TIMES ONLINE – October 22 2005
Ginny Dougary

44 Marine Parade, Brighton, East Sussex (01273 696934)

The last time I wrote about trying to get a good meal in London-on-Sea, it was difficult to avoid being hard on its restaurants. But now, a year or so later, eating out in Brighton – hallelujah! – no longer sucks.

Due South, directly on the seafront, which had just opened then, did become my favourite local – and went on to win awards and plaudits from the foodwriting heavyweights. It has never disappointed me – when I can actually get in, that is – and everyone I’ve taken there has loved it: from a group of elderly Boston matriarchs to my younger teenage son and his mates. I went there so often, indeed, that I soon worked my way through the whole menu. But what I returned for time and again was the freshly caught fish of the day, grilled with lemon and herbs, great salad leaves simply dressed and rough-cut sautéed potatoes.

Organic and locally sourced ingredients, unservile but friendly service, wild flowers on wooden tables, the waves dotted with white-sailed boats… It would be perfect for my tastes but for one thing. On every occasion in recent months that I have tried ringing the restaurant, no one has answered the phone. A recorded message directs you to a website where you are invited to book online; an aggravation further compounded, in my case, by no one responding to my request in any form – cyber or otherwise. Twice now, as a last resort, I have gone in person to see if I can be fitted in – only to be told that although there are clearly free tables, there isn’t enough food in the kitchen or sufficient staff to handle any more customers.

There have been a number of personnel changes since I first became a fan of Due South – most recently, the chef Ricky Hodgkinson has left, so this possibly has had an impact on the way the restaurant is being run. There are rumours that the owner is planning to open an oyster-bar, also along the seafront – which would be a marvellous thing – so perhaps this accounts for further distractions behind the scenes.

My neighbourhood in Hove is fast becoming a haven for foodies – particularly since the arrival of The Real Eating Company. It has been a hit with Australian friends who compare its relaxed style, impeccable eggs benedict and fruit smoothies to Sydney’s popular eatery, bills. What a boon to have somewhere within walking distance where you can buy good bread, terrific English cheeses, wine, olive oil, truffle salami, pata negra, and so on. I haven’t yet eaten there in the evenings, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it for brunch or lunch.

Down the road is Bona Foodie, another great deli-cum-café, which is less specialised but more reasonably priced. I had come across the first Bona Foodie in Kemp Town and was delighted when its owner, Nigel Foster, decided to extend his empire into Hove. I tend to use it for picnics, sandwiches and my cake and olives fix.

A new and terrible local discovery is Audrey’s Chocolates, which is as splendidly old-fashioned as it sounds. I had passed the shopfront many times and gazed at the theatrical window displays… but, wisely as I now know, had not ventured in. The other day, I succumbed… just, you know, to look, and the inevitable happened. Audrey’s has been going for 40-odd years, supplies Fortnum & Mason and has photographs of Prince Charles giving them his royal seal of choccie approval. Everything is handmade and arcane – the layers of fine white paper, with the black chocolates lined up in regiments, and the heady almost peppery smell of pure dark chocolate is wonderful.

Further afield, Terre à Terre – the gastronomic vegetarian restaurant – is as delicious as ever and continues to win awards. I try to deviate from always ordering the global tapas, and the soup is always rich and fragrant. China Garden, a large restaurant on the busy seafront road, is fun for Sunday yum-cha. More fabulous is Gars – which various Brighton friends had assured me was the best Chinese in town, and having tried it I have to agree. It’s designer-ish, with red leather panel walls, but also comfortable and unposey. Everything we ate hit the spot, but the sea bass was exceptional. The Seven Dials restaurant is another family-run success. Most recently, a gorgeous wild mushroom truffle soup stood out, along with a generous plate of skate dressed in an intense caper sauce.

To the main event: The Gingerman, mark two. I very much liked the original where I went almost a year ago… stylish but unassuming decor, nice etchings on loan from Brighton University, an intimate space that didn’t feel cramped and high-flown food unflashily presented. The ingredients, as I recall, were pretty luxe – foie gras, for instance – and I was bothered by a quartet of women who all ordered green leaves as a starter. Why go to a restaurant that prides itself on its cooking and order something you can buy from a supermarket and dress yourself? Yes, of course, they were slim but…

The new Gingerman – the original is still there, thank goodness – is in the basement of a newish hotel called Drakes. I’ve been there for cocktails and was impressed by the barman’s martinis but didn’t care for the boudoir, knicker-blindish decor. The space downstairs feels spirit-sinkingly claustrophobic. The pale suede chairs and beige walls with their cigar-shaped folds behind the tables were fine but the silk-screen floral prints were bland and corporate. I hated the low ceiling, with its many unattractive heating vents and alarms, and washing-line tracks of bulbs that appeared to have been an afterthought to compensate for the insufficiently bright recessed lighting.

In this sort of environment you cannot help but notice your fellow diners. There was a trio of geezers (loud, wearing jeans and trainers), a Footballers’ Wives-type quartet (loud, the females scantily clad; the men and women rarely eating the same course together as various members
absented themselves for prolonged periods of time) and an assortment of couples and family groups. There was piped music (which I don’t remember from Gingerman, mark one): Motown and Buena Vista Social Club and, possibly, ironically?, The Swingle Singers.

The service and the food were both excellent, kicking off with an amuse-bouche of truffled field mushroom soup (obviously popular in Brighton) and pressed pork with capers and parsley and a hint of balsamic sweetness. Then wild bass ceviche with a big punch of lime juice and chilli for me, and lobster, potatoes, vine tomatoes and green beans for my friend. The latter was a particular triumph: “The tomatoes taste as though they’ve been picked at the perfect moment off the vine,” she said. Everything, we agreed, worked brilliantly together but was also plump and juicy in its own right.

Mains: halibut for my pal, “tastes pretty plain but that’s what halibut is like”, with globe artichoke and basil – “fine but doesn’t really turn my cookies” – and for me, coin-sized medallions of pressed rabbit (I think I probably prefer my meat loose and laid-back rather than up-tight and pressurised) stuffed with armagnac-drenched prunes, onion purée and a sort of polenta fritter. You really couldn’t fault the cooking, but increasingly I feel satisfied by most starters and puddings and obliquely failed by the main courses.

Puds were fab. I should have gone for the blood peaches with honeycomb ice-cream and honey lime syrup. I did get to taste it and it was perfect: quite tart but also oven-roasted sweet, “to die for”, “strangely refreshing” was my friend’s verdict. I decided to forgo the blackberry soufflé – even though the soufflé is a Gingerman signature dish – having dim memories of a prune version with armagnac ice-cream at Gingerman One, and finding it just too soufflé-ish, that is a bit eggy and bland and light. I went instead for the babyish-sounding ice-cream sundae, which turned out to be quite grown-up: pistachio, cinammon and raspberry ice-cream in an elegant glass, some kind of strange crystals that leapt about in the mouth like oral firecrackers, and no tarty froths of chantilly cream or parasols.

The coffee was spot-on and the sinful chocs so good I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been supplied by Audrey.

Price: Two courses £25;
£30 for three courses

Due South (01273 821218); The Real Eating Company (01273 221444); Bona Foodie (01273 727909); Audrey’s Chocolates (01273 735561); Terre à Terre (01273 729051); China Garden (01273 325065); Gars (01273 321321); The Seven Dials (01273 885555)