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)
Around £35 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Joys of Sussex
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