Chef Johnny Stanford is keen to showcase his wide range of skills on a fine-dining menu for all, says Andy Lynes
Pascere has had a difficult birth. In May, two months before the restaurant opened in Brighton's historic Lanes quarter, head chef Tom Griffiths left the project.
In an opaque statement, owner and first-time restaurateur Amanda Menahem said "the partnership isn't quite the right fit for this venture". But what could have been a disaster has turned into a triumph, following the appointment of former South Lodge hotel chef Johnny Stanford. In her 8/10 review for The Guardian, Marina O'Loughlin described her meal as "exquisite" and "serene and mellifluous" and said: "This is no-messing brilliance".
"We're cooking what we think is nice food, but for people to appreciate it is humbling," says Stanford, who has worked with Paul Kitching at Juniper in Altrincham and 21212 in Edinburgh, and spent five years working alongside Matt Gillan at the Pass (Gillan has also recently relocated to Brighton at Pike & Pine).
Designed by Menahem in partnership with Brighton-based Niche Interiors, Pascere (Latin for ‘nourish' or ‘to graze'), is decked out in hues of teal, blue and stone with brass fixtures, leather banquettes, plush velvet seating, marble table tops, exposed flint walls and a white-tiled bar. Its 37 seats are set over two floors, with a further 16 on a pavement terrace. Stanford works with a brigade of five chefs in a small open kitchen on the first floor, with a small prep area on the second floor.
The restaurant offers an à la carte menu with five choices at each stage at lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday, and a 10-course tasting menu (£65) at dinner only.
"We're trying to do something a little different," says Stanford. "We want to bring a little more formality and sense of occasion to the Brighton scene, but I want it to be accessible. I don't want to alienate people. Fine dining should be for everybody. We're pricing ourselves at the higher end of reasonable. We're using expensive ingredients and the techniques involved mean dishes take more time and effort, compared with some other places."
A main course of Sussex chicken breast and roasted leg with baby carrots, carrot fregola and hay mayonnaise (£17.50) is a good example of that extra time and effort.
"We burn hay with a blowtorch, pour oil over the top of it and store it in a kilner jar, then repeat the process with the same oil every day for a couple of weeks to intensify the flavour. We use the strained oil to make mayonnaise, and also a hay powder by whisking in maltodextrin. It's full of flavour but there's no texture to it, so it just disappears on your tongue."
Stanford bones out and roasts the leg and cooks the breast sous vide, finishing it on the stove in rendered chicken fat. He cooks fregola, risotto-style in carrot stock, juice and purée, and finishes with butter and chives during service.
The chicken is served with burnt carrots, roasted carrots, carrot purée, nasturtium leaves, hay mayonnaise, hay powder and chicken sauce.
Stanford's personal favourite from the current menu is a starter of Lake District lamb sweetbreads (£12.50) that also appears on the tasting menu.
"We toss them in gluten-free flour and pan fry them. Once they're crispy and golden brown, we pour lamb sauce into the pan, so the sweetbread absorbs it all. That's on the plate with fresh ewes' curd, ewes' milk panna cotta and sorrel ice-cream."
He also adds lemon curd, but reduces the sugar content and uses glucose to produce a more tart result. The dish is finished with amaranth grain that's deep-fried and puffed up to resemble popcorn, and red amaranth. "It's a colourful, summery dish that uses all the ingredients from one animal that we can get, and everything that would grow in its immediate surroundings," says Stanford.
Open seven days a week and located in a busy central location, walk-in trade from shoppers and holiday makers is brisk. To take advantage, Stanford has created an eight-item small plates menu, including pea custard (£7.50) and Portland crab tart with shellfish custard (£7.50) that's available every day.
"It's condensed dishes and snacky kind of things that you could have with a glass of wine while you're out shopping," he says. "There are a few seats at the bar if you fancy coming in for a nibble. On Sunday and Monday, we also run a couple of specials like bacon waffle with bacon jam, bacon lardons, bacon-fat powder and bacon hollandaise (£10) just to keep that relaxed Sunday breakfast vibe."
Despite the labour-intensive complexity of some of the dishes being served, there is, Stanford says, more to come. "The menu, for what I want to cook and what I've cooked previously, is still quite simple in places and there are things we want to make a little more intricate," he says.
"Something that I've grown to love and enjoy is being able to showcase different types of cookery, whether it be modern molecular gastronomy all the way back to classic techniques like salt-baking, roasting, steaming and barbecuing. There's nothing better than showcasing the whole spectrum of what we do as chefs."
From the menu
• Baby squid with parsley cream, mushroom noodles and a squid-ink cracker £7.50
• Beef cheek tortellini with mushroom purée and beef consommé £10
• Pan-fried scallop with braised baby gem, burnt silverskin onions and smoked roe £11
• Roast lamb breast with watercress purée, samphire and pressed potatoes £17.50
• Pan-fried stone bass with roasted onions, wild mushrooms and sea vegetables £18.50
• Crab fregola with mushroom and shaved fennel £17.50
• Strawberry and white chocolate cheesecake with strawberry sorbet £8 • Chocolate mousse with malted-milk ice-cream and chocolate tuile £7.50
• Buttermilk sponge with honeycomb and milk ice-cream £8
Pascere, 8 Duke Street, Brighton BN1 1AH
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