"We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," said John Keats in one of his testy moments, "and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket." I've often thought the same applies to restaurants. We do not welcome statements of intent from the menu, explanations about the proprietor's "philosophy," promises about the chef's sincerity, or pious hopes that together we can create a more sustainable world. All we want from the owners of eating-houses, generally speaking, is some food and some drink.
That is, I used to think in that negative way until I ran into Douglas McMaster, the brains behind Silo, a new restaurant located in groovy North Laine, Brighton. Mr McMaster shares a name with a Canadian university, and there's something professorial about his love of theory and his desire to pass on his ideas to his students, sorry, patrons.
His website features a high-concept blog, in which he lays out his big plan: Silo isn't a restaurant, he says, it's "a pre-industrial food system that generates zero waste". Moreover, he believes in "food purity" and "natural farming systems". He won't have anything enter his restaurant in a package. He'll do all the food-preparing himself, even if it means milling his own flour.
All this high-concept stuff doesn't seem to have left any start-up money to pay for décor. Silo occupies two floors of a derelict 180-year-old building that used to house a grocery store-cum-restaurant called Thornes Foods, which went bust in 2012 from the cost of trying to renovate the place. Silo isn't making the same mistake: they've painted a gigantic "39" on the front door, and left it wholly untarted-up. Walk past an immaculate flour mill and an "Organics Compositor" , and you'll find yourself in a barn-like space, where tattooed hipsters prepare food at a steel altar, while you make yourself comfortable on cubes of chipboard at metallic tables, drinking from washed-up jam jars and perusing a menu apparently made from recycled loo roll.
It's strenuously no-frills and stripped-back, but early signs suggested we might be ok. Angie's ginger-lime cocktail, cloudy with floating bits of both constituents, was sheer nectar. Home-made sourdough ("from an ancient variety of wheat called Mulika") was crunchy and springy, heaven when anointed with smoked rapeseed oil. The bread plate seemed to be made of wax slathered in grey paint and egg yolk but was, our waitress explained, made of recycled plastic carrier bags. An amuse-bouche of stonebass tartate tickled with gooseberry vinegar burst on the tongue with tart sweetness.
You can choose a vegan, vegetarian or carnivorous menu, and eat four courses for £30. My shitake mushrooms were solid and meaty like white steaks, under which tiny crispy bacon bits were scatted on a fried egg with nuts and seeds. It was basically Brighton Bloke's Breakfast raised to supernatural heights with a touch of thyme at the end.
I grudgingly accepted the heritage tomatoes with fermented celery and smoked quinoa. It was amazing: six tomato varieties on milky curds, arrayed with lovage flowers and green-tomato granita – a dish so alive, so thrilling, so yelpingly fresh. We soon established that Mr McMaster is an enthusiastic forager, a disciple of René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, where he worked after three years in the St John kitchen. He knows his way around lovage flowers.
Main-course featherblade of beef was braised to blackness, then coloured puce with a violet-potato mousseline, while a samphire-like herb called sea blight brought a touch of aniseed to the creamy jus. Angie's stone bass had been pan-fried then placed in an oyster emulsion blended with cucumber purée, then served with cucumber noodles and elderflowers – a mad mixum-gatherum of flavours which sang in blissful harmony.
We ended with strawberries with nibs of raw cocoa on a whey sorbet with more raspberry vinegar. I don't usually like fruit and chocolate but by now I'd given up saying "I don't usually like…" Oh, and the strawberries sat on lemon-skin puree, which tasted sublime. Lemon skin! Mr McMaster really means it about not wasting anything.
Not everything is perfect about Silo: the wine list is limited (because, of course, they don't allow anything that comes ready-packaged, like wine bottles) and their drinks licence stops at 8.30pm. And there was a bit of a wait for the main courses. But that matters not a jot compared to the virtues of Silo – the imagination, the ambition, the skillful handling of purest-of-pure ingredients, the sheer genius that's on display here from the talented team. This is without any doubt the best food I've tasted all year. And if the owner does bend your ear a little about the importance of microbes in your soil, that's a fair price to pay.
Silo, 39 Upper Gardner Street, North Laine, Brighton, BN1 4AN (01273 674259). About £30 per person before drinks and serviceReuse content