Lewes, where Fork lives, had escaped my notice until now. Maybe, like me, you made it all the way to Brighton and then, distracted by bright lights and cotton candy, never got any further. I suspect that’s exactly how the locals like it, slightly ignored by the brouhaha of tourists requesting candy apples or venues to scream at while wearing bachelorette sashes. Lewes isn’t like that – it’s a completely different land, quaint, quirky, glamorous and all sorts of other words that make you loiter wistfully by the estate agents’ windows, after visiting Anne of Cleves House and buying some beans from Trading Post Coffee Roasters .
Until recently, the local restaurant landscape was said to be a bit limited, although new Turkish venue Zorba has brought the city to life. Others told me to check out the super-trendy new Relais Cooden Beach hotel underway in nearby Bexhill-on-Sea, which I went to before the Fork, hoping for a Sunday brunch like the Order of Cool Cats, but it’s reluctantly served a sandwich with untoasted ciabatta with a crunchy side dish already salted at 10.30, because the chef no longer made breakfast. When I reached Fork, my hunger was high and expectations dashed. Luckily, it was worth saving my appetite.
Fork is small and intimate, set in a Grade II listed building and painted in a light grey. Don’t come here conducting a sordid business and expect adjacent tables not to hear every word of your chat; your neighbor’s elbows might be in your soup. The room is sparse, with an open kitchen to one side, and there is an enclosed garden to eat in during the sunny months. This is a chef-led independent restaurant with modern aspirations – it’s elegant and inventive, rather than hearty.
The Sunday menu when we visited was two courses for £30 or three for £38. On entrees was a quenelle of rich chicken liver pâté on sweet, moist, homemade brioche with fried gherkins, quince jelly, and a handful of pistachio. A dish like this instantly sets off a restaurant stall – think Ledbury and definitely not Toby Carvery. Every element of this bowl is crafted from scratch and thought through, including the placement of the micro watercress and pea sprouts.
The same goes for my favorite dish of the day, if not the month so far: Fork’s Cauliflower Soup, which sounds like it could be a humble soup, but is actually filling and complex. It has a hint of cruciferous, but is packed with blue cheese and hazelnuts, and is topped with slightly sweet little beignets – a fancy word for tiny donuts that cuts out all their calories.
This is the kind of place I crave for success, and times are dangerous right now for restaurants, so if you can support places like Fork, show yourself helpful. My feeling is that Pizza Express and the big beasts will weather the coming storm, while chefs who devote hours to duck-fat rosti to perch alongside organic sirloin, or whip up individual lobster wontons to complement daytime seafood just to a handful of clients, will find things much more difficult. Use them or lose them will be the theme for winter 2022-23, as we look down our main roads and wonder which restaurants might have their radiators on, so we could 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 plain-looking crafty vanilla brulee, which, upon prodding, gives way to a delicious compote of pears and is accompanied by an excellent spicy ginger ice cream. Currently, Fork offers 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 forward-thinking as turkey with trimmings, but there’s a seasonal nod in the calvados poached apple cheesecake and a main course of confit duck pastilla with spiced apricot-fig chutney.
Fork is a small neighborhood restaurant with a heart full of ambition. The team are enthusiastic and just the right level of seriousness, and the clientele are locals, probably hoping a restaurant critic doesn’t step forward and enjoy a cauliflower velouté so much that they reveal their secret. It is with some embarrassment, therefore, that I have to do exactly this: if you’ve made it all the way to Brighton, then pass through, go to Lewes and dine at the Fork.
Fork 14 Station Street, Lewes, East Sussex, 01273 809445. Open Tuesday to Sunday, lunch midday to 2.30pm (3.30pm Sunday), dinner 6pm to 9.30pm. Two courses £30, three courses £38, both plus drinks and service.