Circa, Lewes

The dining experience in Lewes began with pizza and ended in pasta, until Circa came to town with a passion for fusion
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If Brighton is where people go when they tire of the struggle with London, Lewes is perhaps where Brightonians move on to when all that candy floss, seagull noise and rave culture has become too much. Or where they go to raise families – but more of that later.

If Brighton is where people go when they tire of the struggle with London, Lewes is perhaps where Brightonians move on to when all that candy floss, seagull noise and rave culture has become too much. Or where they go to raise families – but more of that later.

Lewes is one of the most blessed of all market towns in that it combines antique markets, art galleries, second-hand book shops, tea-and-scone emporia, and all the other trappings of its ilk, with a strong bohemian element – thanks to its proximity to louche and crusty Brighton and well-heeled, opera-loving Glyndebourne. It feels small-scale without being stuffy, artistic without being naffly arts and crafts.

Brighton may now officially be a city, but Lewes – pronounced "Lewis" (which had directory enquiries scouring the Outer Hebrides for me) and not "Loos" – is still the county town of East Sussex. It is famous for its Norman castle, for once being a haven for revolutionary writer Tom Paine (as well as Anne of Cleaves), for its robust, rather scary Guy Fawkes night (the town divides, Siena-style, into competing "bonfire societies"), and its local brewery, Harvey's. Last winter, the town hit the front pages for a different reason – when the railway station was turned into a duck pond by the River Ouse. But one thing Lewes is not celebrated for is its restaurants.

The lack of a quality nosh house is a peculiar omission in a place like Lewes. You can practically traverse the town without setting foot outside of a public house, but the pubs are punctuated by unremarkable-looking Chinese takeaways and curry houses. Oh, and Italian restaurants. Don't mention the Italian restaurants.

Long before Ashley Renton, former owner of the Bellini pizzerias in the London suburbs of Barnes and East Sheen, had a concept – he had a site (on Lewes High Street) and a name, Circa. Locals wished him well, but the name would spark off variations on the refrain: "Oh, not another Italian restaurant."

Circa would suggest Renton did indeed have in mind a Latin eatery, but his road to Damascus occurred in Australia where he spent eight weeks with his wife over the Millennium. Here they discovered Pacific- Rim cooking – Asia out of Australia and California. And if such a dramatic conversion suggests that Circa is not the culmination of a lifetime's passion, then that is not necessarily to belittle what is obviously a fresh enthusiasm.

My wife's main course perfectly summarised the cheerful global fusion that, in the event, makes Circa (Latin for "about or around") a rather apt choice of name. Lamb rump was roasted on a skewer of lemon grass, accompanied by Thai cucumber, an "Asian salsa" (pretty much indistinguishable from a Tex-Mex salsa) and chunky chips. Lizzie loved it, and was equally appreciative of her starter of goat's cheese tempura (a welcome variation on deep-fried Camembert), pickled limes and sautéed baby cabbage.

Sometimes the whirlwind eclecticism races ahead of the spelling on the menu (carpaccio is spelt "carpachio"), while a slight tendency for it to be over-descriptive gives us, for example, "ripped sage jus". Yes, ripping – rather than chopping – herbs like basil and sage is recommended, but does the knowledge that this has happened here deepen our understanding of the dish on offer? Surely the only excuse for its inclusion would be if the chef personally ripped it at your table.

Circa's head chef used to work at Glyndebourne, as did his predecessor, and this must be a relaxing change of pace from feeding a crowd of opera buffs in the 85-minute interval between Acts Two and Three of The Marriage of Figaro. Even the most ardent double-sitting London restaurant doesn't demand such turnover.

My starter of hot radish and salmon dim sum, cardamom broth and sesame scallions was delicately flavoured but on the stingey side – more of an appetiser than a starter. But then I had to leave room for local Sussex pork sausages, flaked almond mash, and the poor old ripped sage jus – a wintry choice of dish I began to regret on what was turning out to be quite a hot summer's day (but slightly mitigated by our choice of drink – a well-chilled 1999 Sancerre Rosé). This was the first time in my life that a waiter has unilaterally decided that a bottle of wine was corked, and gone off to change it. Sommeliers often go through the motions of sniffing the cork but wait for you to complain before they do anything about it.

The sausages were obviously well sourced with a suitably mealy texture, and the almond mash worked well, as did a garnish of caramelised cooking apple.

The "ripped sage jus" was sticky and intense. No complaints here, or with my pudding of lime-leaf crème brûlée with "edible chopsticks" of spun sugar. Lizzie's pud had an equally novelty value – red fruit won ton – which apparently worked well.

Our lunch, with apéritif, coffees and service came to a shade under £70. If you want to spend less, Circa offers a "light supper" menu served between 5pm and 7pm. At £9.95 for two courses and £12.95 for three courses, this pre-show sitting was introduced in May for the Lewes Festival and has been retained since.

Circa is ready for Lewes, but is Lewes ready for Circa? On a Saturday lunchtime in August, with Lewes High Street packed, the place was less than a quarter full. I don't think the rather drab exterior is particularly inviting, especially in such a pretty town. It looks a bit like a particularly dull Ask pizza joint before it's been brightened up by the neon signature. Inside things are markedly better – a cross between an upmarket Chinese and a Pizza Express.

It's been open only six months, and may take some bedding in. I did notice an unusually large number of couples pushing prams – and Lewes could be the sort of town where economically active people come to breed. Couples with young children are not known for being the most profligate restaurant visitors. Circa deserves to do well. Who knows – it may just be the seed for the long-awaited dining revolution this already richly endowed town has been crying for. Just don't open any more Italians.

Circa, 145 High Street, Lewes, East Sussex (01273 471777) Mon-Sat lunch 12-3pm, dinner 5-10pm, Sun lunch 12-3pm. Major cards accepted. Wheelchair access