Nick leaves the protective embrace of the M25 to find fine and fun dining alive and well far from the madding crowd.
Reading the London-centric restaurant reviews in the big papers you’d think there was nothing much going on outside Zone Five.
Apart from, of course, on those occasions when the writers have been on holiday, at their second homes or visiting relations, and so have reviewed any half decent local place so as to get their travel costs back on expenses.
You might also think fine dining/tasting menus had all but disappeared in favour of things bunged in a fire or pickled in a jar.
Londoners, well at least the younger ones at least, can be a bit snotty about tasting menus. I think it’s a subliminal fear of cutlery and napkins, as well the potential horror of eating just as a couple with no sharing plates or long tables to distract you, only the ‘phone.
Well me, I like a tasting menu but I certainly don’t like all of them. I have often sat with mounting anger through ones that seemed to go on forever, shining monuments to chef’s ego and ample evidence that he or she had never tried eating the damn thing themselves.
A tasting menu has to be a proper experience, not simply a parade of dishes, something that intrigues, impresses and even makes you laugh out loud.
And you have to be in the mood for it.And I am in the mood for my tasting menu at Restaurant Interlude.
For a start, it’s not just A Restaurant, but a mid-sized Italianate mansion perched on the South Downs. It has lovely views and is surrounded by woodland, lakes and gardens where wallabies, deer and, apparently, the chef all like to cheerfully forage.
Rescued from a period as one of those awful Regional Head Offices, when the floors were covered in static shock inducing carpets, and with the grand fireplaces boarded up, it’s now rather smart without being oppressive.
Owned by Penny Streeter who also owns Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate in South Africa, it has had a lot of money spent on restoring it, as well as on the legendary gardens that surround it and which will open this April (2019)
The dining room is chintzy in a cheerful way with a good view out over the terrace. The formal chairs have those big, OAP helping-hand sized handles set in the back that allow the wait staff to sit you without a lot of floor scraping with the legs. There’s no bowing and scraping from the staff either who are all pleasantly cheerful and well- informed.
Chef Jean Delport also comes from South Africa and is keen for his menus to reflect the gardens and what can be found in them. I had the 12 course tasting menu and even in the depths of winter it frequently referred to the local area with ingredients and playful notes.
From a tree hung with fantastic fried chicken skin ‘leaves’ to start things off, we moved to a dish called Rabbit Eats Carrot. The rabbits the team said were foraged from the estate, I guess that means shot and why not?
The richly-flavoured meat has been made into a doughnut, and served with a savoury carrot sugar, chilli jam made from carrots grown on the estate and served on moss beds. Wonderful deeply flavourful complete bites, one per person, which is just enough,
The next standout dish, and to be honest they were all outstanding, is foraged oyster with Oca.
A single oyster in its shell festooned with various sea greens and some pickled green elderberries from the gardens.
Oca is an Andean tuber that they grow in the gardens and it has a sour or sweet flavour depending on how much sun it gets. Over the top of it all wafts a haze of oak smoke.It’s gone in a bite, but it’s a mega-bite of the sea with superb salinity.
A giant porcelain egg for each person was highly amusing, staying the right side of OTT. The china egg was made by a local potter and the chickens used for the real egg are free range from the estate.
In its dished top is slow confit yolk, topped with English Exmoor Caviar. There’s a hay and potato foam, dried corn, caviar oil, preserved egg yolk and dried greens from the pasture. With it comes an witty oversized brioche ‘soldier’.
It’s superb, eggs and potato always a winner anyway, and here made into something extremely special and just right in quantity.Now you might think Wagyu beef was something the restaurant would definitely have to source from outside the UK, but no.
Just close by is Trenchmore a sustainable mixed farm, where they make slow-grown Sussex wagyu beef that’s fed on fresh grass, brewing by-products and the pomace from the cider making.
Interlude ages that beef for 100 days on the bone and serves it with cod’s roe and sea greens. The result is succulent, melting beef that benefits as beef always does from the kiss of salt. A bit of bone marrow completes a dish that is rich and has to be slowly savoured.
Dish after dish came out, but it was not unrelenting and never boring. The emphasis was on flavour, and not Instagram, but all the same each dish was still a visual treat anyway without being fussy or overdone.
Outside they have planted vines to take advantage, as so many are now doing in Sussex and Hampshire, of the excellent chalky soil that can produce superb sparkling wines.
For the time being though they are serving wines from Benguela Cove Estate and they are very good. Other wines are, of course, available. (sic)
A beetroot and elderberry palate cleanser led to desserts (plural), and my favourite was Sheep’s’ milk · bulrush · quince.
Their own honey, of course, local sheeps’ milk and very unusual flavour from bullrush syrup made from bulbs around the lakes. This balanced out the sweetness perfectly.
It was a long lunch but time seemed to fly by. And, for once at the end, I was not in a state of groaning desperation thinking I would never eat again. I was sated, as they say.
I’d like to talk about the dish made with scallop and birch tree sap, or the dogwood glace served in an ice cream cone, but no time.
I think chef and the whole team deserve applause for the thoroughly inventive, but never insane cooking, the smooth service and the ethos of genuinely locally sourcing, and not simply paying lip service to the idea.
As the seasons roll by the menu will be always changing to reflect what’s available, meaning that a return visit will be just as much fun as the first.
I’ll be back for summer and walk around those gardens.
Leonardslee Gardens, Brighton Road, Lower Beeding, Horsham RH13 6PP