Is the Hotel du Vin really the best bistro in Brighton?
PUBLISHED: 13:20 04 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013
Is the Hotel du Vin in Brighton the greatest bistro this side of the Channel? Lulu Larkin thinks so as she savours the flavours of its sublime cooking and charming ambience...
WHAT DO an orphanage, a disused eye hospital, an old sugarhouse and a lunatic asylum have in common? They are all buildings of architectural significance which have been reclaimed, renovated and restored to their former splendour by the Hotel du Vin & Bistro group. And Brighton, built on the site of a former wine merchant, is no exception.Lacking the historical grandeur of Cambridge and the sweeping elegance of Tunbridge Wells, Brighton Hotel du Vin's eclectic fusion of Gothic revival, mock Tudor and avant-garde is utterly charming.
Passing through an imposing archway and portcullis into a pretty cobbled courtyard, you're met with a row of powder blue beach huts with shiny white doors straight from a seaside postcard. Well, they're not actually beach huts but luxury rooms. Still, with the sea just yards away, it's a nice thematic touch. And if it's too cold for an early morning dip, you can always have a monsoon shower in your room.
Just as I was musing how wonderful it would be to stay here, Daniel reminded me that we'd come for lunch and he was absolutely famished. Mmm, me too. We'd heard so much about the wonderful food at the Bistro and, as it was my husband's birthday, we'd decided to put its reputation to the test.
The restaurant is reached via the bar lounge: a magnificent baronial hall, where a carved staircase leads up to a minstrels' gallery with a wine-tasting room, a billiard table and a walk-in humidor - a unique feature of the Hotels du Vin - boasting 28 brands of cigar with an expert on hand to guide your choice. And then, opposite the mahogany horseshoe bar, is the Bistro itself: a twinkling spectacle of etched glass doors, rococo mirrors, chandeliers and tables with crisp white linen.
We were warmly welcomed by restaurant manager Stephanie Touzin before being shown to our table by Bela, who talked us through the 'land sea local' - with the emphasis on the local - menu with knowledgeable enthusiasm. He was also extremely patient - unlike Daniel - as I dithered between the tantalising starters and mains on offer from the carte du jour and the Hotel du Vin Classics.
We finally settled on grilled sardines, D's favourite, with salsa verde and cherry tomatoes and chicken liver parfait with onion marmalade and toasted brioche for me.
I'm not a great sardine fan, but D's baby pilchards looked so irresistible, I snaffled a mouthful and ooh, they were scrumptious - so fresh and juicy. My chicken parfait was, well, parfait. A light, creamy mousse with a soupon of cognac accompanied by fluffy, golden brioche toast.
While we were waiting for our mains - Barbary duck breast and braised red cabbage for D, seared sea bream and nioise for me - we shared a bottle of Grner Veltliner, a superb, food-friendly Austrian white as recommended by expert sommelier Mathieu Ouvrad. The wine list here is outstanding. Not overly long but carefully-selected bottles guaranteed to please, exactly as one would expect from a Hotel du Vin. When I saw D's duck breast - a generous portion of lean, pink, tender slices in a pool of glossy Madeira sauce - I wondered whether I had made the right choice. But my sea bream was simply piscilicious. The skin was so crispy and tasty that Walkers should market it as a new flavour. And the warm salad nioise with balsamic, lemon juice and herb dressing was inspired. We had side-orders of fat chunky chips - well, it was D's birthday - and haricot verts point.
It was all so satisfying, could we manage dessert? But Daniel rallied to the cause with a white chocolate torte and blueberries. Super food indeed. I was going to pass until I saw on the menu: 'If you can't manage a dessert, why not try a cup of espresso ice cream?' So I did but could easily have managed two. A splendid idea and one that more restaurants should emulate. I had a cafetire of coffee - and D a pot of Darjeeling - on the sun terrace overlooking the courtyard and, without any flim-flam, it was the best I've ever tasted.
So, as we lingered over our drinks, had we enjoyed our Hotel du Vin Bistro experience? Absolument. The ambience here is relaxed and informal, the service efficient yet friendly and chef Rob Carr's cuisine makes dining here a real pleasure. Could it be the best bistro this side of the Channel?
The philosophic gastronome Brillat-Savin wrote over 200 years ago that 'the way in which mealtimes are passed is most important to what happiness we find in life'. And it's all here at Hotel du Vin in Brighton.
A vos sant!
Bistro at Hotel du Vin
Ship Sreet, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 1AD
tel: 01273 718588
The Dining Room at Purchases
31 North Street,
Chichester PO19 1LY
tel: 01243 537 352
Another historic wine merchant's building, The Dining Room serves excellent, unpretentious local dishes in a stylish ambience. Lunchtime, pre and post-theatre menus are all reasonably priced and may include Selsey crab gratin, Colchester oysters and their famous Arnold Bennett - a former Storrington resident - omelette with smoked haddock and cream topped with melted cheese. Wickedly delicious. If you prefer just a cocktail or glass of champagne, all drinks in the wine bar are 3 between 5pm and 7pm.
17 High Street, Battle TN33 OAE
tel: 01424 774422
A welcome new entry in the 2009 Michelin Guide for chef/owner Paul Noble and front-of-house partner Debbie Martin, whose charming bistro restaurant serves constantly superb food using the best local and seasonal produce. A short but sophisticated menu may include sole and spinach mousse, boar sausages, Wealdway goats' cheese and sun-dried tomato risotto with maybe champagne syllabub to follow. The two-course lunch menu is historic value at 10.66.
The Ginger Pig
3 Hove Street, Hove BN3 2TR
tel: 01273 736123
Third restaurant in the Gingerman empire is one of the most popular venues in Hove, combining bistro-style food in a relaxed atmosphere with heart-warming food and prices to match whether it's for lunch, brunch or dinner. The good news is they've dropped their first-come first-served policy, so customers can now enjoy the excellent Michelin Bib Gourmand food and service without the queues. Celebrity restaurant chefs take note.