Blessed be the things that never change – that restaurant you’ve been going to since who knows when that never lets you down, that butcher who understands what you like and can instruct you in the best cooking method for your chosen piece of meat or the family dinner that is always reliable and brings a pleasing wave of nostalgia. When we dine we want to be surrounded by things we can trust.
Equally I know we are all hungry for the new as well. Restaurants, dishes, chefs, food trends that come like a gust of fresh air to interest, delight and occasionally challenge us. We can experience a new take on a burger, visit that new ‘quirky’ bar, we can follow around a chef we have complete trust in as they flit from one venue to another in quick succession. But we can also just as easily discard those things that don’t work for us.
This brings us to The Chardonnay Restaurant in West Sussex which has intrigued us ever since we started visiting the area and driving past. The name evokes what some would consider an off trend wine (though coming from Australia it is very much in vogue and will soon be back in the UK with a vengeance) or a Essex-like character from that noughty’s TV show Footballers’ Wives. Ther place looks like it hasn’t changed in decades – with it’s classy name and gazebo-like dining area overlooking the A24. But since it was so close to where we were staying and wanted to have a new experience we booked ourselves in for a visit to see what’s what.
Upon entering we were me t by the owners Carl Illes and his wife Juile who collected our jackets and led us into the bar. Now the bar is just like a bar you would find down at your local but has been adapted for the clientele that have been coming here for many, many years, Where normally there would be short stools, there are high-backed chairs all gathered around tables to enjoy a shandy or three before your order is taken and led to your table.
We had heard of their very affordable £15.50 dinner on offer and to get a little bit of English nostalgia back into our lives after living and travelling through Aisa for the past year, we were willing to give Chardonnay a shot.
There has long been the argument about restaurants charging for bread and I am firmly in the camp who thinks that if you’re offered bread then it shld a) be baked in-house by the kitchen team and b) be fre. Arriving at our table we are met with a basket of Chardonnay’s specialty bread – and not just a few slices of it. More like two loaves with our own breadboard and bread knife to carve it with. Suddenly we were all less worried….
But then came the chef’s canapé and doubts started creeping back. The dish was served way too cold fresh from the fridge and had no flavour other than the balsamic vinegar drizzled over the limp and dying piece of greenery laying on top of the dish. I suggest that as ths is the introduction to you meal – maybe can the canapé and lead with something that hasn’t been living in the fridge all day.
But quickly following came the home made soup of the day – French onion soup and again we were back on a level playing field. Piping hot, thick slices of onion and pungent soup all made for up for the first stumble. On a chilly night in the UK nothing hits the spot sweeter. The freshly sliced bread was on point for this dish at when the bowls were being cleared away our waiter checked to see if we were finished with the bread (we were) and then were asked if we would like them to bag up the remaining bread to take away with us at the end of the evening. We all misheard and just said we were done but it’s a heads up for next time.
What I liked about Chardonnay was that they knew how to do the basics well and we had little doubt that the mains would follow in the starters footsteps. The rib eye steak served with grilled mushrooms and tomatoes was cooked perfectly and plated in a way that you would expect from a chef who has been plying his trade yet getting little time out of the kitchen to possibly be influenced to serve his dishes on slate tiles or wooden boards and I think the restaurant is all the better for it
The pan fried breast of chicken stuffed with pork sausage meat, wrapped in sage and bacon on creamy mashed potato in a Madeira sauce was given the full thumbs up. A generous portion like the steak for the relatively small pricetag.
Oriental glazed confit of duck with an oriental cabbage salad came exactly as expected and we were very impressed that the salad wasn’t there to play second fiddle to the duck – having chilli and lemongrass delicately weaved into the dish bringing it up a few notches of what it could have been otherwise.
Desserts were a mixed bag. We were all keen on ordering the pear and gingerbread pudding so we ordered one to share with a few other options. It was indeed the highlight with the poached pear working gloriously with the ginger and custard.
Less successful was the lemon curd flourless roulade with lemon drizzle icing. I found the lemon curd was a little too unevenly spread throughout the roulade so we experienced mouthfuls of either intense sweet sugar or lip-puckering sourness.
We also took a gamble on their daily special of mincemeat steamed pudding. This just didn’t work with very little current and raisin mince to a much larger portion of sponge pudding. A few mouthfuls were taken but it was never going to be a standout dish.
So overall there were a few missteps on an otherwise very affordable meal in Sussex. Maybe change up the canapé or remove it all together if it’s not setting the meal off in style and an amazing show of petit fours in a bucken of smoking dry ice that comes with your coffee could be advertised as currently the restaurant stares at other diners tables trying to figure out how they missed something like that on the dessert menu.
And never going out of style is the amazing drinks trolley that takes pride of place in the dining room. Though this should be utilized more than it is. Had the trolley been wheeled over to us at the end of the meal we would certainly have each ordered a snifter before getting the bill. But unfortunately it stayed rooted to it’s spot and ignored all night. Missed opportunities and all that.
In a country where it’s all about industrial and stressed fitouts, serving the most bleedingly new on trend food, not being able to order a dish that then has to be shared with all you other dining companions Chardonnay is a one of those cornerstones that you need to visit to ensure you stay an even keel when checking out the hottest new openings opening every week. I suggest you drop in with your family to experience a diing style that may seem out of fashion but in reality is a legacy that we should be reminded still do things the old school and proper way.
Contact: The Chardonnay Restaurant – Old London Road, Washington, West Sussex RH20 3BN. Ph. 01903 892271. Website.
Opening times: Tuesday to Friday lunch: 12pm-2pm. Tuesday to Saturday dinner: 7pm-9.30pm.