The Felbridge Hotel and Spa is far from a dream destination. Handily situated near Gatwick airport, and a mile from the glamorous environs of East Grinstead, it's a two-storey monstrosity of modern brickwork and mock-Tudor beams that shouts "Crossroads Motel!" at you while you're parking the car. It's a hotel for budget weddings, mini-conferences for estate agents from Oxted and Reigate, meetings with foreign businessmen who've flown into London but can't afford a night of mojitos and lap-dancing in the West End.
Inside the hotel, the dispiriting sludge-green décor and swirly carpets of the endless corridors make you feel you're trapped inside a diseased intestine. But I persevered because I'd heard that in this unpromising venue a master craftsman operates. He's called Matthew Budden, and is executive chef of the Anise, one of the hotel's two restaurants.
My spirits weren't much lifted by the Anise's attempts at sophistication: its dark and beige curtains and chairs, its recessed ceiling lights in the prevailing gloom, the generic South American musak. You could practically hear the designer wrestling with the problem of how to create the least offensive, faux-cool ambience for hordes of passing-through strangers.
The menu, however, was a brilliant read. Can I interest you in a starter of "goat's curd pannacotta with white and green asparagus with broad bean and lavender honey"? Would you love to find out whether the "roast corn-fed chicken, glazed drumstick, roast peach and rosemary, spiced gingerbread" was a riot of fruit-herby flavours or a children's dish with delusions of grandeur? And those were just among the starters. The whole menu glowed and sang with ambition.
Bodyswerving the pannacotta (I abhor goat's cheese), I ordered the confit of sea trout with brown shrimp ravioli, crispy pea shoots and pea velouté. The trout was perfectly cooked and supple, a delicate orange island in a lake of green pea soup. The dish was, in fact, more pea soup with trout than vice versa, but it worked fine. The twin ravioli with shrimp offered nicely ridged textures amid the verdant pools. A lurking sea-wrack of green fronds was oversalted, but the whole starter was impressive. My date Angie's seared Portland scallop with spring roll pastry, scallop tartare, wasabi and coriander arrived on a long black slate: a single fat scallop on a soy-drenched slice of cucumber, with pearls of raw scallop inside a spring roll. The wasabi had been cut with mayonnaise, as if the chef was afraid of brutalising the delicate shellfish. It made the taste buds sing.
Main courses were served on huge oval plates. In Angie's sirloin of local Sussex beef with duck egg raviolo, morels, spring onions and parsley purée, the beef was cooked perfectly medium rare, and the single raviolo sat on it like a big floppy sun-hat surmounted by a single slice of truffle. Inside was mashed potato rather than duck egg (which seemed a bit of a cheat) and the caramelised onions under the steak brought an unwelcome sweetness to the meat, but there was so much going on, it felt churlish to whinge.
I ordered roast loin of English rose veal with potato and bacon "cannelloni", curly kale and bone-marrow beignet – see what I mean about the menu being a good read? This was like an EM Forster novella, full of vivid characters and dodgy foreigners. The tranches of veal were delicious but rather eclipsed by the "cannelloni" – a soft cigar of potato wrapped in pancetta resembling an overcooked banana. The only beignets I've experienced before were Louisiana croissants frosted with icing sugar. The beignet here was quite different – a brown sphere of savoury dough containing some obscure dark flecks and, as far as I could tell, no trace of bone marrow. The sphere sat on a gungy hill of mushroom mush which was slightly disgusting.
This extravagantly ambitious, slightly hit-and-miss meal ended with a champagne and raspberry trifle with sugared almonds and framboise sorbet, as exotic as its name. Frozen circlets of sorbet were interspersed with brittle wafers of caramel sugar, and the trifle itself was a miracle of smooth fruitiness cut with nobbles of almond. Angie's blackcurrant and lavender crème brûlée was equally ambrosial, with iced tea to wash it down.
The summer menu is priced at £25 for three courses. I'd say the food is worth twice that. It's a long time since I discovered such a prodigality of chef talent – admittedly, sitting alongside some less successful ideas. Mr Budden's imagination may need editing but he's a real find. If he were relocated to a country house hotel rather than the brittle sophistication of the Felbridge, there's no telling how far he might go.
Anise at the Felbridge Hotel, London Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex (01342 337700)
About £80 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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Fricassée of wild trout and scallops is typical of Shane Hughes' superb cooking at the best hotel restaurant in Wales.
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