Times Magazine – April 14 2007
– Ginny Dougary

I’ve been wondering what is it about taste and smell that, of all the senses, connect so intimately with half-remembered experience. Proust’s madeleine is the most obvious example of this nostalgic potency; one bite of a cake unleashing a masterpiece of recollected memory. But some of the most evocative food writing also revisits the time when the writer’s taste buds were first awakened, resulting in a sort of double whammy of nostalgic pleasure for the reader who still remembers the precise feeling of delight and recognition on first coming across a passage of this kind.

It is long decades since I picked up a book by the American writer  M. F. K. Fisher, but  her description of eating the perfect peach in Aix-en-Provence – something she herself summoned years after she lived there – has not withered a bit. There was something so fresh and appealing about the way she described her discovery that it really paid to do as the French do: select the fruit in the market that morning and eat it before the day is over, while its bloom is still intact and the flesh is rosy but unbruised.

In that same collection, Fisher retrieved a much earlier memory of being taken out to dinner by her parents when she was a small child. It was somewhere very grand, and everything about it was fabulous in the best sense: the light refracted in the sparkling glasses, the sheen of the silverware, the exquisite mouthfuls of food… the whole experience awakening something in her which made a lifelong impression.

That passage made a similar impression on me for a number of reasons. I had taken the book from my father’s huge collection of perhaps three or four hundred volumes on food. Like Fisher, he believed in exposing children to the finer things of life and food was definitely up there. Almost all my childhood and teenage memories of my father are connected with meals, me being his navvy in the kitchen (he, not my mother, did the cooking) or going to one fine restaurant or another.

Perhaps a mark of a really good restaurant is that each time you return, you experience it with all the enjoyment of that initial visit – what keeps you coming is that it always delivers everything you relished the first time round and more. My old local, Chez Bruce, never failed on that count. In Brighton, Terre à Terre, although a very different sort of concern (being exclusively vegetarian, for one thing), occupies a similar position in my hierarchy of consistently happy-making eating experiences.

In New York, where I once lived and often return for work and holidays, I thought I had discovered a new R&R (reliable and restorative restaurant), Les Deux Gamins, which I stumbled upon in Greenwich Village and loved instantly. The waitresses all resembled that gap-toothed, slightly demolished beauty Beatrice Dalle from Betty Blue, and were hilariously moody. The patron had the air of an artistic, highly strung hobo. The decor was  French café without the  set-in-aspic museum atmosphere of the enduringly trendy Balthazar. And the food  was simple but spot-on: a memorable  onion tart was so creamy, unctuous, sweet and savoury, I  kept coming back just for that.

But on a later visit, it had disappeared. I eventually tracked Les Gamins down in a new location in the East Village and, while the  food may have been just as good, all the joy had gone in this dark, gloomy Deco-diner setting, and  I left feeling faintly depressed  and let down.

This theme of revisiting memories led me to try One Paston Place again. The first time I went there was five or six years ago when it was still under the owners who had won a Michelin star, the young woman on the phone had informed me, adding somewhat deflatingly that it was way back in 1970-something. On that initial visit, my friend and I were the only people in the restaurant.

The food was high-end French and pretty good, from what I can recall, but the atmosphere inevitably lacked buzz. This time round, the Saturday night clientele, perhaps in a bid to beat the Valentine rush, was exclusively made up of couples; a Brightonian mix of gay and straight and an eye-catching young woman whose décolletage was covered in tattoos.

When I phoned to apologise that we were running 15 minutes late for our 7pm reservation, the somewhat high-handed man answering the phone insisted that my booking had been made for 6.30, but eventually  admitted that he had confused me with another customer. This error of mistaken identity was repeated, however, when we arrived at the restaurant. More aggravation followed when my friend and I struggled to hear one another above the pounding sound system, an endless loop of Moby Muzac, and the words “Why does my heart feel so bad?” began to speak to us rather too feelingly. At one point, a piercing electronic sci-fi sound filled the room and the diners around us all started in unison. This, at least, resulted in the CD being changed, but to something more staid, featuring (oh dear) Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Just the Way You Look Tonight.

The formerly high-handed maître d’ became overbearingly friendly, sharing his life story of how he had recently been promoted from sommelier, then apologising for his depleted cellar (the wine list was covered in a rash of red dots denoting what was unavailable), explaining the roles of the rest of the staff and so on, which was too much information and of the wrong kind. It was strangely and exhaustingly like dealing with a passive-aggressive personality or needy child, as he kept asking if we liked the food and whether we would be coming back.

But what of the food itself? Could it possibly be so delicious that our mood would be sweetened and we could overlook these amateurish  defects? The Italian chef-owner, Francesco Furriello, former footballer and house music enthusiast, bought One Paston Place in 2004 and garnered an Egon Ronay star and a number of plaudits within his first year. A recent local award has given him the confidence to switch from French haute cuisine to a predominately Italian menu.

The amuses-bouches augured well: a delicate splodge of truffle-scented mascarpone adorned with a petal of bresaola and shreds of orange peel marinated in Grand Marnier (so fantastic we asked for another), and a bite-sized artichoke “pie” with flaky, buttery pastry and a sliver of potato and parmesan.

But the starters were immediately disappointing: the straccetti (flaccid rashers of pasta) smeared with white crabmeat, asparagus and assorted vegetables tasted as messy and gloopy as it looked on the plate. My Italian-American friend’s damning verdict was that it reminded her of canned Italian food. My smoked-haddock quiche was a bit dry and joylessly puritanical, with an unhappy cindery frizzle of fried rocket. Mains were better. Sea-bass fillets wrapped around ceps, on a mound of bashed potato, and a fragrant saffron and mussels sauce. While I found the dish imaginative and well executed, the person
eating it felt that the sauce was delicious but overwhelmed the fish. My coquelet dish was hearty and good (caramelised baby shallots, braised radicchio, roast potatoes), but didn’t send me into raptures. Orange and Grand Marnier soufflé with blood-orange sorbet was exceptional and more delicious than any of the soufflés I have tasted at the two Gingerman restaurants in Brighton, where it is their pièce de résistance.
 
On the basis of the food alone, I would be inclined to give One Paston Place another chance. But a good restaurant is not simply about what you put in your mouth, and the negative factors on this evening outweighed the positive. So, sadly, no, I can’t see myself returning.

Another downbeat aside before announcing that there is some good news on the Brighton eating front. I tried the newish Pinxto People and loved the food but hated the WAG-ish  disco atmosphere and the maître d’ trying to charge our table of eight an extra three pounds a head, when he had been set a budget of £25 per person. (We argued about this long and hard before settling the question. I won’t be back.)

And, oh,   the perils  of endorsing a restaurant when you’ve only tried it a couple of times. In an earlier review, I claimed that Gars, raved about by friends, did seem to be the best Chinese in Brighton. I have been back twice since and, most unfortunately, had the worst Chinese food I’ve ever encountered; ditto service. (Skewers of chicken frozen and lumpy and plain awful which prompted me to cancel my order and leave.) Alas, there are my words “best Chinese in Brighton” in the window, and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

But the new Riddle & Finns oyster bar, run by the same team behind Due South, is a great place (functional white tiles and bottle-green trim offset by antique candelabra and groovy chandeliers); slightly tricky service; excellent oysters (the Rockefeller scoring particularly highly); fab crab linguini and chowder. They’re about to open a big gaff in Hove as well and I’m very glad to say that I can’t wait.

* * *

One Paston Place
1 Paston Place, BN2 (01273 606933)
£125 for two, including wine and drinks

Riddle & Finns
12B Meeting House Lane, BN1 (01273 323008)
£79.20 for two, including drinks