Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A heavenly dinner at The Salt Room

Mackerel, beetroot etc
In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who question what a ‘fine dining’ experience gives you other than a bigger hole in your wallet.

If you asked me that same question 15 years ago, I’d have been thinking along the same lines. But experience can be a great educator.

On Saturday night, working once more in Brighton, I headed for the Salt Room.

Having opened in February 2015, I’d first tried it, along with the Other Half, last June. When I was in the city again in October, I returned for a solo meal and after that, I never had any doubt that I’d be back as soon as possible.

If I’ve worked out one thing about what divides top-level dining from eating out lower down the scale, it’s that the really good experience is flawless throughout – however many courses you have.

Elsewhere, you might find that one or even two courses will be fine, but something else just won’t be up to the same level.

One of the things that I like about the menu at the Salt Room is that it’s proudly seasonal.

At the weekend, I began with a dish of mackerel, miso and beetroot in a variety of way, including pickled and as a ketchup.

Slip sole, turnip, nori butter, shrimps, celery, capers
The fish was cooked to perfection: griddled on the skin side until it was black, but with the flesh just done; flaking and moist.

One of the things that this sort of cooking makes you notice is just how fresh the fish was in the first place: you can taste the freshness – and the contrast with the crisped skin was sublime.

The use of Japanese flavour in miso was subtle and never threatened to overwhelm the delicate fish, while the beetroot provided an earthiness to the whole thing.

This was a joy to eat.

For a main course, I stuck with fish and opted for slip sole with diced turnip, nori butter, tiny shrimps, capers and celery.

Honestly, it really is no exaggeration to stress just how good this was. Again, the fish was clearly impeccably fresh and had been equally impeccably cooked.

It was a dish of extraordinary natural sweetness, tempered by the capers: very satisfying.

I didnt bother with any side dishes (Ive mentioned before that such a concept seems peculiarly British) – the portions were a perfect size for me.

One little guide to how good the food is at any restaurant is the issue of seasoning. There are salt and pepper pots on the tables at the Salt Room, but in three visits, I have never felt any remote temptation to pick either up.

My waiter – Alfonso from Sicily; a knowledgeable charmer – thought that it was wrong to even offer customers the salt and pepper: some douse their food before even bothering to taste (something that Raymond Blanc described being appalled by in his book, A Taste of My Life).

It does beg the question of why you bother going to a good restaurant if you don’t start from a point of implicitly trusting the kitchen.

Another basis on which to recommend the Salt Room is that it has a far wider range of wines available by the glass than is often the case.

Here, Alfonso chatted with me about matching wine to my choices and gave me the chance to taste two wines before selecting. That’s really good service.

In the event, I enjoyed a Riesling Trimbach – but it was fascinating to have tried another possiblilty.

Being given time to sip my wine and contemplate the dessert menu in an unrushed gap between courses is, for me, vital.

So, what could I select to conclude such a meal?

It was an enticing dessert menu, but what stood out for me was rhubarb and custard: “custard tart, roasted rhubarb, rhubarb & Sauternes ice cream”.

Rhubarb and custard
It’s the start of the season for forced rhubarb, after all, and rhubarb is one of my favourite fruits, so selection was made easier.

A ‘custard’ of vanilla infused panna cotta, rich yet light at the same time, is served with rhubarb in a variety of ways – including a wonderful, wafer-thin crisp and ice cream – and a hint of crumble.

It was heavenly. There is nothing more that needs to be said.

If I have a liqueur after a meal, it’s usually a Disaronno, but Alfonso persuaded me to try something different – Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur – and it was a very pleasant way to conclude a simply superb meal.

You do get what you pay for in food terms – certainly in the UK at present. In France, you can still find little bistros and brasseries that give you a memorable experience for little outlay.

But as I’ve seen, time and time again in recent years, dining out both for pleasure and particularly when away from home for work, that sort of middle tier of eatery in the UK is often far from cheap for food that is far from sensational.

I have no doubt that I’ll return to the Salt Room again.

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