Pascere, restaurant review, Brighton: The revel is in the detail

Brighton is yet to garner its first Michelin star, but with the city’s recent boom in top-notch dining it can be only a matter of time. The latest contender is perfectly located – can it capitalise on this?

Don Connigale
Wednesday 06 September 2017 14:00 BST
All hands on deck: head chef Johnny Stanford and owner Amanda Menahem offer subtle hints of the ocean
All hands on deck: head chef Johnny Stanford and owner Amanda Menahem offer subtle hints of the ocean (Julia Claxton)

The newest edition to Brighton and Hove’s fine-dining scene – currently in the rudest of rude health – is also one of its most centrally located, tucked quietly between the at-times raucous carousing of West Street and the boutiques, bustle and breezy boozers of The Lanes. This makes Pascere well-situated to be stumbled upon by tourists and the day-tripping Londoners with which the pavilion city heaves in these summer months. The prospects of a stumble turning into a meal are enhanced greatly by inviting-looking terrace tables out front and a softly welcoming ambience within. There are of course chillier climatic seasons in the offing for the Sussex coast, but happily for owner Amanda Menahem passing trade is more a bonus than a necessity. The restaurant, her first, is gaining rapid traction regionally and already amassing a core of regulars.

Warm lighting, relaxed seating and dark teal decor make downstairs an intimate venue to sink into and linger, a feeling that continues upstairs but with the addition of a small open-plan kitchen in which you can watch head chef Johnny Stanford – formerly of the The Pass at the South Lodge Hotel and Paul Kitching’s 21212 in Edinburgh – choreograph proceedings while wielding knives, blowtorches and piping bags: all pleasantly hypnotic.

Rather ambitiously Pascere offers several menus throughout the day – small plates, lunch, dinner and a tasting menu – but the decision to present straight-up alternatives to a voguish tasting menu has turned out to be a shrewd one. Menahem says that near three quarters of diners opt for à la carte. As do we, kicking off with cute butternut cracker canapés with squash remoulade. “Toothsome,” declares my companion, not normally given to such outbursts. Even better are stout-infused and, especially, onion-infused bread balls. Fortunately they are quite small, or it may be hard not to break the normally wise don't-fill-up-on-bread dictum.

The revel is in the detail, or more precisely the attention to detail. There are surprise twists, if not at every turn, often enough to keep you guessing. Whipped butter topped with pungent black salt and sweet muscovado ought not to work, we think, but that just shows how little we know. It's delectable.

Portland crab tart with shellfish bisque mousse is a miniature work of art, and for all its delicacy and artful arrangement it tastes, simply and wonderfully, of the sea. We momentarily fall into transported silence. “Fab crab...” my companion murmurs finally, a faraway look in her eyes. It'll do that to you.

Here the crustacean's Portland provenance is worth remarking on. As well as bucking the trend slightly with his á la carte menus, Stanford also is slightly out of step with the “locally sourced über alles” mantra that currently prevails across the land. While he works with local suppliers where possible, he has no qualms about going further afield in the UK to obtain the best produce. He concedes that some will balk at this, but the quality of the ingredients – in this case from Portland in Dorset – fully justifies the philosophy.

Fairly stunning: lamb sweet breads with ewe’s milk panna cotta
Fairly stunning: lamb sweet breads with ewe’s milk panna cotta

Next up is a paean to peas, with the oft-undervalued legume combined thrice – bitingly raw, poppingly cooked and, best of all, spirited into an aerated custard so light it could levitate, but kept welcomely table-bound by buttery brioche croutons. We enjoy this lustily but both agree that the next dish is the evening’s standout: pan-fried stone bass fillet, blackened on top, firm and meaty within, trompette mushrooms and seaweed bringing earthy and oceany notes, respectively. Fairly stunning. It will be hard for the next dish to top this, and so it proves, the fat on otherwise impressively rich on otherwise impressively rich and tender roast lamb belly not quite silky enough, even if the whole is more than redeemed by sprightly samphire and ewe’s cheese.

Immaculate presentation: English pea custard
Immaculate presentation: English pea custard (Julia Claxton)

Warm buttermilk sponge with honeycomb, milk-skin crisp, ice cream and honey is as sweetly comforting as it sounds, a childlike hark-back to simple indulgences. As with other courses we feel impelled to take our time and luxuriate, and thanks to well-judged service – friendly, efficient but unhurried, and (in a good way) informal – we can. Presentation is also immaculate throughout.

There are the usual suspects there to pimp the menu as much as the taste – not that lavender flowers and nettle puree aren't welcome – but Stopfordian Stanford has imagination and creativity and with the opportunity to pursue both, it’s fun to see what he’s doing.

Pascere boasts one of the biggest wine lists in Brighton, and these can be ordered by the glass, enabling creative course-by-course pairing. Menahem is on hand to support with this. A former food journalist, she is surely being modest when she describes herself as merely a keen enthusiast in the field: each dish is complemented perfectly and often unexpectedly as we traverse from France to New Zealand to Spain via some underexplored byways. Even the glassware is curated to enhance each wine, a strangely satisfying finesse.

There are a lot of eating options in this area, and the “great location for passing trade” idea can cut both ways of course. On the evening of our visit – an unseasonably treacherous midweek night with rain lashing sideways and wind, to borrow from the master, howling like a hammer – even mad dogs and Englishmen are staying home, and there are several empty tables. Nonetheless the miserable weather does emphasise Pascere’s most immediately striking appeal: its welcome. This is an escape, a quiet gastro-haven in a hyperactive city. That, along with innovative menus, first-rate service and an uncompromising approach to quality, bodes well indeed.

À la carte dinner for two with wine around £90. Tasting menu with wine flight for two around £200

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

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