meat, given that there was no other langoustine on the menu that day that would contribute its carcass to a bisque. When I enquired whether the langoustine was in the ravioli or the bisque, was told the pasta contained ‘sea beetroot’. It was only later, speaking to the excellent manager Rachael, that I discovered this was an error and it was in fact the same spinach and ricotta ravioli which had appeared in Charlotte’s starter. It was a good sized portion, but we had sensibly also ordered truffle and pecorino potatoes, which were very well salted and full of flavour. The wine was a Montagny Premier Cru Burgundy 2020 from Maison Jaffelin, which was an excellent accompaniment, given that a light hand on the seasoning meant the flavours of the dishes were quite subtle.
We rounded off the dinner with a selection of the British cheeses that we had been admiring throughout the dinner (and nervously watching decrease in size!). A Lincolnshire Poacher, Bath Soft and a goat cheese were served with Sussex honey, crispbreads and a homemade chutney and we were not disappointed! We finished with a forced rhubarb frangipane tart which was very typically British and the perfect way to end the meal with its delicate Bakewell style crust and sweet filling, complemented by a tangy rhubarb ice cream.
It’s true that Sussex restaurant doesn’t just source its ingredients from Sussex, but there is something undeniably Sussexy – perhaps undeniably British – about this restaurant, from the lively mixed clientele to the quietly eclectic décor to the charmingly puzzled staff. In a world where we are all increasingly trying to make choices that are wholesome and sustainable, Sussex restaurant’s concept of eating ‘local and wild’ is a step in the right direction. It’s a unique find in Soho and it unashamedly celebrates the best of British produce with a creative twist and great enthusiasm, something which – unlike many of its other features – might be quite un-British…
63-64 Frith Street