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Review of Ben Wilkinson @ The Pass

Chef Ben Wilkinson and restaurant manager Monika Zurawska at The Pass

Over the past decade or so, I’ve had the privilege of enjoying some impressive cooking at The Pass at South Lodge. I would also add that I have met – putting it perhaps delicately and politely – some rather ‘characterful’ head chefs too.

The current incumbent of this renowned Sussex restaurant is chef-auteur Ben Wilkinson, who recently managed to pin a Michelin star firmly back on the door. And quite rightly too.

Ben has an impressive CV having rattled the pots and pans at The Cottage in the Wood in the Lake District, Midsummer House in Cambridge and Savelberg just outside of The Hague – a fine dining destination restaurant in the Netherlands that I’m more than familiar with. Do look it up if you’re in the market for a fine dining and spa break…

There have been some tweaks to The Pass’ 28 cover restaurant design – notably a glass wall now separates diners and the team beavering away in the vast open kitchen – yet the overall look and feel is reassuringly familiar. That said, service feels a lot less pretentious and reverential than in previous incarnations of the restaurant and – in my humble opinion – that’s a very good thing.

The cooking is – as you’d expect – top notch. Ben clearly has mastery of the classic kitchen style yet it’s his modernity and layering of flavours and textures that really shine out. There is a lot – and I mean a lot – going on within each and every dish but the balance remains impressive without being flashy. The entirety of the menu is a well-composed ‘whole’ as opposed to each course screeching over its brethren for attention.

The Pass offering is a set tasting menu of eight courses for £145 with a wine pairing starting from an additional £95. Available Wednesday to Sunday evenings, it’s clearly not a venue that is going to be a monthly outing for most but the restaurant and wider hotel was packed to the rafters and gently buzzing on the Friday night I visited with an industry colleague.

Turbot with squid, leeks, asparagus and English white wine sauce

The dining experience opened with a quartet of well-crafted snacks followed by a ceviche of hand-dived scallops with Coppa ham in a light almond sauce with nutty squash; perfectly executed and an impressive melding of flavours.

The next course dished up all the elements of a very refined winter warmer: celeriac custard, beef cheek, hen of the woods – a very much on-trend meaty wild mushroom – lending earthiness with the added decadence of winter truffle. To accompany the main bowl, a perfectly clarified – and moreish – goblet of beef broth sat alongside a delicate tartar in a light wafer thin pastry cup. Adding another string to the bow of this dish, a warm treacle bread ready to dip and mop.

To counterbalance the richness of the previous dish, a beautifully light and delicate fish course. Perfectly poached turbot with squid and clean, crunchy early season French asparagus topped with a light and foamy an English sparkling wine sauce.

My dining companion – a chef of note in his own right – and I both thought that the game course of roast loin of fallow deer with a liver faggot was a brave choice on an otherwise pretty accessible menu. But – again – hats off to Ben that by this stage of the dining experience his menu is so well-crafted – dare I say ‘leading’ – that even the queasiest of diners would be enticed to tuck in to a forkful or two.

I have to admit, I did find the cheese course a tad underwhelming; it’s not that the cheeses weren’t utterly delicious but a restaurant cheese trolley should exude decadence and make a guest’s slobber-chops drool. I want dirty, runny, stinky cheese… the ones that give local council environmental health officers nightmares. The cheese offering was a bit ‘meh’.

Chocolate délice

A genuine highlight of The Pass dining experience was the desserts. I’m not a fan of puds but the savoury dessert of sheep curd with rhubarb and rose was an utter tangy and creamy delight, whilst the chocolate délice with caramel, hazelnut and raisin was exceptional; possibly the most ‘grown-up’ dessert I’ve ever had the chance to dip my spoon into. And I say that as someone who doesn’t particularly like chocolate.

The wine flight that paired with the meal worked well; and I’m always intrigued to try wines from emerging regions and small producers so it ticked all my boxes. The Sicilian white from the higher terraces of Etna was a particular stand out for me.

I have to hand it to Ben; every time I looked over my shoulder into the kitchen he was actually on the stove rather than barking orders at his brigade. The team is clearly a well-oiled machine and – in my mind – Ben is leading by example of the new generation of hands-on chefs.

As someone who’s worked in and around the Sussex food and drink scene for several decades now, this dining experience left me with a smile on my face and a jolly tummy. Chef Ben Wilkinson is not just a steady pair of hands on the tiller of The Pass at South Lodge; compared to his Sussex contemporaries, there is a level of exceptional culinary craft. Chef Wilkinson’s star is most definitely ascending.

The Pass, South Lodge Hotel, Brighton Road, Lower Beeding, Horsham RH13 6PS


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