The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
‘Food to envelop you – a cosy refuge from the storms’
He was my kind of manager. A Frenchman, Philippe, with an old-school attitude and surety of purpose. No quivering, genuflecting, slobberingly oleaginous service from him. Just confident, calm, direct and witty.
In the current climate, when so many in hospitality seem scared to get out of bed in the morning, this is refreshing. But, of course, this only works if the place is decent. If Fork did not live up to its name – a thing of innovative genius that symbolises the civilising of mankind, that separates us from Neanderthals – then the Frenchman would be a disaster. But of course he’s not. And he knows it.
Because Fork is almost as fabulous as the utensil. It brings sophistication and aspiration to Lewes in Sussex, which you might not have thought the commuter town needed. But while Glyndebourne is just over the hill, if you like that kind of thing, and this part of England is bubbling with exciting wineries, and the countryside is wild and pretty, Lewes seems otherwise as conventional, stayed, restrained and Victorian as its railway station.
Like Withnail’s idea to put a jukebox in the Penrith tearooms, Lewes needs a Fork to liven it up a bit.
The decor in this small, whitewashed building is of pale wood panelling, terracotta floor tiles and with a large stainlesssteel bar. The menu is well written, straightforward and plainly descriptive; offering a mix of fish caught locally in Newhaven, duck, beef, and dishes for those who live only for vegetables.
The wine list has a healthy smattering of local sparklings, although none from the swanky Rathfinny, some 12 miles away. ‘It’s too dry,’ sniffs Philippe, a man who likes a little sweet brioche with his biscuity nose.
He suggests a local white, a chardonnay called Ditchling White from nearby
Court Garden vineyard. It’s remarkably fresh and smooth. It also pairs well with a pair of tempura broccoli Tenderstems sent from the kitchen as an amuse bouche; a crisp bite and a hint of chilli, the veg perfectly al dente.
My pal Simon then eats what I would consider pudding but Fork is confident to serve as a starter: spiced pear with walnuts and beetroot. Indeed I find my bite of it a little sweet this early in proceedings and instead embrace convention with a quite superb pastilla of confit duck. It’s a neat, rectangular little parcel filled with soft duck with some rich jus and a dab of fig and some chutney. A measured dish of sophisticated beauty, but I could have dialled down the accompanying sweetnesses.
Next up were thick slices of aged sirloin: a rustic stack, gently leaning, covered with dark, unctuous sauce with a rosti fried in duck fat sitting alongside with parsnip purée. In filthy weather this is food to envelop you, a cosy refuge from the storms and rain. Rain down as hard as you like, I’m settled inside with my pal Simon and beef and duck and a Frenchman who knows a decent Pinot Noir (a German Villa Wolf at a very reasonable £30).
Simon was lapping up an exquisite seared duck breast with a rich cassoulet dabbed with saffron aioli. But I found our accompanying roasted parsnips glazed with maple syrup just too sugary. The chef may have a sweet tooth, but he needs to restrain himself as I felt the need to brush my teeth and gargle with salt between courses.
We finished with local cheeses (the Pinot Noir demanded it), and left feeling very encouraged by such a place. Clever, confident cooking, a strong independent voice – but with just a little too much icing on the top.
Like Withnail’s idea to put a jukebox in the Penrith tearooms, Lewes needs a Fork to liven it up a bit