On a brass-monkey night in January, the South Lodge Hotel looks good: grey-beige stone, triangular pediments, lots of ivy and lots of windows through which firelight and lamplight gleam appealingly. The lobby is wide enough to accommodate a Victorian coach-and-four passing through and sparsely furnished with plush sofas. Though the place dates from 1883, it has an ersatz feel to it, a sprayed-on faux-luxury. As a manager comes to greet you, your eye falls on a doorway through which you glimpse a horribly overlit green space – a gym? A swimming pool? – and you try to ignore it. On the way to the bar, you pass a cosy-looking restaurant, all wood panels and floral wallpaper and you think, ah yes, just the job. The bar is a mocked-up gentlemen's club with more panelling and chandeliers made of twisted shards of leather-coloured glass. You greet your friends, floor a dry martini and head for dinner...
And there, dear reader, I encountered one of the great disappointments of my reviewing career. The cosy restaurant is called Camellia and isn't the one we're reviewing tonight. We're reviewing The Pass, which is in the kitchen. Yes, it's the brightly-lit, green-glowing place about which I shuddered earlier. It's awful: 22 seats mostly ranged along the wall, where pictures of chefs-in-action are interrupted by CCTV screens showing areas of the kitchen where something may happen. "I feel like a security guard," said Chris. "Am I supposed to be watching that all evening?"
The dominant shade here is green: green leather stools and banquettes, green glasses, green napkin-rings, green textured wall-fabric – even our waitress's tie is green satin. It puts you in mind of ice and phlegm. Above our heads, the kitchen air-con blew a steady gale. It was like dining in a glacier. At the next table a woman with bare, goose-pimply arms drew her fur closer around her.
The idea is an extension of the 'Chef's table', in which a chef's privileged friends are allowed to sit amid the backstage action and watch Ramsay or Blumenthal à sa travaille. But there's no drama in this kitchen: no flames, no prepping, no knives, no noise, no excitement. There are four or five people bending silently over metal surfaces, 20 feet away. For all the drama they generate, you could be watching five Department of the Environment inspectors testing for damp rot.
A pity, because the cooking here is good: ambitious, sophisticated, original, sometimes teetering on the precious (they offer three kinds of salt). If I had to choose between the nine-course tasting menu here and its opposite number at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, I'd choose The Pass. There's also a seven-course tasting menu (costing £60 a head as opposed to £75) and two of our party chose it. That makes 32 courses between four. Early highlights were a Jerusalem artichoke purée with tiny sliced white chestnuts and sautéed mushrooms; a kind of Pina Colada crab with burnt coconut and chargrilled pineapple surmounted by translucent crab crisps; mini-pork bellies like tiny gâteaux sitting on stewed apple, their sweetness fighting the tart zing of 'Buddha's Hand', an acidic Chinese citron.
Less successful was a scallop dish with chickpeas, lemon and liquorice and poached pear. Everything was blending happily until the pear arrived. Note to tastebuds: scallops and pear don't mix. A braised rabbit leg resembled kofte lamb and tasted unrabbity, accessorised by sad mini-sprouts and unwise prune purée. Main courses (when we got there after two hours) were excellent: rare saddle and haunch of venison, reeking with flavour and given an extra whoosh by blue cheese; and duck breast, cooked unusually pink and twinned with a small white cigar of smoked eel that did everything but spontaneously combust to demonstrate how smoky it was.
Almost defeated by so many courses (and their accompanying wines), we were tempted to skip pudding, but I couldn't resist chocolate ganache, moist, soft and melting. Pumpkin panna cotta didn't harmonise too well with pumpkin seed oil ice-cream, but a yogurt parfait with cherry compote and pink peppercorns tasted almost as beautiful as it looked.
Our bouncy, hyperactive waitress Karine (from Nantes in Brittany) did her best to pretend we'd had a vividly dramatic adventure in the kitchen, and explained that "some diners" liked to interact with the kitchen staff. Not for a moment had it seemed as if the kitchen staff cared tuppence whether we were there or not. I have never encountered such a dismally misconceived ambience, such a chilly anti-comfort zone, such blithe indifference to diners' real needs. The chef, Matt Gillan, is to be congratulated on his fine, imaginative cooking (which has won The Pass a Michelin star); but the sooner he persuades the hotel's owners to abandon this doomed experiment in Brechtian alienation, the better for all.
The Pass, South Lodge Country House Hotel, Brighton Road, Near Horsham, West Sussex (01403 892235)
£140-£150 per head including 'wine flight'
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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