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
West Sussex
RH17 5LD

REVIEW: Riddle & Finns Champagne and Oyster Bar, Brighton

Riddle & Finns has a not too overly-polished New York cool glamour vibe. Think dimmed lights, vintage chandeliers, flattering candlelight, shiny tiled walls, oysters served on stands, champagne chilling in buckets and gleaming marble table tops. It's a very sexy little place.

Fruit De Mer platters are available at a decent price as are a selection of oysters with a choice of hot or cold sauces (Sea urchin butter, Rockefeller, champagne, pickled cucumber and bacon, salsa, soy and wasabi...) which you can then wash down with a Black Velvet dah-ling.

And they do interesting things here as well as the norm. A changing selection of sashimi, Monkfish cheek Tempura, a whole wok fried crab. There are actually quite a few Asian inspired touches on the menu. What is also good is that you could blow £40 on a lobster a shellfish platter or settle for a plate of £12 clam linguini, so this restaurant can suit all wallets and tastes, unless you are a devout carnivore or vegan as there are, refreshingly, no allowances made for you.

As you would expect in a fresh fish restaurant, a few items were not available on the night so instead of my sardines I was craving, I had the scallops. Being up the duff, there was quite a lot on the menu I had to unfortunately avoid but really fancied scallops so asked if they would, or could be cooked though. I didn't, however, really appreciate the waitress' response of looking at me like I'd asked for a plate of Captain Birdseye Fish Fingers with a side of Tommy K. I thought it was an understandable request in the circumstances and she reassured the that of course (read: you blithering idiot) they would be cooked through. Anyway, more on her later.

When they did turn up, they were cooked beautifully but, as I feared, were wibbly wobbly rare in the middle. Sigh. Maybe I should have said something but threw caution to the wind and they were absolutely delicious to be fair. Huge, sweet and swimming in crunchy chorizo pieces with the addictive oil released from cooking the sausage and a good level chilli heat. Luckily I'd saved a hunk of bread to soak up these precious juices being held in the shell. Hells yeah.

I was surprised Mr. GF didn't embark on the extravagant crustacean and oyster binge that I was expecting him to go on, but he does like his mussels and wasn't disappointed with his classic marinière. They were tender with a really good wine kick from the sauce.

My main of filleted pan fried seabass was divine, with little cubes of courgette, onion compote in a rich sauce. There was a little spiced sweetness in the sauce like clove or cinnamon which wasn't entirely to my taste but worked well overall actually so that was me happy as pie.

Talking of pie, Mr. GF went on to order the fish pie which was quite colossal and really good value for the large hunks of fish including the scallop and prawn that garnished the top.

Quality is the order of the day here. Everything was top notch and as fresh as it could be. Why Brighton doesn't have more (decent) fish restaurants I have no idea, but I guess if fish is what you want when you visit then you will not go wrong here.

Unfortunately service, as mentioned before, was a little off. Our drinks were forgotten, specials not mentioned (AND there was bloody Lobster Spaghetti and Lemon Sole on too - grrr). Our waitress had a very unusual personality, yet not unfriendly, and felt like she was rushing us out of our seats. Saying that the staff tending to other tables seemed fine, relaxed and friendly.

Another point to bring up is the communal seating policy. There is no booking and you are sat side by side if you are a couple on the bar tables and expected to share, which we personally didn't mind at all. The lady in the couple sat opposite us seemed quite self conscious and covered her entire face with her hands when she spoke, so I guess being seated next to strangers can make some people unconformable (I'm sure I didn't have something in my teeth or bad table manners that she was shielding from). There are tables of 8 and 4, and would make a very sophisticated evening with friends. But if you are after an intimate, romantic, lingering dinner, then communal seating may not be your ideal option. There is an alfresco chef's table/bar outside serviced by a kitchen hatch which you could prop up for a casual quick bite and a nose into the kitchen antics. Or, if this is all too much for your hermit-like sensibilities, they do sell shellfish and fish from a counter that you can cook in the privacy of your own home.

I really liked Riddle and Finns and when people ask me for a fish restaurant recommendation it would have to go top of the list (alongside their sister restaurant Due South which has some fab fish dishes yet isn't exclusively so like R&F). The menu is exciting yet caters for the classics too and a lot of the produce, as with Due South, is sourced locally which ticks my boxes.

Riddle & Finns
2b Meeting House lane
Brighton BN1 1HB