Peter James

Bagging a Great Meal

Peter James finds himself converted by conversions at the Jolly Poacher in Brighton

In Barcelona recently an ebullient restaurateur said to me, ‘While you are in my restaurant, this is your home.’  It’s not the first time I’ve heard that.  I believe restaurants should be more about giving you the feel-good factor than being temples of fine food and wines.  

Restaurants provide the chance to catch up with friends, to celebrate – or commiserate, to plot and scheme, to pick someone’s brains, to seduce, to unwind.  I don’t go out to eat wanting to pick faults, even in my food columnist role, but there are some things that really irritate me.  One that riles me almost more than anything is having my wine glass filled too high.

Why is it, when you order a main course costing anywhere from £15 – £40, it will normally be cooked by someone who knows what they are doing, plated by someone who also knows what they are doing and brought to your table by someone who doesn’t trip over and drop the lot on your head – yet when you order a bottle of wine costing twice or even four times this amount, it is frequently brought to by the most junior and inexperienced member of staff – and someone who appears never to have opened a bottle before in their life?

I was staying at Whittlebury Hall in Northampton last weekend, while racing at Silverstone.  Despite it being a vast barn of a place, a conference hotel, spa, golf and country club, I like this privately owned hotel a lot and have stayed on many occasions.

It has good rooms, great bar areas, a fabulous pool, extremely friendly staff and consistently excellent food.  We dined there three nights and each time, and to my dismay a different waiter filled our wine glasses up to the brim each night.

Although admittedly this was not as bad as Brighton’s Grand hotel (now transformed under its brilliant manager, Andrew Mosley and his team) some years back when the wine waiter asked me which glass the white should be poured into…

Another slap on the wrist for Whittlebury.  A member of staff told me that if you tip a waiter or bartender, they only get a fraction of the money as it gets shared with everyone in the hotel – something I don’t like – tipping should not be in order to save the management wages, it should be to reward a particular staff member for excellent service.

I always ask who gets the tip before adding in an extra amount on the credit card slip, and unless it goes to the server, I leave cash.

I’ve recently been doing research in Philadelphia – for a brief time the capital city of the US before Washinton DC, and perhaps equally famous for WC Fields’ epitaph:  “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”   It’s a surprisingly delightful city, with a wealth of museums, galleries and places to visit – including Atlantic City of boardwalk fame, if you’re in the mood for world-class tackiness.

The biggest surprise was the sheer number and quality of terrific restaurants in Philadelphia, as well as the Ashton Cigar Bar, without doubt the nicest cigar bar I’ve encountered anywhere in the States, where pretty much every city has at least one.

Places I where I ate and would recommend to anyone were Vernick, Talula, Prime Cut, McCormick and Schmidt (part of a seafood chain, but excellent) Alma de Cuba, Buddakan, and, Butcher and Singer, my favourite for the sheer spectacular room, delightful staff and terrific food – it is a kind of modern spin on a traditional American chop house, with a raw bar added.

The only disappointment was Il Pittore, which served polenta with some dishes but was unable to substitute my potatoes for this, one of my favourite dishes.  Any restaurant that won’t do substitutions – a basic hospitality – doesn’t see me again.

And on the subject of substitutions.  It seems that every week former public houses become substituted by restaurants.  Tighter drink-driving laws sounded the death knoll, then for many pubs the smoking ban was the final nail in the coffin, ringing the landlords’ equivalent of the Lutine bell.

But rising from the stubbed out ashes, at an ever faster rate it would seem, is the era of the gastro-pub.  Limed bare floorboards, simple, distressed furniture, handsome earnest young waiters with designer stubble, and cheery, attractive young females have sprung up in every town in the nation it would seem – and we’re all the better off for it.

My old friend Peter Bailey, whose late former wife Kathryn was the food critic for The Argus back in the 1980s and who know as thing or two about food, told me he and his beloved Sheila had made a new find, the Jolly Poacher in Ditchling Road.  So we lunched there this week to try it out.


First impressions were good, a nice main dining space, a good outdoors terrace and a handsome spiral staircase downstairs, which I forgot to explore.  I like restaurants that have oysters on the menu – and they have the excellent Carlingfords here – because it indicates the rest of their produce is going to be fresh, too.  The menu is short, something I also like to see, again an indicator of freshness.

Starters include a goose liver parfait, with rhubarb compote, pickled asparagus and toasted brioche, a lobster spring roll, which was sublime – simply the best spring roll I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve eaten them in great Chinese restaurants in many cities, including Shanghai and Hong Kong, so I’m not praising this lightly. 

Thai spiced crab fritters with chilli salt squid and choi and shoot salad were dense and dangerously moreish, and a leek and Roquefort tart with a poached pear and roasted walnut salad was sensational.

Mains included grilled sea bream, saddle of lamb, the now essential staple of every self-respecting restaurateur, the pork belly variation, which gave me instant food envy when I saw it, as well as a complex and very appealing sounding vegetarian option involving asparagus, mozzarella, arancini, courgettes, garlic flowers and salsa verde.

I had to leave before desert, which was just as well for my figure as, unable to choose between walnut, ginger and apricot pudding, quince and apple crumble with vanilla custard, or warm chocolate tart with honeycomb and crème fraiche, I would have probably gone for all three, as I had done once before when dining with the Baileys – many years and many stones in weight ago….

The wine list has been put together by someone who knows their stuff.  A great selection from across the wine continents, and I was particularly happy to see several clever choices that I know and love on both the white and reds at well under thirty quid. 

We drank a remarkably delicious Spanish white, a Mara Martin Godello Monterrei, and would undoubtedly have downed a second one if I hadn’t been driving.

My tests for any restaurant is whether I would like to go back.  And for the Jolly Poacher the answer is, pun fully intended, like a shot. A sense of air, space, purpose – and a future.


The Jolly Poacher
100 Ditchling Road
01273 683967