At the Pass in Horsham's South Lodge hotel, head chef Ian Swainson serves artistic, modern European dishes, often with unusual ingredients. Tom Vaughan pays a visit
Since its inception nine years ago, South Lodge hotel's fine-dining restaurant, the Pass, has been a cheffy playground. With no division between front and back of house (the 22 covers are situated inside the kitchen) it is an ideal spot for chefs to engage directly with diners.
"I want to bring new things to people's palates and change their expectations," says Swainson. "It's really, really important to me. And because of the respect people have for this restaurant, they are willing to try them."
Befitting the cheffy setting, the menu choice comes down to an eight-course (£80) or 10-course (£90) tasting menu. From these, a standout was a snail dish called Walk the Line, which perfectly incorporates Swainson's love of challenging ingredients and his story-led approach to plating up.
"As a concept it was inspired by Bernard Loiseau, who used to do snails with a garlic purée that he'd cook seven times," he explains. Swainson boils garlic cloves from cold in milk seven times to create a soft, sweet purée, which he pairs with a peppery watercress emulsion, then tops with snails braised for five hours in a red wine sauce. Accompanying it is an eggshell filled with a rich hollandaise, from which the snails look to be escaping when plated up. It's a hearty, velvety dish, finished with foraged, dehydrated and deep-fried moss to add a final texture and earthy flavour.
ther hit was A Contradiction in Colour, inspired by Swainson's stage at the three-Michelin-starred Quique Dacosta Restaurant in Dénia, Spain, and drawing on his own investigations into artistic theory (he is reading up on artist Wassily Kandinsky's colour theory, he says). He cooks a Sicilian red prawn at 70Â°C and serves it shelled, with the head on - diners are encourage to squeeze the head juices over the meat. Alongside this is a monochrome lasagne made with squid ink pasta and a truffle and Parmesan cream."I wanted it to really kick off with these flavours - huge hits of umami, massive salt, creaminess and that earthy, nasal hit from the truffle," he says. As well as a rich, indulgent dish, it is one of the few times that luxury ingredients sneak onto Swainson's menu, with his preference being to elevate normally prosaic elements to fine-dining levels. Elsewhere, Lake District sweetbreads come with a sabayon made with asparagus-infused butter, English asparagus, wild garlic leaves and oil, roasted garlic purée and a single morel - proof that for all the wizardry and concept that constitutes other dishes, Swainson can also do simple, clean, classical flavours. For dessert, Concrete Paradise sees English rhubarb and rhubarb gel paired with a rapeseed jelly, basil leaves and topped with grey slabs of balsamic meringue, from under which the pink of the rhubarb and green of the herbs poke out. Then finally, after so much artistry from the chef, it's the diners' turn - sheets of popcorn paper arrive as petits fours accompanied by sticky, multi-coloured sauces (from green pistachio to blue chocolate) and brushes with which to paint your own masterpiece. It's a fun end to proceedings that reflects the mix of serious technique, stunning aesthetics and playful imagination that is beginning to define Swainson's tenure at the Pass. "I'm enjoying myself, but also constantly trying to move everything forward," says Swainson. "I want the restaurant to be more artistic in the way we set it up; I want the food to become more artistic and I want my own style to become clearer. And with every new dish development and every new menu, I feel that is clicking more and more into place." From the menuSimply crisp - Sashimi tuna, obulato crisp, mandarin Green - Pea and mint sorbet, fresh peas, goats' curd, hazelnut A Potato with its Head in the Clouds - Potato mousse, confit quail's egg, potato strings, butter foam Seeing Red - Duck breast, beetroot, red cabbage, liver Honeymoon in Kyoto - Pig's head ramen, confit egg yolk, burnt leek, fresh noodles Morning Frost - Pistachio, chocolate, passion fruit A Little Heaven in Hell - Walnut, muscovado, coffee, chocolate The Pass South Lodge hotelBrighton Road, Lower Beeding, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 6PSwww.exclusive.co.uk/south-lodge/restaurants-bars/the-pass/