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The Isaac At Experience

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Image: Isaac At

Everyone loves a pop-up restaurant; they create a buzz and keep the food scene in a constant state of flux. The obvious drawback is that you miss them dearly when they’re gone, so when a pop-up of exceptional class, like Isaac At, sticks around and continues creating that buzz, it’s pretty good news for a town like Brighton, where the food game is strong and the demand only continues to grow.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

It should be noted from the outset that this is not the place to grab a quick, distracted bite on a Tuesday night after a draining day at work; it offers a fine dining experience that should be savoured slowly, and appreciated for the indulgent treat that it is. It is the ultimate post-payday decadence; somewhere to feel special and fortunate, as I discovered when I was sent to review their prestigious Tasting Menu with wine pairing.

The constantly evolving menu is built around locally sourced seasonal produce of the highest quality which the young, dynamic team of chefs whip up into first-class masterpieces with baffling ease. Wednesdays are for wizardry: brainstorming, liaising with foragers, spitballing ideas and concocting magic. The team’s talent is remarkable, and that magic is evident throughout the six course line-up (eight if you count the pre-starter starter, and the post-dessert dessert).

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Here’s what I loved about Isaac At: everything. But let’s be more specific and break it down course by course.  

1. “The asparagus dish before the asparagus dish”

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Tiny though it was, this attractive amuse-bouche was quite the talking point. More complex in flavour than its appearance suggests, this fine West Sussex asparagus tip boasted the perfect crunch, and was a joy to nibble on. Topped with creamy charcoal mayonnaise and zesty lemon thyme, this was a little dish with a lot to say. [A brief shout out also, for the superb bread selection: warm Caramelised Shallott Brioche with home-churned butter and the exceptional Treacle & Stout Roll that made every bread experience thereafter pale in comparison].

2. Charred Asparagus, Egg Yolk & Hazelnut

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

I wouldn’t want to jump the gun at such an early course by stating that this was my favourite, but please understand it took tremendous willpower to stop myself licking the plate. Isaac’s isn’t a licking-the-plate sort of restaurant. Lightly charred, subtly bitter and thinly sliced, the asparagus’ dominant flavour was hazelnut, with a finely-balanced salty hit after each nutty bite. Giving the dish a floaty, sweet quality was the ultra-light egg yolk mousse; as delicate as can be, and greatly intriguing. Cutting through the nuttiness were the elderflower top notes of the Davenport Hosmonden Dry; a very good advert for British white wine, and a house favourite, having featured on the wine list since day one. 

3. Lemon Sole, Potato, Parsley & Nasturtium

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

This graceful course demonstrated Isaac’s philosophy that when simple things are done well, the plate never needs more than four components at one time. A light and dreamy dish of tender sole and silky potato purée, its elegance and poise was punctuated by peppery nasturtium kicks and drizzles of nutty parsley oil. Paired with an equally nutty, oaked white from the Albourne Estate, this was a course I never wanted to end.   

4. Roasted Carrot & Bay Leaf

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When the humble carrot morphs into something so heavy as this, you know the chefs are having fun in the kitchen. Although switching to red wine ahead of another fish course initially felt unnatural, the weight of the Seddlescombe Regent-Rondo was entirely necessary to match the gravitas of the carrot. Smoky and salty in equal measures, this was an intense, seductive and very grown up dish. Charred and meaty, with sweet purée and hints of bay leaf, it was a carrot unlike any I’d encountered before.   

5. Hake vs Lamb, with Aubergine & Coriander

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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My final fish course left me a little underwhelmed, but only when measured against every sensational mouthful that had preceded it. I say this reluctantly, as it’s like reaching the end of a Van Gogh exhibition and declaring The Starry Night to be disappointing – it can be true only if the senses have been over-exposed to beauty, rendering them unable to distinguish between the ordinary and the exceptional. It’s important I emphasise that in any normal restaurant this dish would have caused a riot, but as visitors to Isaac’s will appreciate, this is no ordinary restaurant, and these are no ordinary cooks. This is an establishment that habitually pushes boundaries, experiments without fear and delivers the goods with exceptional imagination. Feed me the hake as a standalone dish and I’m certain I’d be waxing lyrical about the deep, smoky character of the cumin-spiced aubergine, but perhaps by this point my savoury tastebuds were simply replete.   

Cooked achingly slowly at a mere 58°C, the lamb chump emerged as the winner of this course, paired with a full-bodied Bolney Estate red that made us think of cosy nights by open fires.  Simply delightful.  

6. Apple & Rosemary Sorbet

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

For someone like me, who gets as easily attached to a dish as I do a person, the knowledge that I may never again enjoy the rosemary sorbet is something akin to heartbreak. When it comes to the art of letting go, I clearly have some way to go. But if there’s another diner out there who can eat this memorable palette cleanser without yearning for it some weeks later, I’d like to meet them and argue the matter. Said frozen delight also marks an appropriate moment to mention food miles, because such is Isaac’s commitment to reducing unnecessary food miles that the rosemary was picked a few streets away, in the waitress’ own garden. With the exception of sugar, flour and rapeseed oil, all ingredients used on that Saturday were foraged or purchased within Sussex and its neighbouring counties, with full disclosure of locations and mileage on the menu.

7. Rhubarb, Custard & Pink Peppercorn

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

In a dance-off between sweet and savoury, my loudest cheer always goes to the latter, and it takes a knock-out dessert to sway my allegiances. Isaac managed to deliver such a thing, and so it was that I fell in love with this beautiful pink creation. Presented as their answer to Eaton Mess, but aesthetically in a league of its own, the pretty pink tower was light and consistently refreshing, featuring sweet-yet-sour rhubarb sorbet, velvety custard clouds and decadent Viennese biscuits. But don’t let it’s saccharine visage deceive you: embedded in those thin sheets of delicate meringue were fiery pink peppercorns which crackled on the tongue, giving a sassy kick that built over time.

8. Petit Fours

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Ending this exquisite Taster Menu with the lingering flavours of thyme-infused fudge was the treat I didn’t know I needed. I salute the team at Isaac’s because not only are they masters at their craft, but they don’t appear to give two hoots what’s happening around them. As the lovely sommelier explained to us, their key to success is not to look outward at what other restaurants are doing, but to look inward and focus on their own ethos and the quality of what they create. A beautiful sentiment for business and life alike.  

 

 

Edendum

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Image: Edendum

Italian: the nation’s favourite cuisine, second only to the mighty curry. We’ve come to see it as safe, easy food; a collection of familiar, reliable dishes that can be knocked together in no time at all. It’s the “job done” meal that ticks everyone’s boxes, and it remains the average Brit’s dinner party go-to. But do we really know Italian cuisine? Are the dishes we order (often without so much as glancing at the menu, never mind the specials board) giving us the true flavour of Italy? The answer is, clearly, no.

I promise you, I cast no judgement over the types of Italian restaurants that the average town in England relies heavily on for its pasta and pizza needs (trust me, I’m as fond of a 2-4-1 steal as the next person). But if you’re someone who also seeks more than mass-produced lasagne and bland carbonara of a Friday night, then a dinner date within the welcoming walls of Edendum will be time (and money) well spent. Loosen your belts, dear reader, because it’s time to get under the skin of “the good old Italian”, one delightfully authentic course at a time.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

I can’t help but love Edendum from the moment I step inside; it exudes a kind of shrug your-coat-off-and-relax warmth. Alluring deli produce lines the shelves, begging closer inspection, and the restaurant’s core beliefs and practices are stencilled across the walls. Any restaurateur who claims to transport a slice of real Italy straight to the mouths of Brighton gets my attention immediately, and upon talking to Diego (one half of the founding duo) it’s clear the word “authentic” isn’t bandied around without substantial backing. He and Lorenza are here to feed not only our hunger but our understanding of genuine Italian cuisine, and with a recently revamped menu this education may require a few visits.

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Starter

There’s only one occasion when I can tolerate the texture of velvet, and that’s when it presents as the smoothest, creamiest goats’ cheese. This heavenly cheese is the first component to get my approval on the gnocco misto fritto sharing platter, melting and expanding on my tongue. The kitchen is kind enough to separate the meats from the cheeses, so my companion and I enjoy a split-down-the-middle version of this house speciality. Accompanying the goat are: a pungent gorgonzola, a subtle brie, a nutty fontina and a burrata so oozy I need a spoon. Crispy-yet-soft doughballs soak up this dairy-heavy dish, while cerignola olives, cherry tomatoes and spiced homemade chutneys provide an essential acidity which cuts through the richness of the cheese.  

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Over on the meat side of the table there are comments along the lines of “This is the best prosciutto I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever” which I interpret to mean that if I wasn’t a pescetarian I still wouldn’t get a look in. The generous meat board also offers servings of coppa, cooked ham, spicy smoked spianata salami and wafer-thin mortadella.

Almost too pretty to eat, the gamberoni and Roma broccoli heads dance on their slate backdrop amongst swirls of saffron mayonnaise and edible flowers. Since I relish any opportunity to get my hands messy when eating, I don’t mind the shell-on presentation of these marinated king prawns; the delicate flavours underneath are well-complemented by a glass of Soave Classico.   

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Main

We continue at a slow pace, and my companion switches to a glass of the Sangiovese Bigi to accompany the filetto di maiale con fichi. His first bite confirms how perfectly tender the pork fillet is, and I leave him to explore the parsnip purée and fig reduction while I gush over fact that someone in Brighton has finally nailed polenta mash. 

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

The smooth and salty base of my polenta e branzino is so addictive that it’s a shamefully long time before I pay the crispy-skinned sea bass any real attention. The delicate morsels of fish are tender, flavoursome and surrounded by capers and anchovies. While the scattered sun-dried tomatoes provide a sweet balance, some might feel this dish dances on the wrong side of salty, but I maintain that it comes down to personal preference. Just ensure the friendly and efficient waiter keeps your glass topped up with a crisp, dry white.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Dessert

The dessert options are presented, and a certain crème brulée con sorbetto al frutto della passione winks at me, just as it did at 10.42am when I first drooled over the brief but comprehensive list of dolci. At this stage, I’m so full I’m beginning to resemble a ball of gnocchi, but I place my order regardless, because anything with a name so beautifully lyrical is worth a little discomfort.  

It transpires that the crème brulée has not yet properly set, and I’m told it would upset the chef if I tasted anything less than perfection. Inwardly I bow down in respect. Edendum’s founders believe that the success of a dish depends just as much on the person cooking it as the quality of ingredients, and with this one swift assertion from the kitchen it becomes clear just how much heart and soul they’ve invested into pulling together their wonderful Edendum family.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

We share the cannolo sicialano instead, but in truth we’re too full to appreciate it. Limoncello shots follow, and we roll out of the restaurant with a jar of the crema di carciofi e aglio from the deli as a souvenir of a delicious evening. That’s artichoke and garlic spread to the rest of us, and it’s bloody exquisite.   

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Image: Edendum

Verdict

Edendum is the place to take your in-laws, because the menu will impress them so much that you won’t need to. It’s the place to treat your new beau, because the cosy ambience will show that you know how to make a person feel special. It’s the place to host a business associate, because the waiting staff will meet your every need without bothering you unnecessarily. It’s the place to be when what you really want is a holiday in Tuscany but you’re a little bit skint. It’s the place to drop in when you need authentic Italian ingredients for your supper club and don’t want to support a chain deli. It’s even the place to dine alone; somewhere you can sit solo, and enjoy a sharing platter for two without anyone casting a judgemental glance your way.  

It’s also a place to return to, for the burrata with green pea purée, for the good value Pre-Theatre menu and, of course, for that crème brulée. See you again Edendum. Grazie di tutto.

 

 

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

Living The London Life

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Proudly published in 2014 by Forward Poetry, in an anthology called Everlasting Words: A Collection of Poetry.

In this city I can be whoever I wish.

I can be anonymous, blend with the crowd and close my eyes on the world.

I can be bold, stand out from the crowd and open my eyes to all the world has to offer.

In this city I can follow trends, or push against them.

In this city I need no friends, but I have many.

In this city no face is familiar, but every face is an ally.

Some days I resist the city’s pushy advances, some days I crave them.

Sometimes the mayhem bullies me into my shell, sometimes it draws me out.

This is a city of concrete grey; this is a city bursting with colour.

This city is a ferocious tiger; this city is a fragile butterfly.

I see brick walls and dead ends everywhere, yet possibility all around.

This city makes me feel young and energetic.

This city makes me feel old and tired.

In this city I can rebel or conform.

This city teaches me how wise I am and how much I have yet to learn.

This urban environment both stifles and fuels my hunger.

In this city I feel lost, until abruptly I am found.

Elements of me rest dormant while others are re-awakened.

The people in this city barely acknowledge me, yet they care deeply for my wellbeing.

In this city I can be both the exception to the rule, and the norm.

In this city I am equally free, and equally trapped.

I am living in this city’s heart, and this city is living in mine.