A review of Hotel du Vin in Brighton January 2012
Part of any eating experience is the atmosphere a restaurateur creates in their dining room. The way the tables are dressed; the colour scheme of the walls; the music played and the lighting all contribute to the ambience and set the mood for your meal. So as Billy and I found ourselves scurrying down to The Lanes from Brighton station with the chilly air nipping at our heels like an excitable terrier, we were looking for a cosy restaurant which positively glowed with warmth. Our mission was propelled by hunger intensified by the wintry weather and we had chosen Hotel du Vin as our haven from the cold.
Neon strip lighting may be appropriate for a fast food joint but for a restaurant of any standing a more subtle mode of lighting is called for. In this respect Hotel du Vin is bang on the money. The wall mounted faux candelabras are dimmed to the lowest setting and a solitary black candle adorns each table. Black leather upholstery on the chairs and banquettes and mahogany coloured tables add to the clandestine appearance. It would be an exaggeration to say we had to grope our way to our table. However, I did suppress an urge to place my hand on Billy’s shoulder as we followed the hostess in single file to our table just in case I lost sight of him en route.
I have a problem with dark restaurants. I can’t help drawing a comparison of these establishments with having sex in the pitch black with a new partner. If you can’t bear that person to see you in your naked glory or vice versa surely you have to ask what are you or they are hiding? And so in a shadowy restaurant I wonder exactly what it is the chef doesn’t want me to see. Some may find the limited lighting intimate but for me it is highly irritating because I want to see and appreciate what I am about to eat. That way you don’t get any nasty surprises.
Fortunately, there was sufficient light to read the menu inspired by classic French bistro food with the odd nod to Blighty in dishes like bacon chop with fried eggs. The weather merited comfort food and the menu duly delivered it offering slow roasted pork belly and braised lamb shank to name just two of the cockle warming items available that evening. The beouf bourguignon I ordered arrived as several sizeable chunks of meat which collapsed at the merest nudge of a knife into a rich winey sauce peppered with mushrooms, baby shallots and bacon. It came with velvety mashed potato and buttered kale with a tang of iron which accentuated the richness of the casserole.
As you would expect from a restaurant with “vin” in its moniker there is an excellent selection of wines from around the world available at Hotel du Vin. Billy was in his element as he meandered his way through the list getting temporarily lost somewhere between theBordeaux and Burgundy sections. Luckily I had the bread basket to keep me company containing some lovely sour dough served with creamy, unsalted Beurre de Charentes. After probably not as much deliberation as he would have liked he settled on Paul Jaboulet Ainé 2009 from Côtes du Rhone which proved to be an excellent accompaniment for the beouf bourguignon and his burger.
I would love to wax lyrical about the pinkness of the potted prawns I had for a starter but its hue was too delicate to be appreciated in the dim light. Served with a lightly toasted rye bread it was however tasty with peppery undertones. Even if the lights had been brighter it could never have competed in terms of colour with Billy’s beetroot risotto which he’d selected as a starter from the vegetarian options on the menu. It arrived as a lurid magenta mass in a white dish embellished with crumbled goats cheese and walnut pieces. Billy devoured it in all its glorious techni-colour pronouncing it perfectly cooked and wonderfully seasoned.
Billy opted out of dessert but I spied one of my favourites on the menu so couldn’t resist. As crème brulée’s go, it wasn’t bad. A thin film of slightly bitter crispy caramel covered a not too sweet soft custard which could have done with more vanilla for my tastes. My suspicions about any nefarious activity on the part of the chef proved unfounded. The food at Hotel du Vin is very good. It’s just a shame the shadowy ambience doesn’t allow the food to really shine.