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Curiously complicated cuisine
Cassons (West Sussex)
Member Name: bollinger28
Cassons (West Sussex)
Date: 14/06/13, updated on 21/10/13 (198 review reads)
Advantages: Beautifully presented food - like mini works of art. Attentive service.
Disadvantages: Expensive. Small portions. Dated décor. Odd atmosphere. Strangely impersonal.
Whilst Cassons has a sound reputation locally, they're also known for their artistic presentation of their food, and my partner is not all that keen on overly complicated food. He passed on a Groupon deal at Cassons a couple of years ago after I'd printed their menu off for him. One hint of the words "foam", "deconstructed" or "air" and he tends to go off a menu! He doesn't mind the odd coulis or reduction, but adding too many unusual and fancy ingredients just to make the dish appear more exotic than it actually is doesn't go down too well with him (and neither do overly small portions!). Having trained and worked as a chef in his youth, he does know what he's talking about with preparing food so I tend to bow to his superior judgment. However, I still wanted to try Cassons, so I reprinted their menu (which thankfully this time around had no mention of any foam), and managed to "persuade" him to give the place a chance. I must admit that I was aided by good old Spirit FM (our local radio station) who were offering a £25 voucher entitling the holder to a £50 discount off food and drink at Cassons. In a weak moment I pounced and got him to agree to try the place out at last. Was I going to live to regret it?
~~~ CASSONS - THE VENUE ~~~
Cassons are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year so they're well established and well known in these parts. We used to frequent the building they're housed in very frequently in the 1990's as it used to be a fantastic Thai restaurant called The River Kwai. However, we hadn't been back since the River Kwai closed down.
I made the reservation via email and had a charming acknowledgement back within the hour. I then had to call and cancel our booking on the day as I had a stinking headache. The lady I spoke to was most gracious when I apologised for having to cancel at such short notice, and allowed me to rebook the table for a week ahead. I also made the venue aware I had a Spirit FM voucher in case they got sniffy on the night.
Despite being by the side of the busy A27 road (which runs between Arundel and Chichester), Cassons is an oasis of quiet once you turn off into their car park. You certainly wouldn't know that you are sitting beside a very busy main road, and the noise of the traffic thundering past is minimal once you're inside the place. The restaurant is housed in a period looking brick built building, with a cream painted wall emblazoned with a navy blue Cassons logo.
Inside, the building is divided into a spacious bar area with seating so one can enjoy a pre-dinner aperitif, and then an elongated dining area split into two sections. I have to say that the décor at Cassons is rather fusty and dated. It's all dark wooden beams to the ceilings and dark wood around the bar with matching tables and chairs. Despite cream painted walls and ceilings, the overall feel of the place is rather gloomy as all that dark wood creates a bit of a shadowy feel to the place. The nick-knacks decorating the place all look a little tired and give the impression of your Granny's front room rather than anything you'd envy and want to take home with you given half a chance. However, each to their own, and their clientele obviously don't mind the dated décor as Cassons seems to be extremely popular. We dined there on a Tuesday night and they were at least 75% to 80% full, which is pretty good by anyone's standards in these difficult times.
~~~ À LA CARTE? MORE LIKE TABLE D'HÔTE.... ~~~
Cassons offer one seasonal menu which is changed regularly. However, despite them describing their menu as à la carte, to be honest I'd say it's more of a table d'hôte menu, as there's very limited choice here. It's not like a normal à la carte menu where you get a choice of 8 to 10 starters and then 15 to 20 main courses. Here the menu offers a limited selection of starters, mains and desserts and it's all at a fixed price. So, no Cassons - I don't think you should be describing your menu as à la carte, it should definitely be called a prix fixe or a table d'hôte one. The price depends on when you eat there and how many courses you choose. For example on Tuesday to Thursday two courses will cost you £24.00 and three courses £31.00. However that same menu on a Friday or Saturday night will cost you a lot more - two courses at £31.00 and three courses at a whopping £39.00. In addition to this some of the dishes on the menu have a supplement. As you can see it made a great deal of sense for us to eat there on a Tuesday night, as the menu is at least £8 cheaper per person for three courses and our Spirit FM voucher stretched the saving that little bit further still....
The limited selection of choices proved no problem for us, but may be worth bearing in mind if someone in your party is a picky eater or they like plain food. Sometimes a fixed price/table d'hôte menu can be a little limiting and there may not be all that much choice. However, I'm happy to report that the dishes on offer at Cassons offer a reasonable amount of choice, but they are a little too overzealous on the supplements for some dishes. I really didn't want to pay £8 extra to have the beef or £3 more for the scallops. For starters there was a choice of five dishes, two of which are fish based and one a vegetarian option. Briefly the starters on this occasion were Pan-fried Quail Breast, Carpaccio of Beef, Goats' Cheese, Smoked Haddock or Seared Scallops, (which attracted that £3.00 supplement).
For main courses, the choice is limited to six options - two being of a vegetarian persuasion, leaving three meat based dishes and a fish of the day option. The choices here were Fillet of Beef (with its matching cheeky £8.00 supplement), Suckling Pig, Loin of Venison, Fish of the Day and the two vegetarian mains of Red Pepper and Lentil Mousse or Croustade of Sweet Potato and Pistachio Nuts.
Finally the desserts menu was the biggest selection of all with seven choices. These ranged from Homemade Ice Creams, Pain Perdu, Treacle Tart, Raspberry Crumble or a Selection of Fruit Sorbets in a Brandy Snap Basket or you can pay a supplement and have a Quartet of Desserts (a selection of miniature desserts) or a Selection of Cheese and Crackers both attracting a £3.00 supplement.
~~~ OUR MEAL ~~~
At Cassons you enter through a small glass enclosed porch/conservatory area on the back of the building into the bar area. We were greeted immediately and they seemed to know who we were without having to give our name. They asked for our Spirit FM voucher straight away and then asked us if we'd like to have a drink in the bar or go straight through to our table. We chose the latter and were shown to a nice table for two near the entrance to the dining area. We were left with three large plastic booklets which were a menu each and an extensive wine list. Considering the menu is rather limited at Cassons I have no idea why they feel the need to hand out such massive plastic backed menu booklets. The menu was limited to two pages at the front and the rest of the folder was advertising their special themed dining nights throughout the year. That was fair enough as it's a good way to let your customers know about them. What it didn't need was the plug to write them good reviews on Trip Advisor and to avoid the Good Food Guide as it really wasn't all that good anymore. All that told me was that their last review in the Good Food Guide wasn't complimentary, but that Trip Advisor was still doing them favours! This was totally unnecessary - I don't like that sort of bias. Customers should be able to judge for themselves on the food they've eaten and not be subjected to a "rant" from the owners.
Although the bar area at Cassons is nice and spacious, the dining areas are quite long, thin and narrow. Although we had our own table for two, there wasn't all that much space between us and another table of two. Luckily this party were quiet and left fairly shortly after we arrived. However we weren't so lucky with our other neighbours, which consisted of a party of four - a couple, their son and his girlfriend. The mother insisted on shrieking with laughter at her own unfunny "jokes" every three minutes and it really spoiled the ambience of the room. She was loud and didn't care who knew her business. We were so relieved when they left just after we'd finished our starters, as she was really winding us up with her selfish lack of concern for those wishing to chat amongst themselves. The room visibly relaxed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief to see her leaving.....only for her to walk back in and reclaim her coat in a loud, shouty manner as she'd left it behind. We were tempted to put it over her head to muffle her!
We were offered a choice of home baked white or onion bread from a basket which we greedily gobbled up, but no offer of further supplies was forthcoming, and one slice apiece is your lot here. More impressive was the small selection of hors d'oeuvres that you receive whilst you're perusing the menu. We hadn't been expecting these at all, and it was a lovely touch to have a nice little plate of superior snacks to take the edge off our appetites. The waitress brought them to the table and gave us a brief explanation as to what each one was. First up was a shot glass filled with Tomato Velouté topped with a Sea Salt Foam. How we kept a straight face I do not know! I had scoured the menu before we went there to uncover any lurking foam and found none....yet that pesky stuff had snuck onto our table when we least expected it. As it happened it was violently unpleasant and needed to doused in a cup of cold water. The tomato velouté tasted watery and it was tepid. The sea salt foam was just deeply horrible and best spat out. However the other hors d'oeuvres were rather nice - we had a Stilton and Poppy Seed Biscuit apiece which was strong and flavoursome enough to take away the revolting taste of the salty foam. The third hors d'oeuvre was a Tempura Battered Lollipop shaped Fritter filled with a Prawn and Saffron flavoured sauce, which was also very nice. As these were unexpected freebies we were delighted with them....sea salt foam obviously excluded here.
For my starter I had Carpaccio of Beef, Slow Cooked Duck Egg Yolk, Black Pudding, Pancetta, pickled Mushrooms, Horseradish Cream, Leaves. I must say that this was a beautifully presented plate of food and consisted of a large slice of beef decorated with chunks of black pudding, pickled mushrooms and pancetta. To the centre was a large egg yolk which was still slightly warm and deliciously runny when you cut into it. To either side of the plate was a smear of the horseradish cream but it was rather orange and didn't taste much of anything. Horseradish should have a bit of a bite to it and this was far too mild and creamy. Whilst this dish was a work of art on a plate, it did lack flavour. I'm afraid that the Carpaccio of Beef just tasted of nothing and it should have been singing out loud with marinated flavours. In case you're not familiar with the dish the term "Carpaccio" describes thinly sliced raw meat (or fish) usually seasoned or marinated with lemon, vinegar, olive oil, salt and grounded pepper. The egg yolk was tasty and so were the chunks of black pudding and pancetta, but the main attraction of the beef just sat there quietly and didn't say a lot for itself. I hoped for better things with my main course as I found the starter more than a little disappointing. However this was nothing compared to the starter that my partner received which came in a huge bowl with a tiny, tiny portion in the middle of it. He went for Smoked Haddock, Cauliflower, Spinach, Quails' Egg, Spiced Velouté, Rice Crisp. What there was of it was tasty enough, but my goodness, the portion was ridiculously small. He managed to finish it in about two mouthfuls so he was rather unimpressed.
To be honest I rather struggled with my main course choice as I wasn't prepared to pay £8 more for beef, I try to avoid pork and I'm no great lover of fish unless it's salmon. The Fish of the Day cooked at the whim of the Chef (pretentious hey?) turned out to be Hake with a King Prawn Sauce / Filling which I didn't fancy, so in the end I had Loin of Venison, Celeriac Purée, Sweet Potato Fondants, Girolles Tenderstem Broccoli, Game Reduction. I was more impressed with my main course than the starter I'd had, but did find it slightly odd that I wasn't asked how I would like my meat cooked. The venison was served in meaty chunks and was nicely browned on the outside and very pink and tender when you cut into it. I would imagine some diners would find this dish cooked a little too rare for their tastes, but it suited me fine. The meat was served with a lovely rich gravy...sorry game reduction, which really complimented the rich meaty flavour of the venison. I can take or leave celeriac at the best of times so the purée was not something I really enjoyed. The meat was served on a bed of broccoli and that was cooked deliciously al dente and full of flavour. The sweet potato fondants looked just like carrots and it wasn't until I bit into one I realised it was potato and not a crunchy carrot. This dish was once again beautifully presented and I enjoyed the venison and broccoli elements of it whilst thinking the potato and celeriac were rather average. All in all it was miles better in depth of flavour compared to the starter I'd had, but the portion was still on the small side.
My partner plumped for Suckling Pig; Loin, Belly and Confit Leg, Crackling, Potato Millefeuilles, Parsnip Velouté, Wilted Greens, Cider Reduction as I wasn't all that keen on our paying £8 extra for him to have Fillet of Beef, seared Foie Gras, Shallots, Parmentier Potatoes, Green Beans, Truffle Jus. This dish was truly a work of art on a plate, and he thoroughly enjoyed what there was of it. Sadly, yet again the portion was rather mean. I had a mouthful of the suckling pig and it was melt in the mouth delicious. He loved the long stick of crackling that decorated the dish and pronounced the whole thing extremely tasty.
As the portions at Cassons were not exactly huge, we had plenty of room left to have a dessert apiece to round things off. We both chose Layers of White Chocolate and Passion Fruit and Milk Chocolate Ice Creams, Dark Chocolate Sorbet, Passion Tuile, Chocolate Tumbleweed. We had no idea what Pain Perdu or Raspberries, Crumble, Milk Chocolate Aero were and there was no one around to ask at the time. I was quite tempted to try the Treacle Tart, Banana and Caramel Soda, Lime Sorbet Mandarin Sorbet filled with Lemon Curd Ice Cream but decided to play it safe and stick to ice-cream. Our dessert was a small cylindrical tower of white and milk chocolate ice-creams with a layer of passion fruit ice-cream in the middle. To the side was an extremely rich and dark chocolate sorbet and it was absolutely gorgeous - bitter and opulent. The dish was decorated with a passion tuile which was gooey to the inside and crunchy on the outside. Chocolate tumbleweed turned out to be a small piped "cage" of chocolate and was a pretty addition to the dish. All in all, this was another beautifully presented dish and it almost seemed a shame to eat it and ruin the pretty presentation.
We decided against coffees and instead asked for the bill. Two three course dinners, a bottle of water and three bottles of beer came to £75.25, which is rather expensive considering the smallness of the portions. Yes, the food was beautifully presented, but there just wasn't very much of it. Once our £50 discount had been applied we paid £25.25 plus we left a £7.50 tip.
~~~ ANYTHING ELSE? ~~~
The service was very attentive throughout the evening. We had a lovely young girl serving most of our food and she was very good at explaining what the hors d'oeuvres were. However, I did find it most odd that at no stage were we asked if everything was satisfactory. Most restaurants nowadays pounce on you almost before you've taken your first mouthful of main course and ask if you need anything else or if there are any problems. No such enquiry was forthcoming here. Similarly at the end of the meal when we paid and left, no feedback was asked for, it was just a "cheerio, and hope to see you again soon". I found it a little odd that no one asked us if we'd enjoyed our meal. Either they just don't care (because we were on a cheapie deal) or perhaps they're arrogant enough to think that there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with our meal. As it stands, we mostly enjoyed our meal, but we thought it was over-priced for what it was. If we hadn't had a discount voucher we would have felt royally ripped off as the portions were so tiny.
The wine list at Cassons is extensive and rather on the expensive side. Himself had a brief look through it, but decided to succumb to his plebian tastes and stick to San Miguel lager (£3.75 per bottle) all evening. Perhaps this sealed our fate as lager louts and not worthy of checking to see if all was well with the meal...who knows? After all we had a discount voucher and one of us drank lager all evening, so we obviously weren't to be encouraged to visit again! I was driving to I stuck to a bottle of sparkling mineral water (£2.00). However if you are less plebian than us, you might like the full range of wines on offer. Half bottles start at £15.25, full bottles at £20 or you can just have a small glass of house wine for £6.25.
I visited the toilets briefly before we left, and although clean and well stocked the décor was a little tired and rather shabby. Some of the wallpaper and matching borders needed to be glued back into place. The same could be said of the outside dining area too. We noticed several large teak looking tables and chairs on an outside patio area on our way in, and I would imagine they're a lovely place to have a pre or post dinner drink in the summer. However, the whole area looked a little wind-swept and shabby on the April evening we visited. Perhaps they are waiting for kinder weather before they do a post winter spruce up of the area, as there has certainly been no occasion to dine or drink alfresco so far in 2013.
~~~ RECOMMENDED? ~~~
I'm glad we tried Cassons despite my partner's resistance to the place, but I rather fear he was right all along. Had we had to pay the full price for our meal, I would have been most disappointed as it was simply not worth £75+. Yes the food is beautifully presented, but it doesn't always work and they would do well to not just up the portions but improve on the flavours. Carpaccio of beef should have a delicious moreish depth of flavour to it, and Cassons version tasted of nothing at all.
Although the service was very attentive, it lacked any warmth and was strangely impersonal. The lack of concern over whether our meal was satisfactory and no enquiry at the end of the night as to our enjoyment of our first visit to Cassons was a rather jarring note.
To quote their website "Cassons is becoming known as the best Restaurant in the area". I don't know who decided that, but it's just not true. They're good, yes, but they're not that good. If the food tasted as good as it looked at Cassons they'd be on a sure fire streak to winning that accolade, but for now the jury is most definitely out.
~~~ FURTHER INFORMATION ~~~
Cassons is located just outside the village of Tangmere which is about 2½ miles to the east of the city of Chichester in West Sussex.
* There is an ample sized car park belonging to the restaurant
* All major cards accepted
* Good disabled access
Lunch: Wednesday to Sunday from 12.00pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday from 7.00pm
Summary: Expensive restaurant with rather small portions, but the food is beautifully presented