REVIEW: Ockenden Manor, Cuckfield, West Sussex

The thing with stars is that they look so pretty from afar, so twinkly, glamorous and enticing. People make wishes upon them, they even want to become them; film "stars", rock "stars" and er, soap "stars"...all sorts. Stars are special right? The fact of the matter is that up close they are just gigantic fireballs, full of gas and scary explosions. Not quite so glam.

Yet people elevate star-awarded restaurants, it makes them more special apparently, well certainly more expensive anyway. Sussex lacks a decent crop of Michelin stars, despite having some outstanding restaurants, and part of me has always wanted to find out if they really are worth their salt (and more on the salt later). This year, The Curlew and Ockenden Manor retained theirs, and The Pass at South Lodge, where you can see the chefs fiddling with your food on big TV screens, was finally awarded one too.

But tonight we chose Ockenden. Mainly because it's the closest one to Brighton, but mainly because it seems to have a stable, steady review history. Style-wise, Ockenden Manor touches a little on posh retirement home chic, exuding that comfortable, lived-in manor house feel with chintzy swags and comfortable armchairs bowing from years of affluent bottoms. Clientele-wise we were also by far the youngest couple there too.

You are invited to turn up a terribly civilised half hour earlier for canapes and drinks in either the bar area or the lounge, which were fine, although our canapes seemed to have got mislayed and I had to ask for them which made me a bit sulky. I was far more at home in the dining room, which in contrast to the rest of the place, has been redecorated in a modern-colonial feel, with good lighting and sharp lines.

(Do excuse the lack of photos. I was treating Mr. GF to dinner and I already felt a second rate citizen with my Ford Fiesta in the car park amongst the Astons!)

I started with some smooth Pumpkin Puree filled Tortellini, Chestnuts and Cubes of Pumpkin which was really quite tasty, beautifully presented and made the most of a lot of textures which I like. Being a pasta junkie, I wouldn't say the pasta itself was any better than the beautifully silky examples you get from any average restaurant back in the homeland, but not a bad example at all. Mr GF also followed with a pasta starter, his being a single sheet elegantly folded like a napkin and adorned with ceps and chicken oysters (my favourite bits of a chicken). Again this was a really successful dish, the pasta hugging onto the richness of the ceps and sauce.

For mains, we both chose the Balcombe Venison Saddle from down the road. I loved the tiny little Cornish pasty that was served with it which was an unusual but lovely little touch. Again more mushrooms with some tiny onions accompanied the venison which was cooked beautifully and cut into thin, delicate slithers.

Mr. GF made a good dent in the heaving cheese board and I went for a Hazelnut Macaroon which lacked a little lightness but was perfectly ok, just no Piere Herme. It was the odd choice of bananas stacked around the outside of the macaron that really took away any finesse the dish may have had.

Coffee & Petits Fours at an extra £5 a pop are worth a miss. I like a raised heartbeat after a good espresso but the one I was served wouldn't have disturbed a sparrow's composure and the petit fours arrived fridge cold and uninspired. Canapes were also more bar snack than star status - mediocre breaded fish things and tartare - yawn.

I would say that the food on the whole was good, really quite good, but sadly not memorable. One sure fact is that Ockenden Manor do not do revolutionary food. Like the furniture, it is solid, good quality and comfortable, and there is nothing wrong with that, just don't come expecting fireworks. The main issue however, with all of the food including the canapes, was that all of it was so dramatically salted. I have a really heavy hand with seasoning but good God did I really feel my blood pressure rise at this dinner and both of us woke up with pork scratching style toungues in the morning.

I was also surprised not to see more local wine on the menu as you have quite a few Sussex vineyards close by, but I suppose the mark upon dusty French bottles is more lucrative for them.

Dinner cost £53 per person for 3 courses which by the time you add wine costs on top will give you a hefty, yet not astronomical bill. Money spent on good food is never a waste in my book, but personally I feel I could have spent half that in a few other restaurants and arguably have had a more satisfying belly rub meal but I am glad I experienced a perfectly pleasant dinner at Ockenden. If you haven't been I would say it is worth a visit but I wouldn't be itching to jump back into the beat up Fiesta for revisit anything soon.

Ockenden Manor
Ockenden Lane
Cuckfield
West Sussex
RH17 5LD