As Daniel Craig once said “Everyone likes to walk through a door marked PRIVATE”. There was a similar nudge of excitement breezing past a board warning “Fully Booked” at the elegant front door to Stanmer House. Word of the recent appointment of Russell Tisbury’s well practised hand at the kitchen tiller has obviously spread. Stanmer Park itself seemed well stocked with potential hungry footfall, the sun seemingly having dragged most of Brighton out for some chilly fresh air, but they would have to wait. Walking through the elegant porch into the grand entry hall, greeted by genteel strains of Sunday jazz and a tickle of woodsmoke from the open fire, one could be excused for rethinking one’s social standing, elevated slightly over the non-roast pedestrians.
Stanmer House has had many incarnations over the years since being rescued from dereliction as owners and managers come and go, but there is no denying it is a magnificent venue. Ceilings stretch high above, sucking and enriching sound. Delicate plaster mouldings match the carved marble fireplaces, dashed here and there with tasteful gilt. Ensconced statuary and deep leather sofas surrounding the open fire set a scene as we are greeted by the maître d’. Ornate doorways and confident walls of petrol blue (at a guess), clean white and deep terracotta delineate the dining areas. We are led past the soon to fill tables to a gloriously bright room overlooking the garden through a series of French windows.
It takes a minute or two longer to settle in such surroundings, though eventually gawking turned to the menu, which turned out to be equally impressive. A very tempting mix of mostly French and local wine choices, along with the ubiquitous Harveys, making the decision to drive here a small annoyance. Definitely a list to put languor into your late afternoon. For food, a full choice of meats and a tasty looking vegan wellington may seem common options, and at £18ish very tempting, but the addition of a choice of 3 or 4 meat combo (£21/24) will certainly catch the carnivorous eye. Pleasant to see cauliflower cheese among the list of standard accompaniments rather than just a side, joining the local buttered greens, veg mash and garlic herb potatoes. For those that need more all the veg can be a side too, along with honey glazed pigs in blankets and pork and cranberry stuffing balls.
The settled feeling that began at the door, encouraged by the very definite prospect of not starving, continued with the attention of the staff. Rumours of teething problems since Tisbury’s takeover in November proved unfounded as not only we but all the guests were treated with pleasant attentiveness. Either a competitive edge or the desire to sample everything pushed us both toward the 4 meat combo, with pigs and stuffing balls alongside in case of emergency.
The food arrived promptly, and plenty of it. From covert glances to other tables our massively filled plates seemed to be the norm rather than a combo-based exception. So generous are the plates in fact that the sides are served on an ingenious tripod mezzanine to make sure your table is not too crowded. This did put the glistening sausages dangerously close to eye level, but what is life without some risk. Sauce choice to match all our meats could have been complex, but again the attentive staff recommended the horseradish and the apple, both handmade in the kitchen from local ingredients. The apple sauce was especially good, and set off the pork belly perfectly. Scene set. Let battle commence.
There is a theme of locally sourced ingredients which no doubt enhance the flavour, but each was elevated by the handling in the kitchen. Potatoes (always the first port of call for the aficionado) were perfectly soft and crispy in all the right places. The beef was tender, the chicken flavoursome, the lamb especially tasty, and the pork and its crackly hat (smothered in the aforementioned apple) slipped down with just the right amount of fatty glide. All that local veg had bite and flavour, the beetroot especially sweet and crisp; the taste of cauliflower cheese and root puree blending with a perfect gravy to tie the whole plate together. On the mezzanine the pigs in blankets in a honey glaze tasted all kinds of naughty, and the pork and cranberry stuffing balls have entered the hallowed halls of ‘best side ever’ fame.
The only downside to the meal, if it can be called that, is generosity. Four meats is a lot to deal with, and in this instance proved almost too much. Valiant efforts were made, breathers taken, water provided by (still attentive) staff, but eventual defeat became inevitable. As the table was cleared there was a moment of true sadness that the desert menu had become something for other people. The drooling selection of waffles, brownies, crumbles and cheesecake (and ice cream) must wait for another day. Luckily the digestive pause required before leaving the table allowed a chance to look over others, which had all filled up rapidly. I took my sated and beaten big-eyed dreams of cherry bakewell crumble with golden custard out into the fresh air to join the pedestrians for a delicate amble back to the car.
Until next time.
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