Newest Review: ... of drinks and were given a menu each. While perusing the menu we chatted and decided on what each of us were going to order. One ordered ... more
Best of British
The Crabtree (Horsham)
Member Name: koshkha
The Crabtree (Horsham)
Advantages: Fantastic food and service
Disadvantages: Too far from home to go often
There are two things for which foreigners deride the UK - our weather and our food. Whilst the weather deserves the criticism - and never more so than this summer - the widely held belief that our food is awful is outdated and largely unjustified. Whilst this might have been true back in the post-war years when the only place to buy olive oil was a pharmacy and when there was a tradition of 'meat and two veg' and a reliance on cheap offal, it's no longer the case. Sales of cook books suggest that even if we aren't recreating Jamie and Nigella's recipes in our kitchens, we're certainly more interested in going out and eating food that we couldn't conjure up at home. In reality we're still going to struggle to hold our heads up with the French or the Italians but northern Europeans underestimate our restaurants at their peril.
Despite my hubristic comments about British cuisine, I was concerned about finding a restaurant in a town I didn't know in order to feed a group of 12, only two of whom were Brits. My colleagues are nice but prone to rather direct honesty. If the food was poor, I would undoubtedly be told in a polite but firm way. None of that British "Oh it was lovely but I ate too much bread" would greet me if the plates when back half full. I managed to track down a country 'gastropub' which was only a couple of miles from our hotel and after reading a bunch of reviews, I felt confident that it wouldn't let me down.
I rang The Crabtree in Lower Beeding, near Horsham in West Sussex to ask if they could handle a large group and spoke to a very nice guy called Hamish who offered me a 3 course deal for £25 a head which I thought sounded like great value. Not so cheap that my colleagues would be offended, not so steep that my boss would choke when the expenses bill went in. I then entered into an email correspondence over whether or not we had to place our order before we went. Luckily after I pointed out that I'd be on holiday the week before and didn't plan on spending my time off asking people to tell me what they wanted to eat a week later, the lovely Hamish told me not to worry, we could sort the menu nearer the time. When my booking dropped from 14 to 12 he told me that the chef said it was fine and we could order on the night.
On the day of our visit I had a couple more nice emails, telling me that they'd already laid out our table and the menu was ready. I didn't realise the significance of this until we arrived and found that Hamish and his team had given us a room all to ourselves, with a little hatch through which we could watch the chefs at work. Having what was effectively a 'private' dining room went down well with everyone - as someone pointed out, it wouldn't have been much fun for a romantic couple to have been stuck in with all of us.
The Crabtree is in the village of Lower Beeding and has a big car park with plenty of space. It operates as both a pub and a restaurant though I would guess more guests are dining than not. Reading their blackboard in the bar area, they also offer some tempting afternoon cream teas and we all laughed at the sign saying that if the sun was shining at the weekend then the barbecue would be out - not much chance of that!
The room had been set up in an L-shape for the twelve of us. The menus were already on the table waiting for us and everyone settled down to the difficult task of choosing their food. Since I'd done all the hotel and entertainment arrangements, I dumped the tricky job of choosing the wine on my mostly clueless co-host who picked a Chilean red and a French white - good choices since we had no French with us (and not surprisingly no Chileans either). A good diplomatic choice!
Our menu comprised four starters, five main courses and four puddings. I'd agreed to a restricted choice knowing that it was easier for the kitchen and would prevent a lot of "What's the translation of ......." which always follows with an international group and can make us poor natives look a bit thick. I don't know what a 'gremolata' is and my explanation that 'muscovado' is a breed of duck indicated I should have looked at the menu first and seen that it was on the pudding list and was actually referring to a type of brown sugar.
In true 'gastropub' style the descriptions were a bit 'wordy'. Asparagus with poached eggs just doesn't hack it when you can instead have 'West Sussex asparagus, poached Rottingdean hens eggs, roasted garlic mayonnaise, mustard dressing'. I think you get the point. Other starters were a chicken terrine with toast and chutneys ('Brookland White free range chicken rillettes, shallot, grape and lime chutney, toast') and two more too complicated for me to abbreviate so I'll go straight for the menu descriptions - 'Cashel blue cheese baked fig, Monmouthshire air dried ham, port reduction, pine nut salad' and 'Dorset crab cocktail, Nutbourne tomato, gem lettuce, cucumber, Marie Rose sauce'.
At this stage, anyone thinking they'd get steak and kidney pie with chips was probably having to adjust their expectations. At risk or boring you rigid with the flowery descriptions, the mains were a pork cutlet, a ratatouille filo roll, cod, shoulder of lamb or a rib-eye steak.
~But did it taste good?~
The wine arrived shortly after the orders had been taken and we all agreed that despite being clueless, Phil had picked some good ones. All praise to restaurants who have a good list and prevent host embarrassment. A couple of my colleagues know about my review writing and started pointing things out - for example how great it was that the staff brought big carafes of water without anyone having to ask. With a large group you can easily run up a very significant bill for bottled water alone so that was a very nice touch.
Baskets of bread were brought to the table along with some butter. A small pre-starter or amuse bouche was presented whilst we waited for the starters. These were tiny little cups of gazpacho. My Portuguese colleague Isabel told us she loves gazpacho "but only in summer and this just isn't summer". It was her loss - the icy cool tomato soup was excellent.
The most popular starters were the asparagus and the crab cocktail which most of the people at my end of the table chose although I did spot the chicken starter heading to the other end of the room. I don't think anyone went for the fig and Cashel blue cheese which would have been my choice if it hadn't had the ham with it. My crab cocktail was beautifully presented with the crab perched on top of a small circular mound of lettuce. The tomatoes were absolutely exquisite and full to bursting point with flavour. The asparagus was hailed by those who chose it as cooked to perfection.
My main course choice was 'fillet of cod, olive oil mash, tomato fondue, gremolata and young watercress. As you can tell I kept a copy of the menu. I had to look up gremolata and I'm still not sure that's what I had as I assumed that the bright green herby 'stuff' was pesto - it certainly tasted like pesto which is fine, because I like pesto. The cod was served 'skin up' and was perched on the tomatoes and 'pesto which might not have been pesto'. I'm not a fan of mash and I found the dish to be a bit too 'beige' in both look and taste. The quality was undoubtedly top notch but I just wasn't all that excited by my meal and probably should have gone with the vegetarian alternative, although I'd been put off by the mention of 'polenta' as an accompaniment with the ratatouille filo dish. I was repeatedly told that the shoulder of lamb was 'out of this world' and it certainly looked a picture with weirdly coloured carrots and deep purple wine-cooked shallots.
Everyone started to claim they couldn't possibly manage a pudding - after all, they'd spent half the day eating cake at work. But then a strange thing happened and one by one they all gave in. The choices included an iced gooseberry and elderflower parfait, which I chose, a sticky toffee pudding, a brownie with berry compote and a selection of cheeses. Several people asked if they could just have some fruit salad instead and initially the waitresses said it wasn't possible but then they went to talk to the chefs and somehow they magicked up a beautiful selection of chopped fruit and offered sorbet to go with it. I went for the parfait which - as the name suggested - was pretty much perfect. Like all the previous dishes, each plate came to the table finely constructed. My two slices of parfait were separated by a pair of shortbread biscuits with a smear of gooseberry curd and patches of dainty pink but intensely flavoured pink gooseberry sauce. I couldn't eat it all but I certainly tried.
The bill for twelve of us came to the grand total of £408 including three bottles of wine and four diet cokes. The bill included a 10% tip which was perfect as our company rules say they won't reimburse more than 10% and I was very pleasantly surprised. One of the chef, Tom Goodchild, eas competing for West Sussex Young Chef of the Year and the waitresses asked if I wanted to say hello. Looking more like a young Dougie Hauser (sorry - showing my age), Tom was very gracious about my fawning thanks for serving such good food and preventing me looking like a complete loser in front of my continental colleagues.
If I have any cause to be in the area again, I would definitely return to the Crabtree. The service was excellent, the menu was pretty spectacular and everything was beautifully presented. If you want fancy restaurant quality food and not much more than pub prices and you prefer a more casual surroundings than a swanky thick table cloth restaurant, then The Crabtree is an excellent choice.
Summary: A fabulous coubtry gastropub