Brighton has an odd reputation when it comes to food and drink. There are a large number of affluent and well-informed diners who either live in or visit the city, and one would have thought that it could support a steady stream of excellent restaurants. And yet, with a few shining exceptions, too many of the places one can dine are overpriced disappointments. However, the coming of the Salt Room earlier this year galvanized critical opinion – including ours – and so it’s time to visit their sister restaurant, The Coal Shed, to see if second time was the charm, or whether – gasp! – the original might even be better.
First impressions aren’t as dazzling as the Salt Room, not least because it doesn’t have a panoramic view of the sea, and nor does the main room have the ‘wow’ factor of its younger sibling. What it does have is a cosy, welcoming atmosphere that, on a Saturday evening, is helped immeasurably by the tables being sufficiently intimate to create a romantic atmosphere, but not so intimate that you find yourself listening to your neighbour whispering sweet nothings to their inamorata. We kicked off with a brace of gins, a Ford’s with orange blossom and raspberry and a Hendrick’s and cucumber. Both were superbly made, and served in fishbowl-like glasses. We knew we were going to be in for a very jolly evening, and so it proved.
The Landlubber and I had – if not an argument – then a discussion afterwards as to which of the Salt Room and the Coal Shed had the edge when it came to food. We ordered in relatively similar vein at both restaurants but there are subtly different emphases and points of interest at both. If I had to summarise their strengths, then I’d say that the Salt Room is a fish restaurant that does superlative meat, and the Coal Shed is a carnivorous establishment that nevertheless doesn’t neglect the pescetarians amongst us. Thus a generously sized starter of Rye bay scallops was lifted a notch by the black pudding granola, while the goat’s curd mousse was given a kick by the ‘red pepper ketchup’, a delectable thing that is several notches better than anything dreamt up by Herr Heinz.
The Landlubber and I are both very predictable when it comes to main dishes. She invariably goes for fish, I invariably plump for meat, and more often than not steak. If one bears in mind that we were both very much in our respective comfort zones, then we were equally satisfied. I went for a 400g sirloin steak, which was beautifully cooked and a fine piece of meat, helped by a slightly zesty Bearnaise sauce and some beef dripping chips. I was thinking of calling it ‘the vegetarian’s nightmare’, but refrained. The Landlubber went slightly off piste to order a charcoal roasted sea bream, which had tandoori squid and sag aloo with it, but it didn’t feel at all gimmicky; the mouthful I was permitted to try was utterly delectable. We particularly enjoyed the fine bottle of Portuguese red that accompanied these, making for an all too convivial atmosphere at dinner. One hopes that our fellow diners were not overawed by the conviviality.
We were essentially stuffed by this point, but we remained both greedy and curious, and so in the interests of journalistic research we shared the banana mess with a dark chocolate sorbet. It is not a pudding that the faint at heart should try, because it is a serious, complex and challenging beast, and one that has to be shared because I can’t imagine that anyone could manage it on their own. However we put in a decent showing, aided perhaps by a couple of (exceptional) espresso martinis, and eventually we left, happy and replete.
So, which one wins out of the Coal Shed and the Salt Room? If I’m being diplomatic, I’d say that the views and atmosphere at the Salt Room just edge it, while the food at the Coal Shed is a shade superior, resulting in a draw. But the wonderful thing is, we can have both. And Brighton diners are luckier people as a result.
8 Boyces Street, Brighton BN1 www.coalshed-restaurant.co.uk