Friday, 27 June 2014

Time to see food and eat it in Brighton

My dining partner
Time spent working away from home can be a mixed blessing, but one of the pluses (sometimes) is that it means that you’re forced to eat out.

With last week having been spent in Brighton, there were four culinary experiences worth a mention.

Next to the hotel – the Hilton Metropole – is a fairly basic chippy. Nothing is cheap in Brighton, but it’s not bad and, after arriving and setting up camp on the Saturday, I headed there for a celebratory plate of scampi, chips and mushy peas.

Wandering around outside the large open restaurant was a seagull, on the scrounge for any fodder.

I threw a chip. It was wolfed down. I threw another. That went the same way.

Some minutes later, I was outside feeding it chips by hand, which put a wide grin on my face, even as passers-by were freaking out.

And no – it didn’t peck me, but took each chip carefully. The bloke inside was tickled pink and, on other visits during the week, would tell me that “your friend” had been back.

There followed a few days of very basic eating – mostly the same place, with steak and kidney pies substituting for the scampi on one or two occasions. By the standards of many such places, the pies – Pukka ones – were surprisingly, well, pukka. There was even actual kidney in them.

Tuesday saw my first serious diversion into a better culinary experience, with dinner with colleagues at Al Fresco, the thoroughly pleasant Italian restaurant that lives in the converted 1950s Milkmaid Pavillion that links the shore and the promenade.

To start with, I went for deep fried calamari with a smoked paprika aïoli.

It’s easy to view that as being simple in the extreme, but rarely in the UK have I had calamari so beautifully cooked – it was light as a feather, tender and as scrumptious as anything.

For a second course, it was ravioli of fresh langoustine and scallop, which was bound in a light fresh ginger, lemon
and mascarpone cream, and came garnished with a seared scallop and a grilled langoustine.

Naturally sweet, but with the ginger adding a very welcome zing, this was very pleasant indeed.

Having thus whetted the old appetite, Wednesday afternoon found me with the time to indulge in a serious lunch, and thus trying Riddle & Finns, a new restaurant housed in the arches on the seafront.

As I approached, the rain came down and diners seated outside plunged into the interior.
As a result, it was suddenly packed. Since time was no issue, I said that waiting would be no problem, and took up residence on a sofa, just inside.

Bread and paté
Given that I had to work again later, I declined the offer of a glass of wine and stuck with water. And I did half wonder whether they thought that this very casually-attired single woman was a serious diner for such an establishment – no, I really don’t need colcannon explaining to me.

But when it became clear that the rain had been but a shower and had departed, I took a table outside.

Having ordered a main, I was rather surprised to find a substantial basket of bread and butter, and pots of smoked mackerel paté, horseradish sauce and mayonnaise in front of me.

It was large even for an hors d’oeuvres. The waiter told me that, if I chose to eat it, then there was a cover charge of £1, but otherwise, no cost.

Now, I have to say that that is the first time I’ve ever been directly charged anything for hors d’oeuvres or an amuse bouche – and I’ve eaten at and written about some top-notch restaurants over the years – and it has a certain classlessness about it.

Lobster salad
That said, it was well worth a quid of anyone’s money. The paté was quite simply superb, while the bread was very good and the horseradish and mayo – both homemade – were also excellent.

My main was a salad of half a lobster, which came served, very elegantly, on a delightful bed of fresh, varied leaves, the bitterness of which contrasted superbly with the sweetness of the lobster meat.

It had small pieces of mango and pink grapefruit to give the dish a real lift – as well as added colour and texture – and proved to be a genuinely superior salad.

Riddle & Finns is not cheap, but when you are served such an excellent lunch, then no complaints are required.

By way of a contrast – of sorts – a lunchtime ramble along the seafront on Friday saw me finally find my way to Jack and Linda Mills’s Brighton smokery, which also resides under the arches of the promenade.

The smoke house
They smoke their own fish in a tiny black hut at the edge of the pebbled beach, and then sell it in pots or in bread.

Years ago, Rick Stein had visited and raved – I’d pledged to finally make it there myself.

They are an absolutely charming couple – and my little pot of mixed crab meat, served with fresh lemon, was lovely.

Wandering back to work along the promenade itself, I suddenly felt the urge to do something that would make it a really tradition British seaside lunch: buy an ice cream.

A little pot of crab
There I was, with a cone of the whippy, soft stuff that, in almost all other circumstance, I'd deride. But somehow, as you’re strolling down the prom, prom, prom, nothing could be more tiddely om pom pom.

Finally, just a brief note about the hotel: taking £300 out of my current account, at £50 a night, as a ‘guarantee’ against anything I might put on the room over the course of my stay, should more accurately be called ‘taking the piss’.

Fortunately, there was no sign of mould in my room, even if it was steamingly hot between mid morning to mid evening – an issue replicated in many of the rooms. The hotel management knows perfectly well about this – hence the fans sitting in most wardrobes.

Presumably they also know that opening the cupboard under the TV to find that there isn’t even a fridge – and at least some of the rooms that did have one don’t seem to have had one that worked – is also a tad annoying.

Jack Mills
Remembering last year’s stay at the Hilton in Liverpool, I checked the situation on tipping via your room tab. Don’t – it won’t find its way to the staff you want to thank. Give them cash, personally.

The staff themselves were unfailingly polite, helpful and friendly. I have no gripe with them whatsoever.

But for a supposedly four-star hotel, the owners are playing rip-off games and also allowing the building to rot, without bothering to invest in work that clearly needs doing rather seriously.

Mould on windows or in baths, as was apparently found by a number of people on check in, is simply not acceptable.

Hopefully, someone else will take it off Hilton’s hands soon – and then spend the money that needs investing to return it to its former glory.

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