I have been caught out here before. One late afternoon when the sun went home and left me on my own, I became convinced I was being chased, so broke into a run, only coming to my senses when I tripped and narrowly avoided descending into a dyke. Yet I can walk after dark in the meanest city with insouciance. You feel vulnerable on the Marsh, and it knows it. Lonely churches are all that puncture the skyline, and you can see why Marsh men sought faith in God. God or grog. It is those two friends or ghosts here.
This time I’m prepared. As the wind whips through from the hard, cold Channel and that special light twinkles off to bed, I head straight for the car, and gun it for Rye. I adore the Marsh, but I greet the log fire in the George Inn with all the warmth of an old war colleague. How deeply travellers must have sighed – and sipped – when they held up here against the night.
The George retains the feel of a coaching inn but has been fettled into something more contemporary. While everything in the Mermaid, for all its splendour and historical importance, can seem like an artefact – and in the restaurant taste like it, too – the George has quite rightly become a foodie destination for Londoners and locals alike.
The Grill backs onto an open kitchen and is decorated with models of crustacia crawling up the walls. These walls are a shade of green familiar to a certain breed of Tory MP dredging his moat. Which is ingenious, because on the Farrow & Ball paint chart you won’t find a shade called “slime”. When I make this observation to my wife Diana, she tutts “you have no taste.” Tables are bare wood but highly polished, the plush benches the only concession to old style grill ambience. The kitchen, in the contemporary style, is on view to diners.
On one table a World War II flying ace celebrates his 90th birthday with his family, displaying the kind of manners they stopped making some years ago, when they discontinued the range known as “the gentleman”. On another, two women talk about Brazilians. These unlikely groupings seem united about the wine list, however. As well as sourcing some fine bottles from fresh places – the George has picked up on the great stuff coming out of Hungary for instance – it offers a wide selection of local sparkling wines: celebrated French-beating offerings from Balfour (now served on BA first class flights), Chapel Down and Nyetimber, as well as from smaller producers such as Seddlescombe with its organic, award winning, Brute Rosé. Rather than books by the yard, shelves are full of well thumbed (and thirsted) bottles of wine above our table.
Local sourcing is also applied to the food, and rightly so. For how many towns in Britain have fish of the quality brought home to Rye Harbour, or lamb as succulent as we find from our fox-trotting friends from Romney and Walland Marsh?
I start with a well made fish soup, but Diana’s goats cheese salad has me looking as covetously as the Kardashians must be when they come across anyone who has substance. God I want that salad, prettily offset on a rough-sawn wooden board with cubes of beetroot and crunchy pine nuts, covered in excellent, aged balsamic vinegar, adding sweetness as well as colour. When I am eventually granted a dollop of goat’s cheese, it is so incredibly light – lighter, you might say, than a Kardashian CV – its creaminess lingers, and it is unlike any goat’s cheese I’ve tried.
To follow, the lamb maintains these exemplary standards. It is cooked on the bone to enrich the flavour, then cut and put in a mould, coming out of the oven looking pretty and caramelised outside, but moist and tender inside. As soon as it meets the knife, it falls apart. Girolles and juicy sautéed baby onions are joined by fluffy-as-a-cloud mash potato. The sauce is good, so good we could do with a touch more of it.
The monkfish is also cooked on the bone but this is retained for serving to add not just flavour but to hold its shape. Paddling along next to the fish are lentils, given the very mildest curry sauce, which gradually builds into a powerful wave; a solid dish.
To finish we share a peanut and chocolate tart which is really a vehicle for the sweetest, smoothest banana ice cream you could imagine, providing the most seductive ménage à trois since Lord Nelson was looking for a bit of afters with Lady Hamilton while her husband stood loyally to attention. The pudding’s base is pure chocolate, layered with peanut butter mouse, the ice cream providing a lovely contrast of crunchy and smooth, warm and cold.
Service is informal yet efficient and the snug bars with crackling fires tempt the traveller to linger. And why not? Rye has long been one of my favourite places, but I have struggled to find a restaurant that lived up to the town. Until now. Next time I hear the call of the Marsh, it’s here I shall come to find succour and sanctuary.