Peter James dines at The Crabtree in Lower Beeding
Anyone who ever ate at the top of the Post Office Tower in London, when it first opened, might have agreed with that old adage about restaurants, the better the view, the worse the food. And yes, I think this might have been true thirty years ago, but I’m not sure I agree any more.
I’ve eaten in plenty of fine restaurants with glorious views, including this month again in Brighton’s fabulous GB1 at The Grand, with its stunning seafront view. I took Ellen, widow of wonderful journalist broadcaster Derek Jameson, who is as sophisticated and well travelled as it gets and she loved it.
Back in November I was at Sky 57 in Singapore, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, with the best waiter ever and a view to die for. And just last week I sat at the Top Of The World on the 107th floor of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas – not a restaurant I had high hopes for, other than the fact that it was very high indeed, and that we were distracted as we waited to order by a steady stream of people jumping past our window.
Was it after getting the bill, I wondered? Then the waiter told me they were bungee jumping, which made it all a bit less exciting… That was until the sommelier arrived – simply one of the best, most charming, most urbane, knowledgeable and least pushy members of his elite profession ever. The food was seriously good too, but I remember it only in a distance haze of fine wine as we steadily revolved around the horizon. Or was it the other way around?
The French Riviera has its share of great restaurants with magnificent views, and few finer that the terrace of the Eden Roc perched above the Mediterranean at the Hotel du Cap in Antibes – one of the world’s most beautiful hotels – it is elegance personified, although for me always tinged with the dark shadow that it served, allegedly, as an HQ to the SS during the war.
This month’s restaurant, The Crabtree, has a rather different kind of view – It faces, across a busy main road, the grounds of South Lodge, one of Sussex’s most glorious country house hotels, and which contains two very fine restaurants. Yet far from being outshone by its grand neighbour, the Crabtree has a fine pedigree of its own. It is where, apparently French bard Hilaire Belloc, who rightly fell in love with Sussex, liked to drink.
Formerly owned in more recent years by Jeremy Ashpool, in my view the finest chef in Sussex, who now runs the superb, eponymous, Jeremy’s at Borde Hill, its more recent management, after a long period in the wilderness, includes family of Simon Adamson Hope, founder of Food For Friends, Brighton’s first truly inventive and pioneering vegetarian restaurant and food emporium. But although there are good vegetarian dishes on the menu, fish, fowl and red-blooded carnivores are extremely well served.
Externally, the Crabtree is what it has always been, a rather nondescript looking country pub, that would be easy to pass by. But then you’d be missing a treat. Inside, despite a warren of smallish rooms, there is a light, airy, modern feeling, helped by uncluttered décor, and a relaxed atmosphere fostered by the extremely charming, young, professional staff.
One look around on a recent Sunday visit – I’ve been a few times now – confirmed what I was sure was going to happen under its inspired new team – this is not a place where people stop for fuel en route to somewhere, it is a proper destination itself.
Inventive starters include braised chicken wings with crispy quail egg, scallop ceviche, cured salmon, a glorious spin on the current beetroot and goat’s cheese fad – a perfectly judged leek, beetroot, goat’s cheese and celeriac terrine, and oysters – deliciously sweet Carlingford’s.
These bivalves are back in fashion with a vengeance in restaurants around the world now, and as a fan, I’m delighted. High protein, low sugar and fat, for far too long they have been shunned by people terrified of shellfish poisoning, or revolted by the very idea of them slipping them down.
Yet, in the middle ages, because they were so cheap and plentiful, they were a staple diet of monks, and in Victorian times they would used to bulk out the protein in Steak and Kidney puddings. The best way to avoid poisoning is to sniff each one – and savour the amazing scents.
If it smells nasty it is off – and I’ve been served one like that in one of Toronto’s finest hotels a year ago – luckily I spotted it, resulting in a very chastised chef. (Cooked oysters is a safe way – and I defy anyone who loves food not to love Oysters Rockefeller, made with béchamel sauce and spinach, or Kilpatrick, with bacon, done masterfully at English’s)
Among the stellar mains is a giant couscous filled grilled pepper and pomegranate parcel, a superbly moreish shitake mushroom and root vegetable suet pudding, smoked haddock, blackened South Coast cod (nice to know its provenance, but I’m not convinced it tastes any difference to North Sea cod or Icelandic cod, or the cod I ate in Las Vegas last week that had been line caught out in the Atlantic by a fisherman called Dan) corn fed chicken, slow cooked lamb loin and dry aged rib steak served with proper hand-cut chips.
Desserts are equally up to muster, and the wine list is quite superb both in its choices and very reasonable mark-ups. I especially liked to see such a wide range of wines by the glass – and different glass sizes.
There are set lunch deals and a set Sunday, and on a la carte, starters range from a very reasonable £6-£8.00, mains equally from £12.50-£20.
It was Hilaire Belloc who wrote those immortal words that I love to read out at special birthday gatherings:
From quiet homes and first beginnings, out to the undiscovered ends,
Nothing’s worth the wear of winning, save laughter and the love of friends.
You’ll hear a lot of laughter in the Crabtree and you’ll feel a lot of love of friends.
International best-selling author, Peter James, is our independent restaurant reviewer. The reviews are 100% impartial and free from advertising. In fact, he doesn’t even tell us which restaurants he is going to review!