The concept behind new South Lodge Hotel restaurant the Pass might be stealing the column inches, but it's young chef Matt Gillan that deserves the real attention, writes Tom Vaughan.
If there's another restaurant out there like the Pass, I haven't seen it. In an era where chefs' tables now trump the open-plan kitchen - both based on the presumption that diners pine to see a sweaty service backdrop to their boozy lunch - South Lodge Hotel's the Pass has ridden roughshod over both concepts, and stuck all 22 restaurant seats in the heart of the kitchen.
It's an evolution very apt for our times, when foodie customers are just as hungry for the process and personality behind restaurant dishes as they are for the food itself.
The concept of the Pass grew out of an idea for a chef's table, and expanded to its current guise as the hotel incorporated the adventurous design into its refurbishment programme.
The new kitchen/restaurant is a gleaming hall of chrome and muted clattering, with a green leather banquette and facing stools wrapped round the edge of one corner.
Banquette-sitters get the full view of both the Pass kitchen and the adjacent kitchen, which serves the hotel's other restaurant, the Camellia. Stool-perchers get TV screens opposite them feeding live video from the kitchen to stop anti-social neck ache as they spin to watch the quiet hubbub of the chefs behind them.
The man in charge of the youthful four-strong team is 28-year-old Matt Gillan, a graduate of kitchens including Royal Hospital Road and the Vineyard, who preceded his role at the Pass with two years heading up the Camellia kitchen.
The restaurant's concept lends itself to Gillan's cuisine, which is of a modern European leaning, focusing on bold flavour combinations and a contemporary presentation.
"Everyone who comes into the restaurant expects something a bit different because of the concept behind it," Gillan explains. "So I'm working hard to give them something different."
The tasting menu set-up - diners can choose between four, six and nine courses, priced at £28, £38 and £78 respectively, with Gillan happy for dishes to be interchangeable between the menus - adds to the air of theatre, with a furrow-browed Gillan constantly plating up his intricate creations.
One of the most long-serving of these, taken from the nine-course menu, is roast frogs' legs with snails, a bacon bonbon, parsley sauce and blackened onions; a rich, salty marathon of a dish that's a bit like wading through a river of Marmite and about which, says Gillan, diners always have an opinion, even if it's not favourable.
You need to finish it off with a pint of water, especially if you follow the sommelier's advice and pair it with a 2006 McGuigan Black Label Australian Shiraz, but it's worth the endeavour.
The other dishes are on the whole kept light, so that nine courses doesn't become a struggle, with carbohydrates few and far between. A velouté of asparagus with poached quails' egg and truffle asparagus is a seasonal start to the six-course menu, while marinated squab pigeon breast with cauliflower, mustard white beans, roasted apple and anchovy crisps displays the bold and adventurous flavours that Gillan says mark his cooking. There's the earthy meat of the pigeon, the sweet notes of apple and beans and the salty zap of anchovies all at once.
Diver-caught scallops, red pepper cannelloni, crystallised olives and shellfish biscuit has the same clever approach, although weighted more on the sweet side, with the red pepper and scallop teaming up to overpower the salty finish of the olive.
The nine-course menu boasts the most popular dessert - a dark chocolate mousse (a blend of chocolate Gillan helped create, which is unique to the four-property Exclusive Hotels Group) with pine nut and rosemary foam, butternut squash cream and smoked fudge.
Also coming into its own is vanilla panna cotta, ginger crumb, popcorn broth and an orange and soya coulis.
Gillan is obviously going places. Even if he admits to a few nerves at first, working under 22 sets of diners' eyes, it doesn't show any more. The Pass might be a PR-friendly concept, but without a talented chef such as Gillan behind the stove it would be paper-thin. Keep an eye out for him.
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Roast lobster, truffle peas, lobster and rose consommé
- Ravioli of black pudding, crisp pork belly and parsley sauce
- Poached and roast quail breast, cabbage cream and quail braise
- Ballotine of whiting, salt cod brandade, tomato couscous and samphire
- Preparation of pork, potato fondant, turnip purée and pork stock
- Wasabi peanut-crusted tuna loin, sweet potato purée, roasted mouli and teriyaki sauce
- Coffee parfait, chocolate truffles, passion fruit coulis and pistachio
- Rhubarb mousse, custard ice-cream, clove and thyme syrup and poached rhubarb
South Lodge Hotel
Brighton Road, Near Horsham, West Sussex RH13 6PS
Tel: 01403 891711