If there’s one thing that Sussex isn’t short of its country house hotels. These stately piles were once the main houses of both aristocratic and self-made families and although some have rooms and annexes dating way back in time, many were surprisingly recently built over the past couple of hundred years in Neo-Gothic style.
One that was missing from my Sussex county house checklist was Ashdown Park Hotel over in Forest Row, situated within the Ashdown Forest. I’m not sure why I hadn’t managed a visit in the past but late last year, I jumped in a taxi and went along for a good old nosey.
Surrounded by 186 acres of landscaped parkland – including its own golf course and deer park – the mansion house has a fascinating history since its construction in 1815 including as a family home, base for a US university, bank training centre and 50 years as a nunnery before being purchased by Elite Hotels in the early 1990s.
As you sweep down the driveway, you’re struck by the grandeur of the hotel that’s equally matched by the entrance hall that now acts as reception and concierge. The decor throughout the main house that features 105 rooms is British classic with a nod to the modern, with an impeccable finish throughout. A particular highlight is the deconsecrated Chapel which must count as one of the most stunning event venues in the county for weddings and celebrations.
The hotel offers two restaurants – the Anderida which boasts two AA Rosettes – and the more informal Forest Brasserie. As it was lunchtime, it was off to the brasserie for us.
The Forest Brasserie exudes a very relaxing air with big windows out onto the golf course. On our visit there were a smattering of diners that I guess included couples staying at the hotel and a few groups of locals who were probably enjoying a spa day with lunch. Tables are over two levels, although – as is ever my want – I opted for the big high table alongside the kitchen pass.
First thing on the agenda was a drink and I can hand-on-heart say that across all of Ashdown Park’s restaurants and lounges I’ve never seen as many locally produced wine, spirits and beers in any hotel in Sussex. Amongst others, wines from Rathfinny, Nyetimber, Kingscote and naturally Ashdown; beers from Bedlam, Old Man and Harveys; spirits from Mayfield, Tom Cat, Seven Sisters and Brighton Gin. Seeing a line-up such as that makes me feel like my job championing Sussex food and drink is genuinely worth doing so well done team Ashdown Park.
As the restaurant name suggests, the menu is very much in brasserie-style with a pretty extensive and well-balanced choice of both light and more substantial dishes. There are also some ‘picky’ options that are suitable for sharing. Allergens are all clearly marked so you can make an informed dietary choice, and – as my chat with chef confirmed – as much produce as possible is sourced locally. As a rough idea, two courses are around £30 per person.
To start, I opted for the spiced calamari with aioli that came in a light golden crumb and worked perfectly with the punchy rocket salad and basil dressing. My partner – who’s Dutch so can’t get enough of asparagus at any time of the year – chose that with Parma ham and Parmesan shavings: a classic combination with the green shoots of asparagus firm just as they should be. Neither of these dishes are particularly unique or complicated so what matters is the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the kitchen, both of which were clearly evident in the delivery.
For my main I sampled the grilled fish of the day, in this case a very generous fillet of firm but flaky sea trout accompanied by new potatoes and spinach and dressed with a herby-butter sauce, lemon and capers. This has to rate as one of my favourite dishes of 2022 with flavours and textures working in harmony and just the right amount on food on the plate.
My partner chose the Osso Buco – a traditional dish from Milan of slow braised beef shin with root vegetables accompanied by a saffron risotto. It was hearty winter fayre that combined local meat and vegetables with a splash of the Italian sun. The beef was tender, the risotto had bite and depth of flavour. Another impressive dish.
Although struggling by this point – a little lay down in one of the hotel’s room would have been in order – on the recommendation of our waiter, we shared the Chocolate Delice with salted caramel and Bailey’s ice cream and a plate of Sussex Crumble cheese. Both faultless in taste and plating.
The Forest Brasserie does what it sets out to do incredibly well in a very unpretentious way. The dining room is relaxed, the staff are professional yet friendly – and go the extra mile –, whilst the food itself screams of great ingredients and accomplished cooking. I’m sure Winnie and Christopher Robin would approve.
Ashdown Park, Wych Cross, Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5JR
01342 824988 • www.ashdownpark.com