I wish, I wish, with all my might…
For some time I had become quite captivated by the rumours I had heard about Chard Brighton, the resident pop up at Cafe Rust on London Road. I had oogled over many a tantalising instagram photo and became obsessed by the want to visit when I read the three magic words on their menu, ‘vegan variations available’.
Not long after, as if in answer to my heart’s desires, my fairy godmother at Restaurants Brighton invited me to do a vegan review at Chard, on the condition I could find a meat eater to join me.
Now as far as that requirement goes it’s hardly the labours of Hercules but as it was I had to phone in an out of towner to meet the ‘meat brief’, my echo chamber has become rather small it seems.
Chard Brighton, a magical transformation
At the stroke of 5pm Tuesday to Saturday the family team of three that make up Chard Brighton transform the daytime cafe into a realm of enchantment. It really is the stuff of fairytales, expressed perfectly on my friend Katie’s awestruck face as we stepped off London Road and through the large iron door at Cafe Rust into soft candlelit interior.
The hostess, Mae, greeted us warmly and guided us to our scrubbed wooden table, set with cotton napkins sparkling cutlery and glasses, whilst the wonderful aromas from the kitchen beckoned like a cartoon steam finger from a Disney film.
We settle in as Mae moved around the room, ensuring all her guests were at ease and had all they needed. We began with cocktails, I had been salivating over an instagram picture of a Chard 75, their take on the classic French 75 and ordered this despite its clear absence from the menu, but it was no problem, Mae had all the ingredients and conjured it up in a snap.
Katie, already proving less of a princess than me, ordered a Frank’s Flame right off the menu, thanks Katie.
My Chard 75 was a sparkling prosecco cocktail with swirls of gold mist and rose petals and a hint of Turkish delight, Katie’s was just the right balance of sweet and tart grapefruit, with little bits of fruit throughout. These slipped down nicely, adding a little intoxication to what was already proving to be an enchanting evening.
Mae brought our appetiser, Socca, a chickpea pancake to tear and share, like a flat bread with roast butternut, pumpkin and hazelnut dip. The pancake was soft and sprinkled with little chickpeas lending a contrasting texture. The dip was silky smooth and warming with rich flavour rolling deep into the pallet, topped with cool ribbons of butternut, pumpkin seeds and roasted hazelnuts with just a little top note of chilli, each mouthful commanded the next.
Katie perused the main menu, which changes seasonally and features four strong options for each course. A paired back menu means chefs Benny and Ciarán can deliver each dish perfectly. Katie was paralysed with hard choices as everything had appeal, I suggested she try something that she wouldn’t normally go for, confident that whatever it was it would be good.
Conversely I had a set vegan menu, which was no problem at all for exactly the same reason as I gave Katie to be adventurous, I was confident it would all be good. We ordered a bottle of Ca’di Ponti Nero d’Arola to go with our meal, because who doesn’t like a fruity young Italian?
Whilst chatting, and continuing to savour both starter and ambience I took time to note the room.
Mae really is an exceptional hostess, graceful and attentive, Ciarán helps out here too as he moves between the kitchen and front of house. Benny, like the Wizard of Oz, stays hidden in the kitchen, although she clearly has a great deal more magic to her than the old hack Dorothy had to deal with.
My starter was smoked freekah with pistachios and grilled apricots, as it arrived there was an instant hit of the smell of wood smoke, the dish itself a wonderful display of summer colours.
The mix of roasted nuts on the earthy freekah bed were met with the sharp citrus of the apricots hitting the tip of the tongue and leading to charred and caramelised flavours. Fresh basil picked out a peppery note with a gentle lingering heat which reignited through the pallet with each mouthful.
Katie had the Chicken liver with vanilla, honey and leeks, the liver was melt in the mouth perfect, the vanilla, whilst being the star of the show didn’t overpower, and the hint of honey was just enough to add flavour without detracting from the savoury.
Katie’s main was seared onglet (hanger steak) with Brighton blue boxty and shallots, this is a deeply indulgent, rich main, but irresistible, and as Mae encouraged at the time ‘if you’re going to do it, may as well do it all’. The match of blue cheese potatoes with the onglet is a winner for Katie, the little bursts of sweet shallot cooked until perfectly clarified break up the richness just enough to stop the dish edging her into being overwhelmed.
My main was emerald green chard parcels of fennel and courgette, resting on a crimson cushion of beet and fregola with roasted hazelnuts. The fregola had the texture of a creamy risotto, just a little al dente and a warm, not hot, chilli that again seemed to move from tongue tip deep into the pallet, so that every mouthful reignited the rolling flavour. The chard parcels had that hint of iron that greens have, mixed with the cool courgette and the aniseed fennel for a tight eddy of flavour against the fregola base.
Katie was getting worried she might turn into a pumpkin, but determined to ‘go big or go home’ she opted for a dessert of chocolate fudge with mascarpone and a boozy cherry compote. This was layers of decadence that despite being full to the eye balls was impossible for Katie not to finish.
I was glad my dessert is a lighter gin and elderflower sorbet with blueberries, home made of course, although the chortles of delight as Katie cleaned her plate gave me a just a hint of food jealousy.
To be continued…
Our night was drawing to an end, Mae checked in on us in between prepping tables for the next groups of lucky guests whose adventures were yet to begin.
She tells us of a customer who has already booked them a few years in advance for her sixtieth birthday, I think about my next big birthday and silently agree with the forward thinking fifty-something year old that it is a very good idea.
A night at Chard Brighton is like a dream, their sense of aesthetic, the friendly, warm service and the flavours so full of Eastern spice all roll together into a night hard to imagine could be repeated.
Chard Brighton have now left Cafe Rust, they continue to offer Chard at Your Table for private dining and relocate to i gigi General Store in Hove as a permanent fixture the 8th of October 2018. Without the added complications of being a resident pop up what new levels of delight will Chard deliver is anyone’s guess, what is certain is this is a story worth following.
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See the listing for Chard Cafe & Restaurant