The city of Brighton is a strange contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it revels in a Donald McGill-esque seediness to this day, combining picture postcard cheek with hints of something darker. Little wonder that Keith Waterhouse famously said of it that ‘it looks like a town helping the police with its enquiries.’ On the other, it combines a liberal and eccentric outlook with some of the best dining and drinking options anywhere in the country, and the two are anything but mutually exclusive. To spend an afternoon quaffing, munching and libating one’s way around the Lanes – and further – is to understand the quixotic spirit of a place where contradiction and absurdity are everyday parts of life.
The odyssey began at Cin Cin, a small Italian restaurant set around the North Laine. Although tricky to find, the exceptionally good pasta is an unmissable recreation of top-notch Italian osterias, and the ravioli with potato and rocket and the pappardelle with Sussex beef shin are both delicious – and superbly priced at a mere £9 and £10, respectively. With only 18 places to eat situated around an open kitchen, this has all the glamour of a chef’s table, but at altogether more affordable prices.
It was then a hop and a skip to one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, let alone Brighton, the Chilli Pickle. The brainchild of husband and wife time Alun and Dawn Sperring, it combines all the hallmarks of contemporary sub-continental cooking with a European twist – hence the name, combining exoticism with something altogether closer to home. There are a cornucopia of delights on the menu, not least the so-called ‘King Thali’, an assortment of curries with side dishes and adornments that will satisfy the most comprehensive of appetites.
Yet Sperring was keen to show off his signature dish, the pork knuckle vindaloo, and it would be a lacklustre man or woman who did not enjoy the challenge before them. Drawing as much on Bavarian cuisine as that of India, it offered a superbly cooked and comprehensive amount of porcine bliss together with a just-hot-to-manage vindaloo sauce, with the whole shebang served on a deliciously fluffy naan bread. Washed down with a wheat beer – the drinks list has an excellent selection of unusual options – it was a truly blissful thing to eat.
However, if you’re looking for bliss in Brighton, then it is near-obligatory to visit the restaurant that’s regularly voted the city’s best, most recently in the much-sought-after Brighton’s Best Restaurants awards. 64 Degrees occupies a small space in the Lanes, and is the brainchild of chef-patron Michael Bremner. After a stint at the decent but unexceptional Due South, he opened an innovative and exciting space that has attracted a huge amount of critical attention. It isn’t at all hard to see why. Bremner’s menu is divided up into short, almost gnomic sections – ‘Meat’, ‘Fish’ and ‘Vegetables’ – which barely gives any indication of the culinary wonders that you might sample.
On my visit, delicious muffin-like bread with Marmite butter gave way to ceviche of sea bass with scotch bonnet chilli, the tomato and burrata salad of your dreams, flawlessly cooked rump of beef and much, much more. It hasn’t received a Michelin star for some unaccountable reason, but Bremner is philosophical about this, claiming that there are some obscure rules and regulations that he has never been entirely privy to. Still, being fully booked constantly must soften the blow somewhat. As we end the meal with a wicked twist on a gummy bear and lime sorbet – watch out for the kick! – it’s hard not to reflect that this is food as good as you could expect to eat anywhere in the country at the moment.
There are many other top-notch places to visit in Brighton, which we strolled along to, feeling increasingly stuffed, in the best of ways. The Little Fish Market in Hove serves flawless seafood, of which a perfect native oyster served with elderflower and Jersey cream was the highlight, and seems likely to build on its much-beloved neighbourhood reputation with greater acclaim once national food critics start waking up to its charms. And a London refugee, Bincho Yakitori, serves Japanese bar food of chicken kara age and delicious skewers that might have anything from quail’s eggs and bacon to chicken hearts, all at inexpensive and sensible prices; one of my companions sighs ‘I brought my son in here, and he went mad with excitement. Still only cost about £30, though.’
These restaurants, and many more, participate in the OctoberBest event, in which Brighton’s top 20 restaurants serve special £20 menus, including one-off signature dishes created for the event. It will be unusual, innovative, delicious and unmissable. Just, then, like the city that hosts it. We can’t wait.
Find out more information about OctoberBest and Brighton’s top restaurants at www.brightonsbestrestaurants.com.