Anyway, how to explain to women the pleasure of standing before the white porcelain? It’s what over-worked fathers call “me time” – the one moment when no-one will complain at you. So here I am, just about to burst into action, when a woman barges out of a cubicle and gawps, finger pointing accusingly. Then another woman from the cubicle next door. She shrieks: “What are one of YOU doing in here?”
We are here to mouth-test the creative output of the hotel
My jaw at this point is slacker even than my fly. I turn to remonstrate before realising this is like, well, going into the conference chamber naked. My sense of injustice grows, like Alfred Dreyfus when he was accused of giving secrets to the Germans, or Nigella for cheating with her buns, just without the dignity. Before I can say anything, my accusers rush to escape from the dangerous suspect (me) and confer loudly outside: “You wouldn’t believe this, there’s a pervert in the ladies, standing at the u-r-i…” I wink knowingly at my mate the urinal; I like to think he winks back. It’s a man thing. “I feel we should come in and apologise…” one of the women shouts through the keyhole.
“Really, no need…” I offer.
There is no broader point to this story than that South Lodge is really good, other than its penchant for attracting mad women with weak bladders. We have been eating at the Camellia, the better-behaved, sensible older sister to the The Pass. Our recipes this month are derived from South Lodge, courtesy of Ian Swainson at The Pass and Richard Mann at the Camellia, so we are here to mouth-test the creative output of the hotel. Ian is new-ish but Richard has had his head under his chef’s hat for a while, so the Camellia it is.
We arrive on one of those summer evenings that allows you to forgive Britain anything, even Brexit. Jaguars purr on the gravel while picnickers chink chilled glasses on still warm lawns. We Brits are told we are an unromantic lot, but virtually every table is taken by couples somehow managing to be civil to each other. Maybe it’s the sultry evening watching a determined crowd enjoying open air cinema outside, maybe it’s the truly impeccable service, or maybe it’s the pre-dinner Gordon’s which acts as such an effective shock-absorber against a spouse’s more juddering remarks. The décor is ultra traditional, the atmosphere formal – it could almost have been
created to make a Joey Essex feel it wasn’t for him. So you, dear reader, will love it.
The sommelier Jaroslav knows his grapes, so we task him to surprise us. He comes back with a bottle not even on the menu. And what a forgotten little treasure he unearths in his cellar: a bottle of Roche de Belanne with cherry and chocolate notes and full of soft tannins. As smooth as Sade, as full-bodied as Vanessa Feltz.
I slip into the groove with crab and trout. Fresh Portland crabmeat is mixed with smoked trout, covered by a thin layer of elderflower jelly, decorated with swirls of poached pear complimenting the crab’s sweetness; scattered edible flower petals give it the appearance of freshness which the dish deserves. Texture isn’t neglected, with shards of dehydrated roasted lobster bisque, packed with intense flavours.
The old girl rumbles into life with scallop and pork. Ham hock and shellfish are a classic pairing, a true Ant and Dec for never letting you down. Our trusted combo is enhanced by the sweetness of the apple sauce and the aromatic, slightly anise flavour of the fennel.
Diana moves on with rack and shoulder of lamb. What a joyful way to showcase the flavours of the Mediterranean in harmony on a plate: the tender and pink lamb served with red pepper sauce and black olive gnocchi, with the courgette roasted to give sweetness to what is otherwise such a bland vegetable.
Occasionally they serve dishes off menu here, especially when a local farmer offers a fine cut of beef. So I try the Sussex Wagyu rump steak. As it should be, this is more marbled than Trump Tower. And unlike the owner of that edifice, this is appetising. It is served with very powerful Roquefort butter, chunky chips which are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, braised gem lettuce and caramelised red onion. A great macho dish with big, powerful flavours.
Special tarte Tatin for two tempts, but it is hard to look beyond Pur Venezuelan Chocolate: 72 per cent chocolate crémeux and sponge, coffee ganache, coffee parfait and almond tuiles. The chocolate’s soft silky texture is irresistible, the richness is cut by the coffee parfait, almond tuiles add buttery, nutty crunchiness.
It’s lovely here. But do just hold it till you get home…
Worth going for: Service, sumptuousness and
sweet, sweet chocolate: *****
South Lodge, Brighton Rd, Horsham, RH13 6PS
01403 891 711; southlodgehotel.co.uk