I’ve had a close eye on Isaac At since it first appeared back in 2015. The original concept was to be a pop-up but the offering proved so popular that chef-patron Isaac Bartlett-Copeland had to turn himself into a restaurateur overnight. No mean feat for a young man in his very early twenties that was making his first foray into the Brighton dining scene following training at Westminster Kingsway college and a stint in the kitchen of The Grand hotel.
From day one, Isaac At’s concept and vision were pretty rounded. The small – and there’s no exaggerating how small it is – open kitchen served up small plate menus with ingredients sourced from local suppliers, farmers, fishers and foragers. There was no compromise: if the product couldn’t be obtained in season from a Sussex producer then it simply wouldn’t appear on the menu.
As I look back seven years, that was still somewhat revolutionary. Sure Brighton restaurants were engaging more with local producers but not for the entire menu. Which, in retrospect, leads to a more astounding claim to fame: the restaurant was the first in the UK to serve an exclusively English wine list. Again, we’re increasingly familiar now with Sussex wines whether at bars or in retailers but in the middle of the last decade to stock just English wine, beer and spirits was deemed by some restaurateurs as off-piste at the very least, and insane at the worst. Would consumers accept purely English wine? Could enough margin be made?
The answer is clearly a resounding ‘yes’, and the efforts of sommelier Alex Preston, who’s the daddy of the front of house team at a grand old age of 27, have clearly paid off having been named as one of the UK’s top sommeliers by esteemed trade title Harpers at the start of July. With other named sommeliers working for some of the biggest names in UK hospitality including Red Carnation, The Ritz and the Mandarin Oriental that’s no small recognition for someone working at a 30-odd cover independent restaurant in the back streets of North Laine.
Although Isaac himself is still involved in the oversight of the restaurant, he’s now developing his career and skills elsewhere which leaves the insanely talented chef Caspian Armani leading the menu and managing the day-to-day kitchen operations. At merely 22, Caspian has maturity and culinary knowledge that are well beyond his years. He’s living proof that there is hope for the future of the hospitality industry. And, like all of the team, there’s very little ego; just an obsession with cooking local food well and ensuring diners enjoy a creative premium experience. The fact that the restaurant holds two AA Rosettes says it all.
The food – unsurprisingly – falls into the ’modern British’ category. There are two main options: a 3-course menu offered Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday lunchtime priced at a pretty-darned reasonable £30 with local wine pairings for an additional £25; or the Tasting Menu which is available at all the services and priced at £60. Dietaries, whether gluten or dairy free or vegan, can also be accommodated for with a smile.
From my vantage point on the two-seater pass table that overlooks the kitchen, its clear that this is a well-oiled machine and a space where staff are mutually supportive and enjoying themselves immensely.
Although I tend to avoid tasting menus nowadays – I’d like to say that’s because I have become more selective but the truth is a can’t pack in six courses now and walk home – the tasting menu seamlessly appeared before me alongside a never-ending line of glasses with wines from the likes of Plumpton, Wiston and Albourne.
The ‘starter’ tomato salad with smoked and salted baked beetroot was sublime. If you’ve never sampled the amazing tomatoes from Nutbourne Farm near Chichester then add this to your bucket list. They are delicious; this is how tomatoes actually should taste.
The south coast caught plaice dish was next level. Caspian explained how they flash-cook the fish by pulling it in and out of the oven to maintain a temperature of around 50-60ºC. The fish is then dressed with a split seaweed hollandaise sauce and dressed with foraged sea-herbs and crispy seaweed. The ‘Salty Fingers’ were foraged for the restaurant by Andy Garfield, whilst they’ve taken the opportunity to also include Japanese Wire Weed which grows here but is ultimately an invasive species that doesn’t belong on the Sussex coast. No complaints here when it comes to the taste.
The Saddlescoombe lamb and courgette dish takes playful inspiration from the Middle Eastern kitchen. Lamb spiced courgette topped with Sussex Golden Cross goats cheese, green peppers, walnuts, lettuce and mint with the all important acidity brought to the party by sumac. Sumac – with its tangy citrus taste – may sound exotic but this particular spice was foraged from a tree in the front garden of a house in Fiveways.
We enjoyed a couple of smaller amuse-bouche, the obligatory Sussex cheeseboard and finished with a refreshing semi-sweet, semi-savoury dessert of poached pear with milk ice cream, custard and crumb. The uplift from a sprinkling of lemon thyme changed a good dish into a great one.
Brighton has maybe a dozen independent restaurants of genuine note and this is one of them; there’s zero pretentiousness but an astounding level of integrity in all aspects of delivery. These guys have more integrity in their little fingers than many more seasoned – and jaded – chefs and restaurateurs who are twice their age.
Isaac At, 2 Gloucester Street, Brighton BN1 4EW • www.isaac-at.com