EATING OUT Modish Modiglianis and veg

TERRE A TERRE 7 Pool Valley, Brighton BN1 1NJ. Tel: 01273 729051 Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday, Monday dinner only. Average price for three courses, £15 per person including wine. No credit cards
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I'M NOT sure whether I'm getting more sensitive, but I felt definitely embarrassed yesterday morning opening the post when I found a letter from a reader of this column. I had, it seemed, thoughtlessly caricatured her a few weeks ago as part of the cast of humorous diners in a restaurant. What shocked me was how easily she had managed to identify herself, although admittedly there were only four of us in the restaurant at the time. I am extremely sorry, and will try to be more considerate.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help noticing - actually my daughter drew my attention to it - that there was a bit too much fiddling with nose-rings in Terre Terre, just off the front of Brighton. The clientele looked for the most part like Modiglianis, young Brighton Bohemians with that slightly continental line of lean elegance that sets young Brighton apart from, let us say, young Fulham or young Barnes. At another table a man was entertaining his girlfriend by turning side-face to her and pretending to push a spiral of paper-napkin up his upstage nostril. These quirks would have gone unnoticed if we had not had to wait for so long for our food.

That criticism made, I have nothing but praise for Terre Terre. It is an extraordinarily good restaurant, and more interesting for being so inventively vegetarian, though liberal rather than orthodox: there was a poached egg on the menu somewhere, and one of the two mutually mesmerised beauties in the table by the window chain-smoked cigarettes all through dinner.

It is already popular - the only table I could get on a Friday evening was at seven, with a request to have it free by ten to nine - but I would strongly recommend it to anyone living in or visiting Brighton as a real treat.

Situated just behind the Bus Station, Terre Terre occupies the ground- floor front room of a narrow, early-Victorian house and one upstairs room with a big sash window overlooking the street. The old embossed wallpaper upstairs has been painted over in a warm custard colour, there are plain tables, small framed photographs of what look like the Alps, and a couple of hippy wall-mounted verdigris-green candlesticks on either side of the window, one made in the form of a crescent moon, the other of a star.

Do not go there expecting a few braised leeks and a boiled potato: rich reds and purples struggle with yellow lemons and pale greens on the plate. The flavours are equally turbulent and explosive, and the language is a riot of strange-sounding names like gumbo, focaccia, halloumi and organic yannoh.

My daughter threw herself into the exotic starters with real courage for someone who until quite recently took all the currants out of bread and butter pudding and lived on Marmite. She ordered the "terre tapas", a plate of various spicy vegetables and warm garlic focaccia. I asked for the port and mushroom terrine and a glass of house white. This comes at £6.95 a bottle, and there are more ambitious wines up to the St Emilion at £14.95.

We then waited for the best part of 40 minutes for our first course, swopping anecdotes and impersonations of friends, no doubt to the chagrin of nearby vegetarian readers of this column and were very hungry when the food finally came. We then started reviewing it. I thought the flavour and consistency of the mushroom terrine were very good, there were a lot of sunflower seeds in the salad and a delicious light dressing, the Italian bread (focaccia) was exactly what I wanted: she found the various wodges of red cabbage and beetroot and spicy dips in little pastry boats all a bit fussy, and hankered for the plain, braised-leeks school of vegetarian cooking.

I stuck to my guns, even through the fairly long wait for the next course, arguing that the intention was to show that vegetables weren't puritanical or boring, that you didn't need meat or fish to produce variety, and that as far as I was concerned they were succeeding.

For our main course she had rostibrowns topped with buttered spinach with garlic and nutmeg, grilled halloumi and olives, and I had sweet potato, pink peppercorn and allspice bullas - don't ask, something West Indian - "nestled in a black bean gumbo, topped with mango chutney and guacamole".

Here my daughter drew the line at the olives, removing them like the currants out of the bread and butter pudding, and said the grilled halloumi - a kind of cheese - was "a bit like eating flip-flops". This, for those of you who get all the foodie references but may be confused by the high fashion, was an allusion to rubber beach sandals. Despite that she said she generally enjoyed it and was impressed by the spinach.

My sweet potato and so on was just lovely though I was slightly bewildered by the gumbo. It does not figure in the Larousse Gastronomique but I ran it to earth in Fannie Farmer who identifies it as okra or ladies' fingers, a far cry from the spicy black beans at Terre Terre. Being without reference books at the time I withdrew into my naive restaurant critic mode and simply enjoyed it as a wonderfully digestible West Indian- inspired special.

For pudding my daughter had poached pears with award-winning ice cream in a cassis sauce, and I hogged my way through almond biscuits with a pot of soft Italian cheese and a glass of Marsala to dip them in. She finished with camomile tea and I had the organic yannoh, a bitterish coffee substitute ideal after what we'd had to eat. The whole feast for two came to £32.75 without the tip.