The Curlew, Junction Road, Bodiam, East Sussex

What happens to a former roadhouse when people stop using the road? The Curlew started life in the 17th century as a busy coaching inn on the main route between Hastings and London. Now it stands marooned on a sleepy junction in what seems, when you've been criss-crossing rural East Sussex trying to find it, like the middle of nowhere. All rather reminiscent of the explanation given by Psycho's Norman Bates for his lack of custom. "Twelve cabins, 12 vacancies. They moved away the highway."

Unlike the Bates motel, though, the Curlew is a family business which is definitely working. The old pub was reopened two years ago as a smart, urban-style restaurant by City escapees Mark and Sara Colley. With Chewton Glen-trained head chef Neil McCue heading up the kitchen, it has since won a host of glowing reviews, as well as an unexpectedly early Michelin star.

The Curlew has been on my 'to do' list since it opened, thanks to the tireless efforts of its clever PR man. Never have I been wooed so long, or so winningly. His drip-feed of beguiling seasonal menus culminated in the arrival by post of an apron, with a note saying that since I seemed to be too busy to visit The Curlew, I must be doing a lot of cooking at home. Obviously I can't be swayed by gifts (though it's certainly worth a try). But I happened to be in the area, and those menus really did look good.

From the outside, The Curlew, clad in traditional white weatherboarding, looks averagely pub-like. But appearances are deceptive; this is definitely not a pub. It's a rather smart, unusually tasteful restaurant, which has been interior designed to within an inch of its life in a style you'd expect to find in Soho, rather than rural Sussex. Every modern design trend is represented; the squid-ink panelled walls; the club-like leather furniture with a funky twist – some chairs are upholstered in suiting material; the panel of wallpaper covered in artily scribbled cows. Even the quirky touches, like the wall of mismatched designer plates, and the full-length portraits of Adam and Eve adorning the loo doors, have clearly sprung not from serendipity, but from the mood board of a top-notch design company (the firm Macaulay Sinclair, who also did Hawksmoor in Covent Garden, I see from my e-mails. Thanks, PR Paul).

The atmosphere is mercifully free from the gussied-up stiffness that too often afflicts the aspirational country restaurant. Every customer in the place was casually dressed – and there was a surprising number of them, on a Sunday night.

Small wonder. Our dinner was a pretty much flawless showcase of Modern British cooking.

McCue's menu offers some familiar pub-grub dishes – pea soup, double-baked cheese soufflé, pork belly with black pudding – but he presents them with real artistry, and no small measure of technical finesse. An elegant seafood cocktail gets a Tex Mex twist, with sea trout and marinated langoustine layered over avocado and sharp tomato salsa, and topped with a cheeky twist of tortilla. The sour-sweet presence of spiced cherries galvanises a mild-mannered salad of goat's curd and pickled beetroot, garnished with edible nasturtium flowers. (McCue worked on secondment at Noma last year, according to reliable PR sources.)

The food may look as immaculately tasteful as the room. But prettiness doesn't mean there aren't some huge flavours. The double-baked cheese soufflé is a knock-down winner, and clearly rivals nearby Bodiam Castle as a tourist attraction – all seven people at our neighbouring table ordered it as a starter. The other stand-out dish, modestly billed as "chop and chips", was a superb short-rib of beef, slow-cooked in a water bath, then roasted in a five-spice glaze, leaving the meat as soft as pork belly, but with a fabulous umami-rich char. Served with beef-dripping chips and pickled kohlrabi, it was the best beef dish I've eaten in a very long time.

The menu doesn't make a big song and dance about localness and seasonality, but those qualities run all the way through it. Kentish cherries, nearing the end of their season, get their own tribute dessert, a ball of dark chocolate shaped to resemble a giant cherry, filled with clotted cream parfait, poached cherries and cherry sorbet. Junket, fleetingly flavoured with Kirsch, is eclipsed by the accompanying Eccles cakes, dense, sweet little fritters holding a pocket of hot cherry sauce.

Our position opposite the open kitchen allowed us to appreciate the contrast between the precision-tooled smoothness of the front-of-house operation and the frantic activity behind the scenes – there was even a bit of shouting at one point. Like its namesake, the Curlew glides calmly above the water, but there's some frantic paddling going on beneath the surface.

The result is as good a little restaurant as you'd hope to find anywhere in Britain. And thank God. I couldn't have faced disappointing my favourite PR man. Bye Paul. Missing you already.

The Curlew, Junction Road, Bodiam, East Sussex (01580 861394)

Food 4 stars
Ambience 4 stars
Service 4 stars

Around £35 a head before wine and service

Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"

Side Orders: Joys of Sussex

The Real Eating Company

This classy deli-cum-restaurant uses great seasonal produce – try the South Coast fish stew with aioli and chips.

18 Cliffe High Street, Lewes (01273 402 650)

The Jolly Sportsman

This lovely pub serves equally impressive food – now on the menu is a main of wood pigeon breasts, bacon, girolles and artichoke salad.

East Chiltington (01273 890400)

Riddle & Finns

This excellent seafood restaurant cooks up imaginative dishes such as Keralan fish curry with basmati rice and shrimp bhajis (£17.50).

12b Meeting House Lane, Brighton (01273 323 008)

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot