Crab & Lobster, restaurant review: A masterclass in comfort food

 

I remember being baffled by a London Transport advertisement from my teenage years, encouraging people to use buses. It appeared on hoardings and bus shelters all over the metropolis, and showed a wretched-looking couple shielding themselves from a downpour at a bus stop while, in the distance, the Number 74 (or whatever) hove into view, lights blazing and driver beaming. The message on the poster read: 'A Welcome Sight on a Dark Night!'.

What puzzled me was this: at whom was the advertisement aimed? Was it trying to encourage people who normally walked everywhere, especially in the dark and the pouring rain, to try this newfangled mode of transport? Was it an attempt to wean taxi passengers away from their warm and pampered mode of travel by recommending they try standing in the open air straining to see a large red object lumbering towards them?

I thought of the LT advert the day we discovered the Crab & Lobster. It was early January. We'd been driving on the south coast, near Selsey, on the rainiest afternoon in history, and were starving. The dog in the back of the car was bored and needed a walk, so we looked for open country, got lost, and found ourselves in Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve. The dog loved the tidal mudflats. We were less keen. Walking around a sodden marsh in howling wind and screeching rain soon lost its charm for me... Then, down a narrow side-road, I saw a vision of loveliness: an elegant old pub, ablaze with lights in every window, with an indefinable air of bonhomie about it. A very Welcome Sight on a Horrible Afternoon.

There was hardly anyone in the place at 5pm, but they readily agreed to serve us dinner. We took in the flagstoned floor, the black roof-beams, the log fire, the exposed brickwork, the soft leather sofa, Mark the welcoming maître d', the candlelight that made the glasses gleam... There was, we agreed, no obvious reason why we should ever leave.

The Crab & Lobster was an inn in the 17th century and, after 350 years, it's been renovated to the tune of £3m. One look at the menu tells you it's shed any ideas about being just a pub. The starters take some very English ingredients for a walk in exotic lands: crispy fried squid with roquette and chorizo salad, for instance, or poached salmon rillettes with deep-fried mussels and pickled cucumber with black caviar dressing.

What surprised us was the minimalist sophistication. The seared scallops with pork belly came in dolls'-house portions but were exquisite, the crispness of the pork balancing the supple fleshiness of the seafood, accessorised with golden raisins with a bite of cider vinegar. Crab cakes from nearby Selsey were deliciously textured, served with mango and sesame jam with a chilli kick. Pan-seared pigeon breast was another miniature triumph, served with tiny slices of Madeira-poached apples, wilted kale and wild mushroom. The kale was over-salted but the combination of floppy game with apple was a big hit.

After this bonsai opener, it was another surprise to find the main courses were substantial, tough-guy fare, as if the chef, Clyde Hollett (he's from Bournemouth, and learnt his skills with the Marriott Hotel group) had suddenly become bored with dinky nouvelle cuisine and bought a copy of Simon Cave's Manly Food.

Angie's fish and chips – sorry, Fresh Loin of Hake in a Light Beer Batter and chips – was served with wit, the fish in a newspaper, the fries in a deep-fat-fryer basket. The hake was thick and flakey, the batter thin and crispy, and the tartare sauce, served in a jar, both creamy and vinegary. Albert's Scotch rib-eye steak was properly charred and nubbly outside, a bright and sexy rare vermilion within, and was devoured within seconds.

I couldn't resist the prospect of Southdown lamb done two ways: roasted rump, soft and delicate, sliced over black cabbage, and a shepherd's pie made from confit shoulder, which came in a copper saucepan. A pedant might complain that you can't call it shepherd's pie if the lamb isn't minced. But since it had been roasted for seven hours, and was falling-apart soft and richly delicious, I held my tongue.

The puddings were the gastronomic equivalent of being tucked up in bed by your food-loving aunt. Could you resist chocolate, whisky and brioche bread and butter pudding with toffee custard? Neither could we. (The brioche was a brainwave – so much sweeter and fluffier than using sliced bread.) The plum tarte tatin, with plum and cinnamon compote and clotted cream ice-cream, was fabulous, intensely fruity, sublimely caramelised. And with the coffee came a plate of mini-Christmas-pudding petits fours. The whole meal was a masterclass in comfort food, constantly surprising, inventive and flavoursome. Honestly, it's even worth sloshing through the Sussex mudflats to encounter such a multifarious treat.

Food ****
Ambience  ****
Service  ****

Crab & Lobster, Mill Lane, Sidlesham, West Sussex (01243 641233). About £120 for two, with wine

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