After more than 20 years as a head chef, Steve Drake is feeling comfortable that the dishes he cooks today are not only delicious and intriguing, but also logical.
"When I was at Drakes on the Pond [his first head chef role in Abinger Hammer, Surrey], I was cooking Nico and Marco's dishes," he says, referring to Nico Ladenis, who he worked for at Chez Nico, and Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room. "Later I started creating my own dishes, but initially they were clumsy – in fact, they were rather brutal, in that I put flavours together that can only be described as cheffy. There were a lot of disastrous dishes, but I've since learned there needs to be a logic in the way flavours are combined."
Drake, now 47, opened the Michelin-starred Sorrel in a 300-year-old building in Dorking, Surrey, in 2017, after spending 12 years at his eponymous restaurant in nearby Ripley. The process of writing recipes is what drives his energy levels. "Working on new dishes keeps myself and the team focused," he explains.
The lunch menu, comprising a choice of two dishes across three courses for £45 (with a £10 supplement for cheese), is changed in its entirety every month, while the Discovery seven-course tasting menu at £85 per head available at lunch and dinner, together with a £75 wine flight, is tweaked monthly with three or four dishes swapped for something new.
Closing the restaurant for three days allows for a good work-life balance for his team of seven chefs and nine front of house staff, headed by restaurant manager Alain Mazikou and two sommeliers, including head sommelier Alexios Stasinopoulos.
The three amuse-bouches served on the Discovery menu indicate that the dishes to follow are going to offer both challenging techniques and powerful flavour combinations. On a visit in December, they included deep-fried polenta with truffle; watercress cracker, cured salmon, Earl Grey ash and crème fraîche; and aromatic apple and curried meringue with chicken liver parfait mousse and cep powder.
Drake likes to ease customers into the main part of the menu with something approachable, as in the case of a leek and potato dish with smoked egg yolk and lovage. However, rather than a familiar leek and potato soup, Drake's version is far richer, with the vegetables cooked quickly to retain their vibrancy and served as an aerated espuma. The dish is further elevated by the celery flavour of the lovage and slowly cooked yolk, with the smokiness provided by a few drops of oak-smoked water supplied by Halen Môn. "This is a great product for adding a very subtle smoked flavour to a dish," says Drake.
To follow, a surf and turf combination pays homage to the late Michel Roux, who Drake got to know well during the three occasions he competed in the Roux Scholarship final, eventually winning in 2001. He describes the pork belly, ponzu, swede, cumin, crushed apple and langoustine as "a complex dish full of strong flavours". The belly is rubbed with smoked paprika, salt and sugar and marinated for 12 hours before being braised in a water bath at 75C for a further 12 hours. "This ensures the fat just melts away and the meat is very juicy."
Third up is a dish which highlights how Drake uses grated frozen cheese to add punch to a dish. In this case he takes the soft, white-rinded Tunworth from the Hampshire Cheese Company to give a powerful edge to salt-baked celeriac, black truffle, pickled mushrooms and chicken juices.
The fish course is a beautifully moist piece of brill served alongside the contrasting crunch of oyster tempura, together with salsify, lemon thyme, lollo rosso and chive; while the savoury element of the menu is completed with wild duck, served ‘coq au vin' style, along with blackberry, beetroot and sourdough. To round things off there are two desserts: rhubarb and sorrel custard, blood orange and buckwheat popcorn; and peanut, miso and lime milk.
With Dorking being a commuter town – the train into London Victoria takes an hour – Sorrel has benefitted from those who have worked at home during the pandemic. By starting dinner service at 5.30pm, some tables can be turned during the evening, and it managed to serve up to 50 covers a night before lockdown in December.
"We've always had a good regular audience, but we now have new customers who are used to eating out all the time in the capital and are now discovering us for the first time."
From the menu
- Barbecue potato, sea herbs, salmon roe, dulse butter sauce, parsley
- Quail, cep aïoli, soy, sweetcorn, chickweed
- Brill, salsify, oyster tempura, lemon thyme, lollo rosso, chive
- Venison, parsley root, chocolate, ox tongue, rainbow chard, parsnip
- Cheese: Stichelton, rose, pear, chicory (£10 supplement)
- Peanut, miso, lime milk
- Grapefruit, Blue Jamaican coffee, coconut, passion fruit
Lunch menu, £45 for three courses
Sorrel, 77 South Street, Dorking, Surrey RH4 2JU
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