This month Julie was enticed into Chilli Pickle for a dinner review
When I was a redneck kiddy growing up in the provincial 1970s, restaurants were Here Be Dragonnes country. Sure, one might nip into a Wimpy after a heavy morning’s shoplifting just to refresh oneself between bouts of stealing tank tops by the ton, but generally I saw eating in places other than home as things Other People Did, like A Levels or Abroad.
When my family went to Butlins for the first time, and I witnessed the two calls for dinner in the huge canteen (except we called it ‘tea’ back then) I surveyed the wondrous spectacle of dozens of strangers EATING TOGETHER after being SERVED BY STRANGERS with all the wide-eyed wonder of an urchin surveying a Versailles banquet in full swing.
Emboldened by such an example, my mum discovered the Berni Inn Experience, and several times a year we would doll ourselves up in our best BHS finery to fancy ourselves under the mock-Tudor beams of the local branch. Then I became a teenager, legged it to London, made it biggish and before long I was poncing around Langham’s, Quaglino’s and the Ivy as though born with a silver spoon up my nose.
But I’ve never really got used to swanky restaurants, even after three decades of frequenting them. It’s not that I feel unworthy – it’s just that my inbred socialism and advanced sense of humour finds something inherently comic about human beings waiting on other human beings.
This is probably what makes me such a very good tipper – around the 40 per cent mark. People who work in restaurants just tend to be so much more attractive and civilized than people who eat in restaurants (and I’m including myself here) so lavishing them with cash seems to rebalance an unjust situation somewhat.
I am now a convivialist who likes nothing better than eating and drinking to excess with my husband or my friends in public places. A male pal of mine once complained: ‘Can’t you ever meet a mate for a cup of coffee without making the whole thing into a two-day drinking spree?’ after I suggested that a quick espresso might be improved by adding alcohol, dinner and eight additional people. My idea of heaven is a big table in a warm restaurant, the table shimmering with the laughter of friends and the glugging of wine, and me picking up the bill.
But I still have a problem with over-formal restaurants – the Mirabelle in Eastbourne at the Grand, for example, serves exquisite food, but eating there my husband and I became so fascinated by the huge domes that came with each course, appearing to get bigger each time, that we became silently hysterical with amusement and unable to look at each other, let alone speak, lest we burst out laughing. All the youngsters I know love Nando’s and that has to be because you get half the restaurant experience – waiting service, wine list – and half the casualness of a canteen.
So when I saw the fluorescent sign CANTEEN in the window of the Chilli Pickle, I was well pleased, knowing that they had a Michelin Bib Gourmand and 2 AA Rosettes. Though a big place, it felt very cosy – snug but not smug, welcoming without being smothering, buzzing but not bellowing, with lighting that could make you fall in love with your other half all over again. I liked the plain wooden tables and the silvery crockery – a rare combo of utility and beauty. (Beautility?)
The menu practically made my eyes cross with longing; though I love the everyday takeaways which we generally accept as Indian food in Britain, I am always disappointed by their apparent disdain for cheese. Here, my husband had a starter of Cheese Kadak Crispies, little fritter critters made of potato, melted cheese, green chilli and a crushed poppodom crust – like a very high-spirited croquette.
I was, unusually, ‘saving myself’ for the main course, and chose a liquid starter instead; I’d never had Indian wine before, but the bottle of Soul Tree (motto – ‘Character Is Everything’) Sauvignon Blanc was sublime. And don’t get me started on the cocktail list – or rather, do, and I’ll take two of each. I thought I’d heard of them all, but who’s for a Chai Chai (Drambuie, Frangelico, chai and cream) or the Chilli Pickle Bloody Mary (the usual biz, plus green chilli pickle juice and chaat masala)?
When my food arrived, I nearly spat out my Sauv Blanc in sheer glee. IT WAS A CHEESE KEBAB! To a vegetarian of working-class origin, these words are poetry indeed. Marinated in cardamom, mace and chilli, it was attended by fragrant handmaidens of tandoori broccoli, spiced vegetable cake and Pasanda gravy. My husband’s Tandoori Chicken Platter was so tasty that a tiny tear appeared to glint in one steely eye when he couldn’t quite finish it.
Imagine our delight when a quartet of shot-glass desserts – raspberry and coffee ice creams, mango and coconut sorbets – appeared on the table unbidden! Much though we admired them, we really thought it was past their bedtime and put them away PDQ. Duty done, though frankly I could have stayed there all night – but even on a gloomy Tuesday evening it was filling up and I didn’t want to deny any poor soul a similar pleasure to the one I’d had. But as the nights grow colder, I really can’t imagine any other restaurant in Brighton which will make you feel so warm all over.