A review of the Rainbow Inn, Cooksbridge, East Sussex
My grandmother was fond of saying “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” As if to prove her wrong, I have watched many restaurateurs try to make rough and ready pubs into more salubrious establishments over the years (some more successfully than others). The Horse and Groom in Horsham, favoured by the head banging fraternity in my teens, definitely fell into the spit and sawdust category of pub. It is now a popular swanky cocktail bar called Wabi offering contemporary Japanese cuisine in the upstairs restaurant.
The Rainbow Inn near Lewes was given such a makeover at the end of 2011. A former coaching inn (which were basically the 18th century’s answer to Little Chef) it has a flint exterior synonymous with this part of Sussex. Window boxes filled with pretty spring flowers give it a homely appearance. It looks like an idyllic country pub in which to enjoy some comforting home cooking.
However, the Rainbow Inn is no longer your run of the mill country pub. It has been given the Marco Pierre White treatment. Gone are the beer stained tables and rickety chairs and buxom barmaids. In come immaculately laid lace covered tables, smart liveried waiting staff and humourous pictures by JAK hanging above dark wood panelling. It has an air of sophistication befitting of a member of the Wheelers of St James’s empire.
Once we had been graciously seated by the host (who was a little taken aback at my juvenile dining companions) I was presented with an oversized menu along with a lunchtime specials menu. Given the classy surroundings I was hoping the menu would contain a few imaginative dishes using locally sourced ingredients. Instead it reads like a roll call of British gastropub classics such as prawn cocktail or pea and ham soup for starters and fish and chips (triple cooked no less!) or steak and ale pie for mains. However, lest the diner forget they are in the up market kind of gastropub, the odd French culinary term, such as en gelée persillé or Maintenon, is thrown in to keep you on your toes. I have nothing against French food (in fact I rather like it). However, I find this gallicisation in a restaurant essentially providing British pub classics unnecessary.
Although the selection on the main menu is vast I decided to stick with the more succinct lunch menu. I began with pressed calf’s tongue with celeriac remoulade. Crisp skinny batons of celeriac coated in a mustardy dressing rested on top of a bed of meltingly soft pink rounds of calf’s tongue. A subtly spiced kedgeree followed, combining daffodil yellow rice and smoked haddock, studded with flaked toasted almonds, fresh peas and currants and garnished with finely grated egg. The creamy sauce made it extremely rich and a little too soupy for my liking (I prefer a buttery kedgeree). Our waiter recommended a small glass of Pinot Grigio from the extensive and varied wine list to go with my meal and it proved to be a good match for both the tongue and kedgeree.
The children had fish and chips (the only other option for them was sausage and mash). It was good to see fresh, crisp battered fish (rather than the cooked-from-frozen breaded fingers so often doled out to children in restaurants) accompanied by thick, crunchy chips with fluffy insides. The children felt very grown up when the chips and the mushy peas were served in individual copper pans. Everything was garnished with pretty micro-herbs and looked very elegant (including the children’s food). Our only complaint was that the food, although tasty and cooked well, was a little over seasoned for our tastes. Billy would say they had overdone it with Knorr stock cubes but I will be a little more generous and say they were a tad heavy handed with the salt. I rounded the meal off with a coffee which came with some homemade shortbread. A nice homely touch I thought.
The presentation of the food, the service and the décor signal that the Rainbow Inn is a quality restaurant. If this is the effect the Wheeler’s management team are going for surely they should have a more concise, seasonal menu on offer (on which, those irksome French phrases would look less conspicuous)? On the other hand, if they are aiming for a high end gastropub (which is what the menu indicates) the detailing in the presentation of the food and restaurant seems a little superfluous. The Rainbow Inn is definitely more silk purse than sow’s ear but I can’t help feeling that it would be more comfortable for the diner if it chilled out and took itself a little less seriously.