Ta­ble talk

Tiny por­tions make a big im­pres­sion on this mod­ern-Bri­tish tast­ing menu

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Michael Dea­con at Pascere in Brighton

WORK­ING IN AN open kitchen must drive chefs mad. Imag­ine it. There you are, a skilled pro­fes­sional, try­ing to fo­cus on a job that de­mands both to­tal con­cen­tra­tion and fu­ri­ous speed – and yet all the time, you can feel your skin burn­ing with the glare of count­less eyes: the gorm­less, un­blink­ing, cow­like eyes of the pub­lic, star­ing dumbly at your fren­zied hands, just wait­ing for you to make a mis­take.

Chances are, of course, that you’re be­ing para­noid, and your din­ers are en­tirely ab­sorbed in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion, and aren’t ac­tu­ally star­ing at you at all. But even so, when you’re un­der pres­sure, and the clock is rac­ing, and your skull is boil­ing with a chef ’s ha­bit­ual sup­pressed rage, it must feel as if they are. And if you do catch them star­ing, you can’t even get your own back by gob­bing in their stew, b e caus e they’ll see you, and com­plain, and you’ll be fired. Talk about un­fair.

Per­son­ally, I couldn’t bear it. I can’t stand peo­ple look­ing over my shoul­der when I’m work­ing. I couldn’t even stand it as a child, do­ing my home­work. The mo­ment ei­ther of my par­ents en­tered the room, I’d slap a shield­ing hand over what­ever I was in the mid­dle of writ­ing, and hold it there, scowl­ing, un­til I had the room to my­self again. I’m no bet­ter now. When I’m in the mid­dle of writ­ing an ar­ti­cle I find any kind of hu­man in­ter­fer­ence so en­rag­ing that in the of­fice I wear a pair of enor­mous in­dus­trial ear de­fend­ers, partly to block out other peo­ple’s con­ver­sa­tions, but

mainly to dis­cour­age any­body from start­ing one with me. I hardly ever s e em to ge t in­vite d to af­ter-work drinks, can’t think why.

Any­way: God knows how I’d cope as a chef in an open kitchen. I’d prob­a­bly gather up as many spare pots and pans as I could find, and pile them high on the work­top in front of me, as a kind of cook­ware bar­ri­cade. Then spend the whole shift crouch­ing be­hind it, mut­ter­ing and chop­ping with un­nerv­ing vigour.

Maybe you just get used to it, though. Open kitchens are so com­mon now, par­tic­u­larly in younger, smaller, trendier restau­rants. Restau­rants like Pascere, which opened this sum­mer in Brighton. Its name is the Latin for ‘to feed’, which is pro­nounced ‘PAHS-KAray ’. Not only does Pascere have an open kitchen, but the din­ing area is titchy. The chefs were prac­ti­cally cook­ing in my lap.

On the other hand, the at­mos­phere was lovely and warm and friendly, and the colour scheme gen­tle and sooth­ing, so we soon for­got that the kitchen was even there. The food is mod­ern Bri­tish. My friend and I went for the tast­ing menu, start­ing with the crab tart. It was topped with shell­fish cus­tard, which sounds hor­ri­ble but was, in fact, dream­ily creamy. Shame the tart was so lit­tle; I could have eaten five.

Then we had the carrot fre­gola (a type of pasta from Sar­dinia), again in­finites­i­mally small. I do some­times won­der why they’re called tast­ing menus, when some of the cour­ses are so tiny you’ve swal­lowed be­fore you’ve ac­tu­ally tasted them. And af­ter each evanes­cent semi-morsel the waiter is al­ways so eager to find out what you thought, which can be awk­ward. You feel a bit like a child has in­vited you to tea at her dolls’ house, and you’re hav­ing to smile po­litely and rub your tummy, and pre­tend you’re hav­ing the feast of a life­time (‘Mmm, yummy! Num num num!’). The carrot fre­gola was nice, though: beau­ti­fully crisp.

Next was baby squid, with pars­ley cream, mush­room noo­dles and a squidink cracker. Any­thing with squid ink in it can be dicey – I once re­viewed a place in Leeds where the squid ink was so bit­ter it was like lick­ing the in­sides of a smoker’s lung – but here it was fine, a cau­tious amount, ad­ding a salty lit­tle nip to the other flavours rather than blot­ting them out al­to­gether.

The one course we weren’t so keen on was the con­fit trout, which I found a bit limp. But the big­gest course was ex­cel­lent: roast Goos­nargh duck breast and leg with duck-liver par­fait and braised chicory. A quick word first, though, on the lay­out. No mat­ter how many restau­rants I visit, I will never come to terms with chefs’ con­vic­tion that they ’re com­pos­ing a pie ce of mod­ern art rather than a meal. You know the sort of thing: a be­wil­der­ing melange of blobs and spa­ces and lines and an­gles, some­how look­ing both wildly ran­dom and neu­rot­i­cally pre­cise, as though some­one gave Jack­son Pollo ck a set square for Christ­mas. If you served some­thing like that at home, your chil­dren would lie you straight down on the sofa and call 999.

On thi s o cca­sion, though, never mind, be­cause the duck was de­li­cious, rich and juicily full, and com­ple­mented per­fectly by a streak of pis­ta­chio and an ooze of cherry. As for pud­ding, the but­ter­milk sponge was beau­ti­ful: soft and springy, a fluffy lit­tle pil­low of sweet­ness, ac­com­pa­nied by glis­ten­ing moon­rocks of hon­ey­comb and milk ice cream.

I liked Pascere. It ’s smart, el­e­gant and, de­spite the dis­con­cert­ing close­ness of the open kitchen, re­mark­ably re­laxed. The chefs seemed en­tirely at ease. No shout­ing, no curs­ing, noth­ing. I’m sure they don’t gob in the stew, but if they do, they have the good grace to do it dis­creetly.

If you served some­thing like that at home, your chil­dren would lie you straight down on the sofa and call 999

Above Baby squid, with pars­ley cream, mush­room noo­dles and a squid-ink cracker.

Below But­ter­milk sponge with hon­ey­comb and milk ice cream

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