It’s instantaneous: from the second it hits my tastebuds, I know I’ve experienced the best dish I’ll eat all year. Imagine realising this in the height of summer, knowing full well the prospect of many other great morsels to come? Yet, there’s no getting around it. Eating something like this is the equivalent experience of turning on the colour on a black-and-white television set – a sensory overload that leaves you in quiet disbelief.
The dish in question is a small bowl of carabiñero prawn crudo (licked with a blowtorch just before serving), a foamy sauce made from the delicious juice in the head, tomato jelly and an expensive dollop of Oscietra caviar, all served atop koshihikari rice (the king of sushi rice in Japan). The sweetness of the barely cooked prawn is lifted by a subtle hint of fruity tomato, before the combined marine heft of the sauce and briny caviar punches you in the mouth. The rice, delicate and not at all starchy, is just a vessel carrying this flavour to your palate. Damn. Get me a bucket of the stuff. Inject it into my veins. Put it in a trough. I don’t care. I’ll greedily consume it however you tell me to – it’s that good.
Here’s the kicker, though, there’s no wink wink nudge nudge presentation of this dish. Young head chef Tom Kemble wanders over from the kitchen no more than 10 metres away, hands the dishes to me and my dining companion, explains the wonder he has just created, and totters off to make the next dish. Spoiler alert: it’s lobster, some of the most perfectly cooked I’ve experienced, with ribbons of pillowy pappardelle and a tomato-based lobster sauce.
This is a joke shop, guys: Kemble barely looks a day out of culinary school and I’ll be damned if I’ve encountered a more talented chef in the UK.
Take the duck: it’s corn-fed and boasts a gold-hued fat that improbably tastes of buttered popcorn
The Pass at West Sussex’s five-star South Lodge Hotel feels like a bit of a gimmick on paper: “Taking the ‘Chef’s Table’ concept and exquisitely developing it, diners at our 28-cover, award-winning restaurant are closely involved in the kitchen drama,” the website breathlessly tells us. And while I’ll be honest in that the most ‘drama’ you’re likely to witness is the occasional clatter of pans, there’s something voyeuristic about watching intense concentration and discipline blossom into one of the best-composed tasting menus I’ve had the pleasure of eating.
Kemble came to The Pass at the beginning of 2019 after a successful stint at the (now sadly closed) Bonhams Restaurant – for which he received a Michelin star, and a rave review from a number of critics, including myself. His minimalist style, laden with impeccable produce and a desire to preserve their natural flavour, comes by way of Mikael Jonnson’s (also closed, goddamnit!) Hedone. For me, this passionate insistence on great flavours and careful cookery is the backbone of what modern British cuisine should be about it.
Take the duck: it’s corn-fed and boasts a gold-hued fat that improbably tastes of buttered popcorn. It’s served pink, with morello ketchup (sweetness and astringency), several beetroot types (earthiness), a duck jus (moisture and complexity), and a small tuile topped with shavings of duck liver (absolute, bloody decadence). Kemble creates building blocks of flavour that together create harmony – and, above all, deliciousness.
I don’t know what I’m more surprised by: the fact Michelin somehow didn’t award The Pass its rightful star, or that the six-course tasting menu I enjoyed was no more than £70. On both counts, go figure.
A selection of the food
In a world where London is so often the centre of the culinary universe – or at least it likes to tell us it is – it’s nice to find a genuinely exceptional restaurant out in the Sussex countryside. It’s almost a bonus that the hotel itself, part of the generally excellent Exclusive Collection, is an equally enjoyable experience.
Bordering the rolling hills of the South Downs and residing within 93 acres of woodlands, wild meadows and Victorian gardens, South Lodge is country house glamour at one with nature.
The property itself is composed of a 19th-century neo-Jacobean manor – a wisteria-shrouded yellow brick building, with all of the wood-panelling and wingback chairs your heart could possibly desire on the inside – and a recently completed £14m spa and wellness centre that resides within a modern low-lying structure hidden on one side of the estate.
After an evening of ample food and wine, it’s with great relish that my girlfriend and I donned the hotel’s fluffy dressing gowns and padded across the grounds for a day in the self-contained spa. In blazing sunshine (remember August?), we slink into the UK’s first heated natural swim pond – a gorgeous spot for soaking in the rays – before we mosey on over to the hot tub overlooking the countryside. It’s the ultimate anti-London retreat, within 90 minutes of the capital.
As much as I value this luxurious country getaway, it’s the restaurant that will see me return sooner rather than later
As you might imagine, there’s a host of pampering options for every aching limb and unwanted wrinkle – including a dedicated male grooming bar for those looking for a fresh look – but for me a spot of brunch in the sunny spa restaurant will win out over any massage.
A health juice, an excellent mushroom on toast, and the sight of the Downs was more than enough “me time” to feel the tension of deadlines, Tube delays and the swell of London life, dissipate from my weary muscles. It’s a wonder why we do it to ourselves at all, really.
But as much as I value this luxurious country getaway, it’s the restaurant that will see me return sooner rather than later.
It’s difficult to stress just what a talent Kemble is – and, to South Lodge’s credit, they’re nurturing his gift by simply leaving him to his own devices. It’s invested in the likes of a Japanese binchotan grill and upped its spend on local suppliers to enable the head chef to continue to develop his style. With that kind of support, it’s highly likely Michelin will award The Pass with the star it rightfully deserves.
Believe it or not, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Kemble just yet. I don’t know whether to be excited or scared.
South Lodge, Long Hill, Lower Beeding, Horsham RH13 6PS. For more info, see exclusive.co.uk