This, it was clear when we walked down through the town earlier, is not in the best of health. The old town is as pretty as it ever was with its high, black, fishermen's houses and the warren of white-painted lanes, but central Hastings seemed to have come down in the world: multiple tenancies behind massive Victorian facades, some crumbling, some disfigured by unsuitable modern windows.
It may have been the babble of southern talk from the vividly planted public gardens, but the town seemed like one of those grim Italian seaside resorts where gigantic apartment blocks seem almost to crush the shoreline into insignificance, and facing the pier there is a glaring white Mediterranean extrusion labelled Aphrodite Taverna. Next door to it, under a modest dark-green signboard, is the best restaurant on the south coast.
Roser's is run by a husband and wife team, and makes no concessions to passing weekend trade. It is closed for lunch on Saturday, all day Sunday and lunch on Monday. For the rest of the week it clearly sets its sights on the once-prosperous coast from Bexhill to Winchelsea and inland to Battle, and the extensive wine list includes a bottle of 1981 Montrachet at pounds 395. It is listed with approval in every guide, and on the Friday evening we had dinner there was completely empty.
It is in the South-east that the recession has hit the restaurant-using middle class hardest, and we are going to have to realise that if such a great restaurant is to survive, it is now a case, as we are told about Plumpton railway station, of use it or lose it.
Fresh chanterelles had just arrived from Scotland, a barrel of scallops fresh from the fish market, and the special of the day was rack of Romney Marsh lamb bought from a farmer who, they claimed rather heartlessly, knew every lamb by name. Gerald Roser is German, from just over the border near Strasbourg, and should be decorated with every culinary medal in existence.
In order to soothe my wife, who had her doubts about using the railway and approached the restaurant with growing apprehension along a wide red-patterned promenade alive with skateboarders, I bought a slightly expensive bottle of wine, a Montagny Premier Cru at pounds 21.50. This and the restrained decor of dark green carpet and wooden banquettes hung with discreet little chintz curtains had an immediate effect, and she set about being amazed by the menu. Roser's limits itself to six relatively simple starters, such as crostini of wood pigeon or seared scallops, and six relatively simple main courses including fillet of beef or chargrilled sea-bass, plus a couple of specials. My wife started with pike souffle with smoked salmon and chive sauce, and I had one of the specials, the newly delivered chanterelles cooked with a flat pasta.
The pike souffle was quenelles de brochet, but infinitely more delicate in flavour and consistency than anything you would find in the most rosette- studded restaurant in Paris; the pasta with the fresh and perfectly cooked wood-mushrooms beyond praise.
Having no other tables to serve, Jenny Roser talked about the bread - home-made from focaccio flour, plaited from dough half-mixed with saffron and half plain, and enlivened by shreds of sun-dried tomato and olives - admitting that it had taken her husband "years to crack it". It was, not surprisingly, very good.
For our main courses my wife had duck breast with orange and nine-spice sauce, and I had roast seafood served with a shellfish stock.
The duck was spectacular for the sauce, which was a rich and subtle blend of at least nine if not more spices. It came with a single tender carrot, French beans and sugar-snap peas, like mange-tout but fleshier. My roast seafood was a display of monkfish, John Dory, scallop, green-lipped mussel, red mullet, seabass, and squid of almost Japanese elegance, dominated by a crouching crayfish. Every individual element had been just sufficiently roasted to retain its own flavour and that shellfish stock complemented them all.
For pudding we resisted the creme brulee, the white chocolate parfait, the homemade sorbets, and ordered an apple mille-feuille, "layers of lightly poached Granny Smith apples and Calvados-flavoured creme patiss-erie served with a butterscotch sauce", and Roser's chocolate mousse, "made with the finest of French chocolate and served with a coffee cream sauce". I could hear the voice of my old friend the poet Michael Horovitz denouncing me on the telephone yet again for my greed and extravagance while decent poets were gnawing on a crust, but went ahead and ordered two glasses of Beaumes de Venise. We were, after all, going home by train.
When we said we would prefer tea to coffee, Mrs Roser produced a list. These included fennel, hibiscus, Lapsang Souchong, Cherry Picker's Punch, Bright and Early Herbal, lemon and orange, and Raspberry Rendezvous, but we asked for one peppermint and one cinnamon. They came in glass coffee jugs, the tea leaves pressed down with the plunger, and were as good as everything else.
Horovitz, I am sure, will be enraged to hear the whole thing without tip came to pounds 95.65.
64 Eversfield Place, St Leonards, nr Hastings, East Sussex TN37 6DB. Tel: 01424 712218. Open Tuesday-Friday lunch 12-2, Tuesday-Saturday dinner 7-10. Average three-course a la carte meal, pounds 25-pounds 30. All major credit cards acceptedReuse content