Lewes, where Fork lives, had evaded my attention until now. Perhaps, like me, you’ve got as far as Brighton and then, distracted by bright lights and candyfloss, never travelled farther. I suspect that’s exactly how the locals like it, slightly ignored by the brouhaha of tourists requiring toffee apples or venues to scream in while wearing hen-night sashes. Lewes is not like this: it is a different land entirely, quaint, quirky, charming and all sorts of other words that make you loiter wistfully by estate agents’ windows, after visiting Anne of Cleves House and buying some beans from Trading Post Coffee Roasters.
Until recently, the rumours were that the local restaurant landscape was a little limited, even if new Turkish place Zorba has breathed life into the town. Others told me to check out the new, superhip Relais Cooden Beach hotel revamp going on at nearby Bexhill-on-Sea, where I went pre-Fork, hoping for Sunday brunch like the cool cats order, but was begrudgingly served an untoasted ciabatta sandwich with a ready-salted crisp garnish at 10.30am, because the chef was no longer doing breakfast. By the time I reached Fork, my hunger was high and expectations thwarted. Luckily, it was worth saving my appetite for.
Fork is small and intimate, and set in a Grade II-listed building and painted pale grey. Do not come here conducting a sordid affair and expect the adjacent tables not to hear every word of your chat; your neighbour’s elbows may well be in your soup. The room is sparse, with an open kitchen down one side, and there’s a walled garden to eat in during sunny months. This is a chef-led independent restaurant with modern aspirations: it’s fancy and imaginative, rather than hearty.
The Sunday menu when we visited was two courses for £30 or three for £38. On the starters was a quenelle of rich chicken liver paté on sweet, moist, home-baked brioche with deep-fried gherkins, quince jelly and a scattering of pistachio. A dish such as this sets out a restaurant’s stall immediately: think the Ledbury and absolutely not Toby Carvery. Every element of this bowl is made from scratch and pondered over, including the placement of the micro cress and pea shoots.
The same goes for my favourite dish of the day, if not the month so far: Fork’s cauliflower velouté, which sounds as if it might be a humble soup, but is in fact sating and complex. It has a hint of the cruciferous, but is rich with blue cheese and hazelnuts, and is topped with small, slightly sweet beignets – a posh word for tiny doughnuts that eradicates all their calories.
This is the sort of place I dearly want to succeed, and times are perilous right now for restaurants, so if you can support places such as Fork, please show willing. My feeling is that Pizza Express and the big beasts will weather the coming storm, while chefs who devote hours to duck-fat rösti to perch beside organic sirloin, or make individual lobster wonton to complement day-boat fish for only a handful of customers, will find things much harder. Use them or lose them will be the theme of winter 2022-23, as we look to our high streets and wonder which restaurants might have the radiators on, so we might save a few hours of gas.
I can think of worse ways to spend January than eating Fork’s glorious chocolate dessert, or, for that matter, the cunningly plain-seeming vanilla brulee, which, on prodding, gives way to a delicious pear compote and comes with a very good spicy ginger ice-cream. Presently, Fork is offering a Christmas menu where this ice-cream is now served with baked alaska and a mont blanc with chestnut ice-cream. They don’t do anything as upfront as turkey with the trimmings, but seasonal nods are there in cheesecake with calvados-poached apples and in a first course of confit duck pastilla with fig and spiced apricot chutney.
Fork is a small, neighbourhood restaurant with a heart that is bursting with ambition. The team are enthusiastic and just the right level of earnest, and the clientele are locals, probably hoping that a restaurant critic doesn’t pitch up and enjoy a cauliflower velouté so much that she blows their secret. It is with some sheepishness, then, that I must do exactly that: if you’ve got as far as Brighton, then blow right through, head to Lewes and have dinner at Fork.
Fork 14 Station Street, Lewes, East Sussex, 01273 809445. Open Tue–Sun, lunch noon–2.30pm (3.30pm Sun), dinner 6–9.30pm. Two courses £30, three £38, both plus drinks and service.
The next episode in the fourth series of Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is released on Tuesday 13 December. Listen to it here.