Review – Ockenden Manor
An ever-increasing number of excellent home-grown restaurants have put Brighton and Hove firmly on the UK food map, yet we haven’t been awarded a Michelin star since Le Français on Paston Place closed down in 1978.
Some may suggest that high-level fine dining just isn’t very “Brighton”, or maybe we like our food a bit more quirky or pared back than the inspectors prefer. But if you are after the Michelin-star experience, it turns out you don’t have to travel far to get it.
Closer to home than you think
Ockenden Manor is an Elizabethan manor house in the picturesque village of Cuckfield, a short cab ride from Haywards Heath station. Set in peaceful, immaculate gardens dotted with white rose bushes and manicured hedges, it’s a real retreat from city life, and even just a few hours here feel restorative. It’s a hotel and spa, too, should you fancy a proper mini-break.
Drinks on the terrace with unbroken views of surrounding parkland are a must if weather permits, but the low-ceilinged, wood-panelled bar is a relaxing and informal spot, too. With June rain (of course) tapping the latticed window behind us, we sat indoors for pre-dinner Blackdown G&Ts served with olive tapenade and a warm cod brandade, which we spooned onto crisp croûtes.
The dining room was packed and buzzing when we visited – no reverential hush here, thankfully – and staff were welcoming and friendly, happy to engage in our aperitif-fuelled chatter. The room is plush and comfortable – I loved the banquette I was seated in, which felt private and cosy – but we found the decor a little dated and somehow not quite in keeping with the house’s timeless charm. The huge windows overlooking the gardens are a key feature, though, and it would be a wonderful place to enjoy a summer lunch with the doors thrown open to the gardens.
The restaurant has retained its one-star rating for twelve years, and chef Stephen Crane – who grew up in Balcombe – is passionate about seasonal, local ingredients and ethical sourcing. His menu is a veritable who’s who of the best of Sussex produce: Selsey lobster, Newhaven-landed turbot, Sussex cheddar, Goodwood Estate lamb and Ridgeview sparkling wine, to name a few.
As you’d expect, the food is flawlessly executed with few surprises or playful twists – just excellent, classic cooking. Lobster in a creamy, coral velouté with cheddar gnocchi and a generous amount of shaved truffle was a rich and luxurious starter, cut through beautifully by a summer vegetable ragout, particularly the inspired, intensely-flavoured confit tomatoes.
Goodwood lamb, presented five ways, included crisp belly, a succulent pink saddle and a slab of caramelised sweetbread, plus a little lamb sausage and lamb falafel, all brought together by a fantastic lamb jus. This nose-to-tail approach was beautiful to look at, fun to eat and a great showcase of the chef’s many techniques.
An assiette of chocolate was a little too sweet for me. Of the five different elements, I loved the light-as-air milk chocolate mousse and chewy macaroon, but something bitter and dark would have contrasted well. A South African Muscadet – perfumed, redolent of rosehips and mesmerisingly good – was perfectly matched.
Mint tea and petit fours in the drawing room rounded off a truly indulgent evening, and we left feeling thoroughly spoiled and happy. At £60 a head for a three-course meal, it’s certainly not the cheapest night out, but for a special occasion, I say go for it.
Ockenden Manor, Ockenden Lane, Cuckfield, West Sussex RH17 5LD
First published in the Brighton & Hove Independent on Friday 10th July 2015
All photos by Emma Gutteridge