Lewes gave us 'The Rights of Man' and the first recognised dinosaur bone, now it's offering a rather delicious confit duck leg. There's progress for you

When it comes to matters of historical and cultural significance, the East Sussex town of Lewes is richly endowed. In the High Street alone, there is an 11th-century stone motte-and-bailey castle, a beamed 15th-century bookshop, and the former residences of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man; Dr Gideon Mantell, who found the first recognised dinosaur fossil in Britain; and Dr Richard Russell, the sea-bathing evangelist whose passion for salt water transformed the nearby fishing village of Brightmelson into Brighton.

When it comes to matters of historical and cultural significance, the East Sussex town of Lewes is richly endowed. In the High Street alone, there is an 11th-century stone motte-and-bailey castle, a beamed 15th-century bookshop, and the former residences of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man; Dr Gideon Mantell, who found the first recognised dinosaur fossil in Britain; and Dr Richard Russell, the sea-bathing evangelist whose passion for salt water transformed the nearby fishing village of Brightmelson into Brighton.

Wonderful stuff, if you are between meals. But Lewes has less to offer the hungry, limiting itself predominantly to a historically and culturally insignificant diet of Thai curries, balti, Chinese, pub grub, kebabs and cream teas.

Look up any British restaurant guide from Harden's to Time Out to the Good Food Guide, and Lewes has one lonely entry: Circa, a bright, modern fusiony restaurant opened in 2000 by chef-patron Ashley Renton.

It must have dawned on Renton that if he was going to have any competition in Lewes, he had to provide it himself. In January this year, he opened Circa Brasserie in the dining-rooms of Pelham House, a restored, relatively modern (16th-century) 23-bedroom country house hotel located in a twitten, the local term for a small lane or alleyway.

The place looks less like a brasserie than your typical country-house dining-room with its sedate, eau de Nil walls, illuminated fireplaces, large double-clothed tables, and extremely comfortable high-backed leather dining chairs.

At Friday lunch, the place is dominated by tables of diary-toting women inhaling fuel in the form of salads and chocolate tarts while planning a ferocious number of forthcoming events. Outside on the balcony, a group of conferencing men take champagne and enjoy views of the gardens and the Sussex Downs before adjourning to a private dining room to eat.

Head chef Simon Raynor has an impressive CV, having trained under Shaun Hill and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park before working as a pastry chef with Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano and joining Terre à Terre, the phenomenally successful Brighton vegetarian restaurant. His menu takes all these influences and runs off around the world with them.

There is a classic French moules marinière, an Asian-influenced chicken soup with sesame soba noodles and tamari choy, a northern European smoked salmon with poached egg and fried-potato roesti and a Vegi-terranean plate of lemon cous cous, haloumi, "zaganoosh" and orange chutney. At lunch, prices are modest with starters from £4.95 and main courses from £7.95, while dinner is only marginally more.

To begin, the soba noodle soup (£5.45) is perfectly pleasant. It's about as Asian as a minestrone, with its short lengths of buckwheat noodles, cabbagey bits, tomato dice, slithers of radish and sprinkling of sesame seeds. As with a lot of so-called fusion dishes, I find it a bit discombobulating not knowing where it is coming from or going to, but it is put together well enough for me to suspend judgment and, in spite of the chicken broth, there is a kind of healthy vegetarian glow about it.

Another starter of chick-pea feta fritters (£4.95) is your full-on veggie number - two chunky, golden, crumbed patties sitting on furls of vodka-marinated cucumber, with a little motte of cucumber and yoghurt tzatziki. The fritters are great - all munch and crunch - but the cucumber is at room temperature, making the vodka taste raw and spirity.

Things are getting a bit too healthy, so I order the fat-man's special, a confit duck leg (£10.95) that turns out to be the meal's high point. Generously proportioned, crisp and crackly, the duck leg rests on a bolster of crisp spring roll stuffed with sweetly spicy carrot and enoki mushrooms. Beneath it is a mattress of bean sprouts and finely sliced mangetout and around it a drizzle of sweetly sticky oyster sauce jus. It is beautifully balanced, cleverly considered and texturally exciting.

Locatelli may have taught Raynor Italian desserts, but he didn't teach him Italian spelling. The panatoni should be panettone in a bread-and-butter pudding that comes with lemonchello cherries that should be Limoncello (£6). The pud is a little dense, and I find the cherries and lemon liqueur cancel each other out.

The short but sweet wine list is as reasonably priced as the menu, although considering its compact nature, it is a let-down to find two of the wines I attempt ordering are out of stock. A glass of fresh and floral Les Garant Fleury 2003 (£7) comes gauchely poured almost to the rim; generous, yes, but I find it better to pour less, charge less and allow room for a little elegance and grace.

Still, the restaurant is professionally put together and tidily run, doing its own thing in an area that is not exactly racing towards the future. In the mullioned and twittened town of Lewes, it is this confidence in its brave-new-worldness that gives Circa Brasserie its own little bit of historical and cultural significance.

14 Circa Brasserie at Pelham House St Andrews Lane, Lewes, East Sussex, tel: 01273 471 333. Lunch daily, dinner Mon-Sat. Around £85 for dinner for two including wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More small hotel restaurants

St Petroc's Bistro 4 New St, Padstow, Cornwall, tel: 01841 532 700 Just up the hill from their famous Seafood Restaurant, Rick and Jill Stein have turned the fifth oldest building in Padstow into a 10-room hotel and a popular restaurant. The food is bistro-driven, so expect things like Provençal fish stew, Toulouse sausages with tomato, caper and shallot salad and steak-frites.

Saint Jude's 190 Bath Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 352 8800 An early Victorian townhouse cleverly converted into a modern six-room hotel, restaurant and bar, this was once the Scottish outpost of London's Groucho Club. Chef Jenny Burns is an art-school graduate, and it shows in the plating of dishes such as her cha cha monkfish with egg noodles, and roast saddle of venison with bubble-and-squeak.

The Gingerman at Drakes 43-44 Marine Parade, Brighton, tel: 01273 696 934 One of Brighton's newest and trendiest hotels, Drakes has 20 rooms, some with free-standing bathtubs complete with sea views (and, er, views of you from the sea). The basement dining-room has been taken over by Ben McKellar, chef/patron of Brighton's hugely popular Gingerman. Try the Downs lamb with garlic purée, or hazel-crusted venison with fondant potato.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

Comments