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Tuesday 19 November 2013

A Christmas Lunch Preview at The Gallivant Hotel, Camber Sands

Words & Photography by Marina Benjamin

Where: New Lydd Road, Camber, East Sussex, TN31 7RB (http://thegallivanthotel.com)

Cost: The Festive Menu (available from 2nd-24th December) costs £24 to £34 per head, depending on the day of booking, and whether it’s lunch or dinner. The New Year’s Eve Menu is £75 per head. There’s also a Christmas Party Menu served on 14th Dec, and a Christmas Day Menu, for £39 and £65 respectively. Children are welcome and are catered for at reduced cost.

About: Tucked away behind the hillocky dunes of Camber Sands, where the beach stretches for 5 miles, is the Gallivant Hotel. L-shaped, single story and with drive-in parking, it resembles an American motel; in fact, there is a real mid-Californian coast vibe to the place, with its driftwood décor and white-washed floors. Plus 1 and I were given a ‘deck room’, which captured the beach-house style perfectly, and had a wonderful rainforest shower to boot. The bed was extremely comfortable, and foodie treats such as home-made stem ginger cookies, smoked almonds and salted caramel popcorn, bespoke of the inventiveness promised by the kitchen.

Camber Sands is a stone’s throw from the medieval town of Rye, where cake shops jostle with antique stores along winding cobbled streets, and also Dungeness, where cultural adventurers can visit Derek Jarman’s garden-in-the- wilderness at Prospect Cottage. If you’re looking for a weekend away from London, The Gallivant is a perfect spot in one of the South coast’s loveliest areas.

What We Ate: The kitchen at the Gallivant is headed by Trevor Hambley, who is my kind of chef; by which I mean, he eschews molecular chemistry, witty deconstruction, and ubiquitous foams, in favour of using fresh seasonal ingredients and treating them well. Once again, very Californian. His sous chef, Benjamin Fisher, who prepared our meal, spent a year working at the French Laundry, in Yountville, under Thomas Keller, who like so many highly rated Californian chiefs, is a disciple of Alice Waters – the guru of kitchen-garden cooking, and the primacy of good ingredients. 

We were offered a sampling of different dishes from the various Christmas menus: three starters, a choice of two mains, and a fantastic pud that offered more proof of excellence that one could ask for. The starters were diverse and all beautifully prepared. There was a game consommé ‘pie’ – deliciously meaty broth topped with a puff pasty hat – that tasted rich and comforting. Just the thing for a cold winter’s night.

Another dish balanced little cigars of salmon roulade against a very tasty crab beignet, full of fresh meat that sang of the sea.

The only starter that didn’t really do it for me was a nicely cooked bit of turbot, topped with a potato puff, and dressed with whelks in curried oil and a smear of cauliflower puree. Everything in this dish was delicious in itself, but the ingredients somehow didn’t come together.

When it came to mains, Plus 1 ordered the festive turkey. What arrived was both fascinating and more-ish. It was a turkey ball, composed of breast meat on the outside, wrapped around slow-cooked thigh meat, and with an apricot flavoured stuffing in the centre. Doused with a saucy cranberry reduction, it was effectively an edible Christmas bauble. I opted for the pheasant dish, which was my favourite of the evening. Slivers of tender breast meat were served on green beans, and a fritter of confit leg meat sat atop a couple of cubes of potato Dauphinoise. Zinging things up were a Madeira reduction and some scattered dollops of damson jelly. This dish was technically accomplished, punching well above the weight of most Xmas menus, and also mouth-meltingly good to eat.

The pudding, too, was scrumptious. It was billed as pecan pie, but proper pecan pie has a slightly gelatinous quality to it, on account of being made with caro syrup. This one – and this is no criticism, believe me – tasted more like a cross between pecan pie and treacle tart. Plus it was served with some very tasty Christmas pudding ice cream. Yum, yum, and more yum.

What we drank: We had two wines to accompany our food flight. The white was a bone dry Chablis from Gaston Andre Pere et Fils (at £27.90), and the red, an earthy Fleur de Lisse Saint-Emilion (£32.70). Casting an eye over the well-chosen list, I found plenty of wines I’d like to try next time. And the house white is a very tempting Viognier Marsanne – one of my favourite white wines, and only £4.50 a glass.

Verdict: The seaside location is wonderful, and in the morning we enjoyed a brisk beach walk before tucking in to the Gallivant’s delicious breakfast, where there are egg choices for every preference, and a bounty of homemade breads and jams. The hotel staff were uniformly warm and helpful. And while not all the rooms at The Gallivant are as nice-looking or light-filled as the deck rooms, even the small rooms don’t skimp on comfort. The Gallivant’s trump card, however, is its kitchen, ruled over by two very talented chefs, who turn out wonderfully flavoured food with a lot of love and a good dollop of imagination.

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