Regular readers will know of my longstanding admiration for Hotel Du Vin, the original benchmark for boutique hotels in the UK. The bar in Brighton, with its intimate, understated glamour, has long been one of my top three places to drink in the City. There’s a great winter bar, with its library/loungey feel, and now a good summer destination with its attractive outside terraces.
The Bistro, originally headed up by Chef Robb Carr, used to serve a starter that became a favourite – Scallops on a Pea Puree with Bacon Jam and Crispy Pancetta. On one occasion, the Restaurant Manager brought out a little pot of the bacon jam as a gift from the Chef, a gesture I’ll never forget and the stuff of truly excellent customer service – a whole team working together with the same ethos to deliver a memorable experience where the customer feels valued and special.
Then something went awry. The food disappointed, service became patchy, staff came and went. On occasions I would sit in the bar area and wouldn’t be approached. I once waited almost 20 minutes for a waiter to take a drinks order.
Now, under the watchful eye of General Manager Ben Haynes, all of this is changing. Improvements include a new bar food menu with well-executed tapas-style offerings (for example Grilled Calamari and Croquettes) and a brand spanking new Bistro with a new look and menu (with seasonal changes in April and October).
In terms of the ambience, I am not entirely a fan of the new look. It is brighter and retains an air of elegance, yes. But the blond wood slightly cheapens the look and the paintings on the wall are frankly bizarre (staff have said that the new look has inevitably divided people). I would make sure the lighting is dim enough at night come winter, because the intimate French bistro feel is not something they should lose. For me, it was core to the appeal of the brand.
On this particular night I took an excolleague, Nick, a very talented individual who I’d recruited and managed for many years and who is now doing extremely well. I love catching up with him, his success means a lot to me so I love hearing about what he’s up to. Also, he’s a total foodie. Our one-to-ones at work usually descended into conversations about recipes, wine and restaurants. So with high standards, he’s an ideal guest.
I have written previously about some of the excellent dishes I’ve had recently from this menu, but there’s an issue with the starters. The mains are quite full-on (pork belly, lamb breast, steaks and the like) and so starters need to provide balance; there should be some light options. These are lacking.
I had the Chicken Liver Parfait and Hazelnut Brioche on a previous visit and it is delicious. But I knew I was going to have the Gloucester Old Spot Pork Belly with Pommes Mousseline and Jus de Veau, so wanted a lighter starter. Other options were the House Pate (parfait and pate are variations on a theme!), or a Breaded Fried Pork Terrine (a type of pate) and Saucisson en Brioche (a meat and bread combo again), or Beef Carpaccio with Scotch Egg. Can you see my point? The other options were fish/ seafood orientated; a Scallop Ceviche, Grilled Prawns, Moules, Fish Soup. Vegetarians are limited to a tomato consomm.. Most good restaurants will have some kind of salad-orientated option as a starter, be it a grilled goats cheese, or beetroot or something.
I didn’t feel like tomato water, so went for prawns. These were nice enough with a pastis and chilli butter. They would have been enhanced with a squeeze of lemon to lift them. Nick chose the Crispy Pork Terrine. This was good he said, but lacked seasoning.
Onto mains. My pork belly was glorious. Perfectly cooked, fat completely rendered, meat falling apart with great depth of flavour and a crisp shard of crackling. The accompanying jus was rich and perfectly seasoned. Sides of Haricot Vert, Chantanay Carrots and Sautéed Spinach were all spot on – not over buttered or salted (as is so often the case), instead perfectly seasoned allowing the flavours of the vegetables to shine. The exception was the pommes mousseline served with my pork. Pommes mousseline is meant to be a particularly buttery, rich style of mashed potato, but this was more like a standard mash, not enough butter and a bit starchy and bland. Actually I was a little relieved – it meant I could leave it alone to make way for dessert.
Nick enjoyed his lamb breast, as I knew he would – it’s fantastic. It arrives as two rolled lamb breasts which have been slow braised and then seared producing both that melting, luscious meat but adding a charred flavour. I think these two dishes are the best on the current menu.
For dessert we chose a Salted Caramel Fondant and a Pear and Almond Tart, the latter being one of my favourites. I could see what the Chef was trying to do by creating a fondant based on a current public obsession, but as a caramel the sponge element needed to resemble a sticky toffee pudding in texture (moist, sweet and gooey) with oozing caramel. Instead, the sponge reminded me of bread pudding. Nick tasted it too and agreed it was too dry and wasn’t quite sweet enough. The accompanying custard was, however, spot on.
The Pear and Almond Tart was a triumph. Warm, light almondy frangipane on a crisp, thick, pastry base with a light homemade honeycomb ice cream. A great combination. and I do love pastry, thick or thin. On a previous visit I had had the Pot au Chocolat – this is also good, a rich dense chocolate hit (but with an unnecessary condensed milk style topping which I simply scraped off ). Their Creme Brulee was always well made and I suspect it still is.
For wine, Nick chose a Malbec and I chose the Pinot Noir Rose to start. This is a delicious rose, much better than the other Rose on the menu (from Provence) in that it is more delicate, subtle and balanced with fresh berry and vanilla on the palate. A great starting wine, but not the ideal accompaniment to pork, so I moved on to the California Pinot Noir. It’s one of my favourite wines on the list here. Light enough to go with the pork but rich enough to stand up to the big flavoured jus.
Much of the wine list is also new and is mostly good with a range of options to suit most budgets. I was disappointed to see the removal of English sparkling wine by the glass (you can still purchase by the bottle). And they need to get bottled soda behind the bar (a bottle of flat sparkling water just doesn’t cut it when you ask for something and soda).
Service was excellent. This really stood out. Attentive, obliging, knowledgeable, friendly and chatty. We were extremely well looked after and this is what used to set Hotel du Vin apart from other places. Brighton lacks truly top-notch service in all but its fine dining venues, and I think Hotel Du Vin has the potential to achieve it with the quality team they have here now, led by a GM who has passion and talent. I, for one, am optimistic and delighted. I will be reviewing the winter menu in October so look out for that.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro
2 Ship Street , Brighton, BN1 1AD
Tel: 01273 855221