The Pass at South Lodge Hotel in Sussex is all about the food. It has taken the chef's table concept (at which one lucky party sits inside the kitchen to watch the maestro concoct their dinner) and super-sized it. All 22 seats are in the kitchen.
Now, this concept works best if the kitchen is jumping – where there are lots of flashing blades and bubbling pots to entertain diners. But at The Pass, the chef works in silence and there is only one sous chef, whom he doesn't even brand with a hot palette knife. Probably just as well. Not surprisingly, most of the dishes have been prepared in advance, so I watch a lot of things being unwrapped from tins wrapped in clingfilm. Very posh things, of course. The only word I hear from chef is "service", which he says often, because I'm here for the six-course signature tasting menu.
Taking our seats on the narrow row of tables high against one wall, my companion CDH gets the bar-stool style chair, upholstered in green leather and with the ability to swivel, so she can swing around to observe any action that she can't catch on the screen above my head, placed for the guest with their back to chef. Alas, the camera linked to it seems to be trained on a tray which never gets any food put upon it.
I'm back-to-the-wall and eyes-on-the-pass itself, where Matt Gillan assembles the components of each dish. We're here because I've heard Gillan is making a name for himself with creative, clever menus. "The Gourmet Experience" of the "Dramatic Dining Experiences" on offer – surely not his choice of words, nor the theatrical mask and crossed whisk and knife on the menu cover – is £60 per person, with an accompanying wine flight at £48. It should be the ideal forum for him to show off his skills.
Things start blindingly with a pea velouté with a poached quail's egg and truffle. It's vibrant and welcoming, a culinary kiss on both cheeks. Inevitably, I can't focus on the dish as my eyes are drawn to the pass. What on earth is he doing with that piping bag? That, I suppose, is the drawback to dining in the kitchen when you're interested in food: nosiness about what's coming precludes enjoying what you've got.
Six courses, each with several components, make it difficult to describe everything here, so forgive the brevity of some descriptions. The chicken-liver parfait with spiced biscuit, prune compote and apple is a thing of beauty, artistic as you like, arranged in dinky blobs around the plate, with the parfait sandwiched between two paper-thin tuiles. So that's what the piping bag was for. It tastes sublime but I can't help feeling that something's not right about a meat product being squeezed out of a tube.
This Sunday night there are just six other diners in The Pass, which would usually feel awkward, but because the focus is on the food there's a feeling of fellow adventurers – in the moments I'm not studying the chef or my plate, I steal glances at the faces of those putting a morsel in their mouths, looking for an "Oh, I didn't expect that" expression or a smile of contentment. I see both in equal measure.
Next up the poached trout, Jersey Royal mash, artichoke purée and samphire is elegant, if veering towards traditional, which feels odd during a "Dramatic Dining Experience"; as odd, in fact, as finding snail porridge in a Cornish cream tea.
Saddle and belly of lamb served with caramelised aubergine, red pepper, cabbage and "pesto" is a definite misstep. The meat is tender and rich, but the "pesto" – I can't abide things in quote marks on menus – is bizarrely deconstructed. A pine nut here, a slick of oil there. Why?
But I can forgive any chef – who quietly watches each plate being taken from the table, watchful (I assume) for food unloved and uneaten – who creates what comes next. Gingerbread crème brûlée with a rhubarb sorbet so intense yet refreshing that my mouth waters as I'm eating it. Is that a smile from chef as CDH and I whimper with pleasure?
I'd have loved something savoury, or tiny and chocolatey, after that, but here comes a huge strawberry parfait with lemon sponge, honeycomb, balsamic jelly and basil gel. Altogether too, too much.
My criticisms are niggles, really. This meal has been a curate's egg (which sounds like something one might expect to see at a Dramatic Dining Experience): very good in parts. But Gillan is one to watch – whether you're sitting in the kitchen or not.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10, as good as it gets
The Pass South Lodge Hotel, Lower Beeding, near Horsham, West Sussex, tel: 01403 892 296 Lunch and dinner, Wednesday-Sunday. Tasting menus from £40 for four courses to £70 for seven
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.co.ukReuse content