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