Etch, restaurant review, Brighton: Casual fine dining from a MasterChef winner

A bracing and intimate new Sussex restaurant by a former MasterChef winner defies the stuffy associations that come with fine dining, tasting courses and wine flights

Don Connigale
Friday 02 June 2017 15:31 BST
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Etching a point: a guided journey through some exotic and rarely visited epicurean byways
Etching a point: a guided journey through some exotic and rarely visited epicurean byways (Photographs: Julia Claxton)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Unsurprisingly, the first restaurant by the winner of 2013's MasterChef: The Professionals has been the subject of anticipation and curiosity far beyond the sedate stretch of near-seafront Hove on which it recently opened. More surprising, now that Steven Edwards has it up and running, is how pleasingly unstuffy and fun it makes fine dining feel. The place is small and intimate – just 36 covers – with retro decor, warm lighting, dark-hued walls, informally dressed diners, a relaxed background hubbub of conversation and a lack both of tablecloths and pretension. There is an open kitchen (fear not, no shouty swear fest) and friendly, engaging staff – including the amiable Edwards himself when free – circulate in the background, enough not to be cloying, and in the foreground, enough to be on hand and approachable.

And a good thing too. The menu paints, as you'd expect given the chef's pedigree, from an innovative palette of ingredients and techniques, so to have waiting staff who can talk knowledgeably and affably through each course, each element and its provenance is enhancing. Edwards works with a small team who together have weekly tasting sessions of the entire menu – nice work if you can get it – so servers speak from experience, not script. They also guide through the thoughtfully curated wine flight (well recommended) and how each glass matches the course it accompanies. Appreciation of food and wine pairing – indeed, of food and wine per se – being a matter partly of pure sensory experience, partly of expectation, suggestion, presentation and, let’s be honest, placebo, such tasting notes only enrich the trip. Don't fight it, feel it.

Of course, it's the food that matters. Etch offers a six- or eight-course tasting menu, think of it as a guided journey through some exotic and rarely visited epicurean byways, one that changes weekly depending on season and collaboration with local Sussex suppliers. Each course is etched (ah, got it) in the menu in just two words ("mackerel . lettuce"; "carrot . asparagus"), which is so en vogue but also, Edwards explains, allows for daily flexibility; he is not bound by text and can tweak ingredients, preparation and presentation, so optimising ever-varying seasonal produce. The result is, it must be said, impressive.

Mackerel lettuce: blow-torched lettuce, seared mackerel, pancetta, beer battered white bait, garlic mayo and Twineham Grange snow
Mackerel lettuce: blow-torched lettuce, seared mackerel, pancetta, beer battered white bait, garlic mayo and Twineham Grange snow (Julia Claxton)

First up is an amuse-bouche of petite mushroom doughnuts (oh yes), light and zinging with flavour thanks to truffle cream cheese and an intense duxelles; a super opening bid. The accompanying cheese and biscuits cannot quite keep up, though that is a compliment to the former rather than to denigrate the entirely pleasant latter. Next comes arguably, in a strong field, the evening's standout dish: a foamed green wild garlic soup with truffle oil, crème fraîche and crisped Jersey Royals. Light as you like and simply gorgeous. "This is finest soup I've ever tasted," declares my companion, a Heinz Cream of Tomato loyalist.

Stand easy: charm over pretension and friendliness over flannel
Stand easy: charm over pretension and friendliness over flannel (©Julia Claxton Photography)

We are also enamoured of the bread. No less an authority than Burt Lancaster once proclaimed "I judge a restaurant by the bread", and on that basis the one-time waiter would surely laud etch from here to eternity. Marmite brioche with a Marmite glaze accompanied by seaweed-infused butter is about 14 times more delicious than that description sounds. My companion, who falls firmly on the "hate" side of the Marmite divide, loves it. Can we forgive that the butter is served on a pebble? Yes, yes we can.

Torched mackerel with clam jelly and whitebait is as raucously oceanic as you could wish; and beetroot with orange ice cream and ginger crumb fizzes with flavour and colour; presentation throughout is MasterCheffilly precise and exuberant. This is food that is loved.

Beetroot tartare: pickled beetroot, roasted baby beetroot, beetroot powder, blow-torched orange segments, blood orange sorbet, and coriander
Beetroot tartare: pickled beetroot, roasted baby beetroot, beetroot powder, blow-torched orange segments, blood orange sorbet, and coriander

Challenging already the earlier contention that the Jersey and garlic soup may top the bill, hand-dived scallop with squid orzo and poached cuttlefish is sweet, different and, well, awesome. Then tender pink rump beef melts in the mouth, while oxtail bon bon with charred asparagus keeps it interesting. Nearly every course brings something unfamiliar and intriguing, or else familiar but elevated. We are starting to wish we had not gone to town so much on that rocking bread...

Elderflower parfait with gooseberry sorbet strikes a rare slightly pedestrian note in proceedings, though it does its job to cleanse the palate before a stupendous chocolate marquise, smooth and rich enough for its own Swiss bank account, with earl grey ice cream. Just great. Particularly with the accompanying dessert wine, surely its soulmate.

Service, of which there is a lot with eight courses, is beautifully paced and nicely pitched, steering, as with most everything else in the restaurant – from the unhurried ambience to the compelling fare to the down-to-earth Edwards himself – on the side of charm over pretension, approachability over esotericism, friendliness over flannel. Being a new venture, etch is not without kinks to be ironed out, as when my companion, having ordered the pescatarian tasting menu, is mistakenly brought a meat course. But this is corrected promptly and pleasantly, and it would be churlish to give less than full praise to an inventive, transporting and above all immensely enjoyable dining experience.

Eight-course tasting menu for two with accompanying wine flight comes to around £220

Ambience ****
Food *****
Service *****

etch., 216 Church Road, Brighton BN3 2DJ; 01273 227485; etchfood.co.uk; open Weds - Sat

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