A triumph of a seven-course taster with a focus on Sussex produce, writer Polly Humpris pulls up a pew at The Pass for a night of immersive dining enchantment courtesy of new head chef Ben Wilkinson and his partner Monika Zurawska
A neo-Jacobean grand dame of a property with a yellow Bradstone brick exterior and 93 acres of surrounding beech and oak woodlands, South Lodge is a go-to staycation spot for both Sussex locals and weary Londoners in search of a slice of country-house living. Personally though, it’s The Pass – the hotel’s high-end restaurant – that’s piqued my recent interest and landed me here on a beautiful autumnal evening.
Having shed a fair few skins since its doors first opened 14 years ago, the restaurant’s latest incarnation has fortunately fallen under the masterful direction of Ben Wilkinson and his partner Monika Zurawska. Partners in life as well as business, they are a tour de force: hospitality’s equivalent of Batman and Robin, just much less intense and way more smiley.
Renamed Ben Wilkinson at The Pass, the restaurant’s décor hasn’t changed since its last 2019 freshen up. Think silver-studded mauve banquette seating and high, comfy tub chairs at wooden tables against a backdrop of white and glass with pops of colour provided by modern artwork. Neither gaudy, nor dated, it’s stylish and calming allowing the point of the evening – an immersive, chef’s table-style experience – to take centre stage.
With 28 covers at capacity, it’s an intimate space where every diner feels as though they’re sat slap-bang in the middle of the kitchen overlooking Wilkinson’s collected brigade of chefs in action as they carefully build each dish before finishing them in front of you…at the pass.
The Food & Drink
Feeling lucky – and seriously hungry (there’s nothing quite like seeing the sorcery that goes on in a working kitchen to whet the appetite), I found myself sat at a front-row seat by Monika, whose warmth and obvious expertise in her field are sensed immediately.
Putting his own stamp on proceedings, Wilkinson’s newly devised menu is a triumph of a seven-course taster with a focus on Sussex produce. Less theatrical than his predecessor, but just as ingenious when it comes to flavour combinations, Wilkinson’s Michelin-level cookery is evident from the get-go.
Persuaded by Monika (this is a total lie – I needed absolutely no persuading) to opt for the accompanying wine flight, the first course of chalk stream trout was perfectly matched with with a crisp and citrussy Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Served in delicate chunks with spheres of sweet cucumber and deliciously salty pops of bright pink roe, the fresh, clean flavour of the trout was complemented by a rich, creamy oyster hidden at the bottom of a crisp pastry case.
Moving on, I was over the moon to see ajo blanco on the menu; often considered gazpacho’s poorer cousin, it’s a cold white soup made predominantly from bread, almonds, garlic and water that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Of course, Wilkinson elevated the creamy, nutty bowl of lustrous soup with grapes and sweet, juicy prawns, and I sank every spoon with a smile on my face.
The next course, though… It makes me all at once delighted and devastated to think about it, the latter purely because I wish I was eating it again. Simply entitled ‘Celeriac’, what arrived was a warm, comforting bowl of beef cheek with celeriac cubes. Slow cooked to a thick ragu-like consistency, it was savoury, deeply beefy and cut through with rich marrow that made it silky soft.
The icing on the cake? Homemade miniature treacle loves, which we slathered with whipped, salty butter to mop everything up. I just got so lost in that luxurious memory that I almost forgot the briny sharpness of the beef tartare tartlet with pickles and capers that we were served on the side. An impeccable dish paired with an equally delicious glass of Piquentum Teran, a refreshing and fragrant Croatian red with black fruit flavours.
A really light day boat turbot followed, which was typically turbot-y; mild and slightly sweet, and in this instance made more interesting by the addition of spiced carrot puree, zingy lemongrass and an aromatic hit of sea fennel.
Turbot isn’t my favourite fish, but Wilkinson’s clever cooking was evident from first bite – I’d eat it again happily, and it worked as a great palate cleanser before a deep-red plate of fallow vension, beetroot, lardo, kale, red wine and peppercorn stamped its earthy, succulent and extremely tasty authority on the menu.
Desserts aren’t my thing. I’m always a cheese person, so I devoured the trio of sheep’s cheeses with quince and crackers with glee, but that said, Wilkinson’s ‘Hazelnut’ finisher with coffee, maple, chocolate and pear has certainly turned my head. Served on a cakey, soft pear base with maple ice cream and an indulgent chocolate sphere, it looked beautiful topped with a coffee-flavoured sugar tuile that rose up like a piece of coral and tasted divine.
The Wordrobe Verdict
10/10. Genuinely. As a duo, Ben and Monika are humble, enthusiastic, and incredibly talented without a hint of arrogance or pretension. The service is seamless, and the ambience is formal – in keeping with this insanely good level of cooking – but relaxed enough to allow the food to shine. And shine it does, with seasonality, full-on flavour and a commitment to faultless technique at its core.
Make it happen
Where: South Lodge Hotel, Brighton Rd, Lower Beeding, Crabtree, Horsham RH13 6PS
How: Find out more and make a booking via exclusive.co.uk
Words by Polly Humpris, freelance writer