Finding an "inn" that looks, feels and smells like an inn – a small hotel offering ale, food and accommodation for the weary traveller and his knackered horse, on their way to the Lammas-Day fayre – is a pleasure to the soul. Somewhere that's more than a pub but hasn't turned completely into a restaurant, that has foodie ambitions but hasn't strayed too far from the pub favourites that used to bring in the locals, groaning with anticipation, on Friday nights.
The Royal Oak in Lavant is a paradigm of the species. It's 200 years old, and was dishing out tankards of mead before the battle of Waterloo. A sturdy building that combines the old inn, a converted barn and a flint cottage, it's all stripped-down simplicity: exposed brickwork, original beams, knapped-flint walls, acid-bathed tables, leather armchairs, cheerful log fire in the cast-iron grate. It's all very elegantly production-designed, like a country wench from a Henry Fielding novel who's been blow-dried and maquillaged and squeezed into a nice new Alice Temperley frock.
Visitors to nearby Goodwood Racetrack and its petrolhead associate, the annual Festival of Speed, book weeks in advance for the Oak's characterful cooking. You can see why from the menu. Fancy a pan-roasted breast of wood pigeon with individual apple tarte tatin, celeriac and truffle purée, lardons and a red-wine dressing? And that's a starter. Or crab done three ways, or pork offered "head to toe" (it's just confit belly and shoulder galette, in fact, rather than ears and trotters), or monkfish wrapped in seaweed and Parma ham with a fennel and saffron risotto? A lot of thought and experiment, and some eccentricity (seaweed and ham?) had gone into constructing these dishes.
Sophie had the special starter, beetroot tarte tatin with goat's cheese in a hazelnut sauce. The beetroot wasn't purple, but gold in colour. Neither of us had tasted golden beets before; they were subtle, or do I mean underwhelming, in flavour and curiously sweet, and benefited from the goatish accompaniment. Julian's leek and potato soup was given an intrusive wallop of truffle. Angie was in raptures about her three-way Selsey crab: a crunchy crab cake tickled by horseradish mayonnaise, a mousse of brown crabmeat on a slice of fried bread and finally a mouth-filling glass of white crab mixed with basil and surmounted by vermouth foam.
My seared scallops weren't as fresh as I'd have liked ("Those definitely weren't fished out of the North Sea today," said Sophie, whose family owns a Scottish island), but were only half my starter – the rest was a tranche of pork belly in a piccalilli sauce. The pork was utterly delicious, cooked for ages in duck fat, then rolled, cut into long pencils and re-cooked until its juices caramelised – but I couldn't see how the scallops gained anything by being cooked in the pork fat. It was dish of two halves, in which only one half worked. The piccalilli was a dream of spicy sharpness, involving cumin, cardamom and turmeric amid the white-wine vinegar.
If I seem unusually knowledgeable about the cooking process, it's because the chef told me. Not just that, he wrote me three pages of notes. This has never happened before. Usually, if I ask a waitress to ask in the kitchen what went into a sauce, she'll return with a curt one-line summation of the ingredients, tactfully shorn of the maestro's effing and blinding. In the Royal Oak, I got long pencil messages, with a cheery sign-off ("Enjoy! Thank you, Stephen Small"). Hence the five stars for service, although the attentive charm of the pub's patron, Charles Ullmann, didn't hurt either.
Our main courses were just as luxuriant. Angie's Dover sole arrived sans head and skin, but still on the bone; a thing of startling visual purity, like a cooked vestal virgin; its mash companion was very buttery and garlicky and delicious. Sophie's sea bass with sweet potato mash was "a perfect wintry fish supper, very comforting." Julian's partridge in a red-wine reduction was succulent, the tiny legs chewily delicious. My lamb in a herb crust was three chops, strikingly pink, undercooked, loosely textured and served with an olive mash. I considered sending it back, but reasoned that Stephen was not a chef you argue with (I still maintain that best end of lamb should be cooked until it's nubbly and tight and the crust is, you know, crusty.) It was fine, but it should have been sublime.
A Madagascan vanilla crème brûlée was OK, though runny. Passion-fruit posset was creamy, and dense with tropical fruits. Whisky Mac jelly with cinnamon oats and raspberries was like a try-out of warring textures that didn't quite work. And that's the Royal Oak for you: lots of gutsy flavours, bags of comfort food handsomely prepared – and some ambitious ideas that didn't come off. But I'd go again tomorrow for the warmth and the welcome.
Royal Oak Inn, Pook Lane, East Lavant, Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0AX (01243 527434). Around £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: West Sussex
The Spread Eagle
This ancient coaching inn is a great Sunday-lunch spot – try the beef and Yorkshire pudding served from the trolley, or plaice with triple-cooked chips.
South Street, Midhurst (01730 816911)
The talented team at this lovely hotel conjure up seriously good food; mains include pan-fried Sussex venison with red cabbage, gratin potatoes, parsnips and juniper jus (£32).
West Hoathly (01342 810 567)
Earl of March
This popular country pub serves an impressive Rother Valley sirloin, with hand-cut chops, sautéed field mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and garlic butter.
Lavant Road, Nr Chichester (01243 533 993)