One of my favourite dining experiences in all England, the bottle green frontage of Riddle & Finns, Champagne and oyster bar and restaurant, tucked away in the maze of Brighton Lanes, is as much a part of a visit to the city as seeing the sea and lounging the day away in a deckchair. I have been coming here since it opened in 2006, yet it feels like it’s been here before I was born (in a good way).
Somehow it’s timelessly trendy, and even when the weather is ghastly, perhaps too much so for their sister restaurant Riddle & Finns on The Beach, the abundant seafood and Champagne on display, luring newcomers into their den of marble-topped high tables and wax splattered candelabras, is a heart-warming sight.
The vibrant young staff are meanwhile infectiously enthusiastic in both their knowledge of the open kitchen’s secrets and the wine pairings that will best fit the bill, swiftly presenting you with menus and a basket of sourdough by Brighton’s artisan Flour Pot Bakery, accompanied by seriously good butter, horseradish and home-made mackerel pâté as soon as you perch on one of the high stools. Elbows on tables are most certainly permitted here, if only to keep your balance after the aperitif.
I need hardly bother reading the menu, coming here as I do solely for my tried and trusted dishes; half a dozen hot rocks to start including three oysters Rockefeller and three Porthilly, deep fried and served with pickled vegetables and citrus mayonnaise. This, (whilst the catch of the day whole Dover sole with caper butter my companion orders almost changes my mind) was destined to be followed by the exceptional whole wok fried Singapore chilli crab, which, having to wait a whole year for, I am resistant to changing. Sweet, spicy, and oh-so messy, devour with the peachy and tropical-scented Alsace Riesling 2015.
The menu at Riddle & Finns continues to evolve in a manner that keeps things as reassuringly fresh as the fish, however. One dish, long to be remembered and rolled out at dinner parties, is the confit sea trout starter with kohlrabi and apple salad, whisky walnuts and a roquefort dressing, a combination that was somehow (thankfully) invented by the chef here.
Other inventive starters worth sampling; the Brighton scallop carpaccio with pickled fennel, confit lemon and wasabi dressing or the butter & Champagne squid with celery and apple, remoulade and salmon caviar. For main, the pan roasted fillet of Shoreham cod with gnocchi, sundried tomatoes, tempura ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers and tarragon beurre blanc is a homage to Mediterranan coastal flavours that is well worth savouring alongside the last of the summer rosé, the Sussex-produced Plumpton.
Taking inspiration from the high-end liquor shops and oyster bars of New York City, Paris or Dublin, Riddle & Finns is a perfect casual lunch or early evening spot, with no need to blow your brains out on expensive crab or lobster fruit de mer and Dom Perignon (unless you want to), due to a set two-course menu of £14.95 running from 12pm-7pm. Rather than order a bottle of your favourite Champers, there are many available by the glass including my favourite white label Pol Roger or my companion’s trusty yellow label Veuve Cliquot. Or, why not sample the house speciality – a foaming tankard of Black Velvet (Guinness and Champagne), the recommended accompaniment to their finest native oysters.
Come the evening, the tone merges into that of a sold-out, much Instagrammed supper club, with shared, unreserved tables encouraging fleeting friendships which lend the atmosphere an aura not unlike a 19th century French novel in which bohemian poets and writers congregate at backstreet cafés in order to enjoy some quality wine and dinner whilst exchanging droll repartee, never to meet again. The only life-long friendship you can be sure of is mine with Riddle & Finns – my kindred spirit.
Riddle & Finns, 12b Meeting House Lane, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1HB. Tel: + 44 (0) 1273 721 667. Whilst the Lanes branch operates a strict no-bookings policy, Riddle & Finns on The Beach takes reservations. For more information and menus, visit the website.