Posted: 4th June 2018
I had a remarkable meal in the middle of last month.
It happened in Brighton: a long way to go for dinner, you might say, but I had noted some time ago that I could get there relatively easily on Thameslink and that late at night trains actually ran directly between where I live and Britain’s answer to San Francisco; the journey taking just an hour and a half. Thameslink, however, was not what it was: I had failed to spot the fact the line is now called ‘Gove-Via Thameslink,’ but in all honesty, the trains were not affected that day, except (and this is a big ‘except’), there were not only the usual illiterate announcements repeated ad nauseum about ‘save it and sort it,’ there was an excruciating American telling me to beware of new timetables. Most people were plugged in to their own noises and couldn’t hear a word of this. Only the few of us who had opted to read were plunged into misery by this incessant prattle.
I arrived about twenty minutes early and walked towards Upper Gardiner Street by a circular route. I thought I spotted the pub from the Richard Attenborough film of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but I decided in the end they had probably mocked it up in a studio, although a lot of the film was actually shot in Brighton. Like many Londoners I used to go to Brighton as a child and pobble across its uncomfortable pebble beach to paddle in the sea, or enjoy the pier or the funny little louche lanes and alleys close to the water. What I saw was shabby and run down; everything needed a lick of paint and dirty, concrete, brutalist buildings had been strewn about the place with no feeling for the more picturesque character of the old town. In North Street I saw one magnificent, neglected eighteenth century coaching inn. It looked derelict.
I had been invited to dinner at Silo, an adventurous new wave restaurant that has declared war on waste to the degree they have made plates and dishes out of all the plastic bags and wrappers they have received over the years. Virtually all that has been eliminated now, and deliveries are made in reusable or biodegradable containers. The food was down to the restaurant’s chef, Dougie McMaster. The wines were supplied by Charles Heidsieck, one of the best of the smaller champagne grandes marques.
Silo wasn’t exactly what you might associate with a restaurant hosting a top champagne house: rather than some sort of luxurious Michelin-starred establishment it is a multi-purpose space, part-bakery, part-brewery, part-café that draws some of its inspiration from Noma in Copenhagen.
“A glass of creamy Charles Heidsieck non-vintage was put in my hand, and my misgivings were soon dispelled.”
We were all taken in to watch Dougie making butter. He had a rather snazzy machine to do the churning, it has to be said, but all you seemed to need was a litre of cream. In this case, Dougie had a suitably pre-industrial cow working entirely for him. After that you had butter and buttermilk (which you drained off in a piece of muslin), or you could leave the two together and have ‘virgin butter’. Dougie also made a runny beurre blanc with some champagne and we had this on his really fabulous sourdough bread while we tasted through the range of Charles Heidsieck champagnes.
‘Charles’ as its Glasgow-born boss Stephen Leroux called it, has been a champagne to watch for a couple of decades now. It makes only a relatively small amount of champagne but it is all top quality, blended from 150 base wines and made up with forty percent reserve wines aged between fifteen and twenty years. At the top of the pyramid is the Blanc des Millenaires – one of Champagne’s greatest wines.
There was no Blanc des Millenaires that night, but there was a wonderful new pure chardonnay blancs de blancs served with the virgin butter, while the 2006 vintage was sent in with the beurre blanc. The smoked butter with seaweed didn’t work so well with the 2005 rosé.
“Then the fun started with the menu: brined tomatoes with pumpkin seeds and roses; slow-grown shiitake mushrooms with walnuts and garlic flowers; pollock with brown butter and vinaigrette; beetroot, prune, hispi cabbage terrine and fermented potato skin miso; local rhubarb with bullets of half frozen crème fraîche, honey and elderflowers; and pumpkin seed ice cream with douglas pine seeds, sesame and seaweed powder. Apart from two square inches of pollock, I had no flesh to eat all evening.”
Dougie had done lots of foraging and the emerging sun had brought him things he could add to the menu such as the first roses and elderflowers. Having ceased to be a regular restaurant reviewer before the Noma age, all this sort of thing was new to me, as were many of the flavours. Some – like the tomatoes – were relatively bland, others like the rather complicated mille-feuilles of potato skins was adventurous and fascinating. The dish that pleased me most was the rhubarb desert, which was a winner.
The Charles Heidsieck champagnes tackled this novel menu extremely well, the 2006 vintage with the mushrooms and the lovely 2005 with the fish. The mille-feuilles was paired with the 2005 rosé while the rosé reserve was poured with the rhubarb. By then it was time to think about trains again and make a quick dash through the back streets to Brighton’s magnificent railway station.
I am glad I made my excursion to Brighton when I did. By the end of the month Gove-Via Thameslink had descended into a chaos that was nothing less than a full and fitting metaphor for the state of Britain today.