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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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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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.  

 

 

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60 Minutes with Bethan Roberts

Interview with author Bethan Roberts (first published in the Fiveways Directory)

It’s the morning after the launch party of her new book, and local author Bethan Roberts confesses to being a little fatigued (not that you’d know it from looking at her; she’s fresh-faced, smiley and impeccably dressed. I like her instantly).  When she presents me with a hardback copy of Mother Island I’m so thrilled I almost crack the spine and begin reading on the spot.  Remembering my manners, and the point of our meeting, we begin to discuss her source of inspiration.

Mother Island

The story is set in isolated Anglesey, a ruggedly beautiful island where Roberts spent time as a child, but rather than focusing on the island’s history, this story observes a more contemporary, domestic issue.  “When I started writing it I’d had a baby about a year earlier and I didn’t have time for the research a historical novel requires, so I decided to bite the bullet and write about what I knew: babies.  I’d employed a part time childminder and I started considering what it was like to be a nanny, to love those children and every night give them back.”  Pondering this whilst navigating her own fears as a mother lead her to write an utterly engaging tale which explores a darker side to childcare, and deals with what happens if the nanny doesn’t give the baby back.

“The experience of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is really what writing novels is about,” explains Roberts, as we discuss the main character, Maggie, who abducts two-year-old Samuel from his family in a misguided quest to rebuild her shattered life.  Through opposing character perspectives, the novel dives into the fragile dynamics between parent and childminder; a delicate balance of authority, understanding, power and, most crucially, trust.

BETHAN ROBERTS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHARLIE HOPKINSON.

With Mother Island firmly on store bookshelves, Roberts must shift her focus to her next creation.  But she says she’s unlikely to complete anything in local coffee shops, joking that whilst she loves “feeling connected” to the area and having a sense of belonging, bumping into friends and neighbours is a slippery slope towards every writer’s worst enemy: procrastination.

Full of endearing modesty, Roberts leaves me with a list of “must-reads” by other authors, including her recent favourite, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, hailing it a “wonderful” and “generous” book.  But it’s Mother Island I’m most keen to devour, and moments after her departure I’m immersed in the first chapter.  Perhaps it’s her ability to tackle uncomfortable subjects with effortless empathy, or the suspense she generates from page one, but for the next hour I’m unable to answer the phone or do anything besides let my imagination wander to that mysterious island and all the secrets it promises to reveal.