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Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield: Restaurant review

PUBLISHED: 11:10 09 October 2018

Rum Baba, banana sorbet, caramelised banana from Ockenden Manor, Cuckfield (Photo by Mark Langridge)

Rum Baba, banana sorbet, caramelised banana from Ockenden Manor, Cuckfield (Photo by Mark Langridge)

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Cuckfield’s Ockenden Manor offers a spectacular panorama while you eat

Book early, is my advice. And not for fear of being turned away, but in the hope that you may be given the best seat in the house, as we were when we dined at Ockenden Manor on a sultry summer’s night.

An Elizabethan manor turned luxury hotel and spa with an award-winning restaurant, Ockenden is located in the quiet village of Cuckfield, at the foot of the South Downs. And it’s thanks to this enviable position that we are being treated to a mesmerising view. Seated in front of open French doors, we admire the glorious Downs, perfectly framed by the branches of two mature trees, rustling gently in the evening breeze. In the distance, slow-moving clouds create shadows across the sun-drenched hills.

Our reverie is broken momentarily by the arrival of the menus, one a three-course set menu (£65) and the other a six-course tasting menu (£90). We don’t feel we’re missing out by opting for the former as both consist of refined dishes with a distinctly French twist and a strong emphasis on local produce.

Waldorf salad and whipped goat’s cheese launches a steady stream of complimentary bites, closely followed by cod croquettes and tartare sauce, three types of bread, and bresaola with smoked tomato, horseradish potato salad and onion crumb. All are pleasant enough, but I can’t help thinking that one really good amuse-bouche would have done the job.

A froth-topped asparagus soup tastes of the anticipation of summer. Light, bright and herbaceous, my fellow diner’s meal is off to a good start. Overall, my home-smoked duck (the chef’s signature dish) lacks conviction, but the pulled-duck croquette, with its crisp, caramelised coating, wins me over. We’re given just the right amount of time to meditate on what we’ve eaten so far – and continue to soak up the view – before the mains appear. A generous-sized fillet of Newhaven-landed cod has been expertly cooked so that big, juicy flakes separate easily from one another. The accompanying curry sauce is fragrant and delicately spiced. The addition of deep-fried squid would have been a master stroke if it had not become the seafood version of biltong, and the asparagus is a little undercooked for my liking.

Belly and saddle of new-season lamb from the Goodwood Estate is billed alongside a lamb ‘sausage roll’, petit pois à la Francaise, Jersey royals and garlic cream (£5 supplement), however it’s the ‘sausage roll’ that takes the starring role (no pun intended). Rich and tender, the soft meat has been wrapped in bronzed pastry so thin that I initially mistake it for Parma ham.

Several of the desserts pique our interest, making it difficult to decide, but we finally commit to one very classic combination and something a little less safe. English Rhubarb is the perfect dessert, and one I would happily eat again – and again. Pieces of rhubarb have been poached with ginger until just tender, and the rich, creamy ice cream is rippled with tart rhubarb. Two filled doughnuts – one with vanilla custard and one with rhubarb puree – are sugar-coated clouds.

The Dark Chocolate Nemesis is a different beast, but just as delicious. The brownie – which must be the ‘nemesis’ as the chocolate mousse arguably appears to be of the milk variety – is dense and sticky, but in the best possible way.

Ockenden does the small things incredibly well. The service is impeccable. The atmosphere is sophisticated without being stuffy. But, apart from those sparkling desserts, for the most part it was the view that captured our imagination a great deal more than the food.

Ockenden Manor Hotel & Spa, Ockenden Lane, Cuckfield, RH17 5LD, 01444 416111; www.hshotels.co.uk

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