Does everybody in the restaurant business think they deserve a Michelin star? The Tristan of this new eaterie is Tristan Mason, who used to cook at the Hare in Lambourn and picked up a star for his labours. He moved to the Orrery in London, which had a Michelin star when he joined but lost it on his watch, whatever that may mean. No sooner had he put his name over the door of what used to be Stan's, in Horsham's dinky, narrow East Street, than he was telling local papers: "I want to get my star and I want my three AA rosettes. I want to make it one of the best restaurants in England." Well, I dare say you do, Tris, but in what sense is it "your" star and "your" rosettes? Do you hear actors demanding, "I want to get my Oscar and my Baftas"? Do you hear me saying, "It's about time I had my Nobel and several Pulitzers"? I don't think so. Not out loud, anyway.
It's clear that Tristan would do anything for his flipping star. He has, for instance, an avant-garde approach to service. The waiting staff look at you with a kind of thrilled hostility when you arrive, and fail to bring you, unless you expressly beg for it, any bread, any menus or any cutlery. My pal James and I thought that very radical. The dining room is charming, though, with its exposed timbers and clever colour scheme, in which geometric sections of wall are painted orange to mirror the Mondrian-style prints. It's a Michelin-star room. It has edge. It has heat. It has weirdly thin windows.
A "present from the chef" was a coffee cup of celeriac foam (delicious) and a spoonful of Madeira and mushroom jelly (jelly balls in fact, with no discernible hint of sweet wine, which would hardly suit mushrooms anyway). I asked the waiter to explain the "oyster beignets" among the starters. Did it mean the oysters were deep-fried in choux pastry? No no, he assured me, they're simply cooked, "but I haven't seen it on a plate yet". The oysters arrived five minutes later, deep-fried in pastry, artfully arrayed on piles of pickled cucumber. It didn't do much for the bivalves, except muffle their briny tang in a floury, doughy obfuscation which wasn't helped by the pickled cucumber, which tasted of sauerkraut.
James, however, was in raptures over his Jerusalem artichoke velouté, ladled around a crayfish ravioli. The latter was closer to a Chinese dumpling than pasta, but the texture of the crayfish was bliss. And the velouté was "miles better than you'd ever expect from a provincial restaurant". (James isn't a snob. Ask anyone. Well, anyone who matters.)
The service didn't improve. If you asked for wine, it took an aeon to come. If you ate the bread, it could be Christmas before they offered any more. If you asked the waiter to remind you what was in a dish, you could guarantee he wouldn't reappear for 10 minutes. Was it something I said?
The main courses offered the same breed of solid English dishes (guinea fowl, turbot, steak, monkfish, pork belly), given some French-Italian grace notes. My pork belly resembled a slice of treacle tart, but tasted just perfect, crispy on top, velvety down below, moistened by tomato sauce, given a lovely kick by braised fennel. Why then spoil things by including half a dozen squid rings in batter, and a "fennel confit", in which fennel slices were brutally soured with lemon juice and olive oil?
James's turbot came with risotto balls, clams on their shells and a single young artichoke, naked and shivering like a Victorian urchin. James detected signs that it had been lightly fried rather than poached. "It's taken away its turbot quality, coarsened it and dried it out." But he ate it with relish, and I thought the turbot and clams worked out just fine.
I asked the waiter to talk us through the cheese selection. "Basically it's brie, cheddar and goat's cheese," he said, like one announcing a death in the family. Instead, I had the passionfruit curd with lemon rice and jelly and lemon sherbert granite, which was good and tart but was basically a big dish of freezing lemon on cold curd – a pudding to chill you to the marrow. The banana tarte tatin was infinitely better, the bananas cooked à point, accompanied by "parsley" (actually pistachio) ice cream, rolled in caramelised walnut – a thing of eccentric beauty, with a huge brandy snap the size of a surfboard.
It was a curiously hit-and-miss dinner, over-reliant on floury experiments and acidic vegetables, but the actual cooking was fine and the presentation dramatic; virtually every dish featured that modish annoyance of a sauce into which the kitchen maestro has clearly jabbed an intrusive forefinger. I think that's the trouble here – the feeling of the chef's finger prodding you to be amazed by his style, rather than employing it in trying to cook you a good meal. Sometimes, Tristan, it's not all about you.
Restaurant Tristan, Stans Way, East Street, Horsham, West Sussex (01403 255688)
Around £90 for two, with wine
"Service charge is 10 per cent – of which about 90 per cent goes to the restaurant staff; all cash tips are divided among the waiting staff"
Side orders: The joy of sussex
By Madeleine Lim
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