The Royal, 1 St Johns Road, St Leonards-on-Sea TN37 6HP (01424 547 797). Starters £5-£9, mains £12-£17, desserts £5, wines from £18. From September, The Royal is going to be open from Tuesday-Saturday for dinner and Wednesday-Sunday for lunch
Imagine you could DNA test the recently reopened Royal in St Leonards on the East Sussex coast. Perhaps you’d start by taking a sliver off the dark polished bar and mix that with a dollop of their sweet, lubricious pork rillette. Add a few of the borlotti beans off the monkfish dish. Blitz it with some of the mirabelle tart with crème fraîche. Dissolve the sample in a solution, ideally a mixture of crémant and Italian merlot, before spinning it through a centrifuge until the unique gastronomic genome revealed itself. I can tell you exactly what you’d find: that this venture is but the latest branch in a delicious restaurant family tree stretching back almost 30 years.
That tree began in 1991 with the Eagle, the early, sanded-down gastropub in London’s Farringdon which I wrote about in the first weeks of lockdown. The Eagle managed to gene-splice itself, through the people who worked for it, with the abattoir chic of Fergus Henderson’s nearby St John. Along the way those two restaurants have trained up people who have gone on to launch the much-loved Anchor & Hope, the Canton Arms, the Magdalen Arms, the recently opened Clarence, the Camberwell Arms, the only recently closed Great Queen Street and a bunch of other places besides.
They do not share a menu, though a lot of braised shoulders of lamb have come out of their various kitchens over the years. Instead, what makes them family, other than the fact that the personnel have all worked with each other, is an approach. The dishes they serve are never pretty, but they are damn attractive. They’re built around sturdy, reliable ingredients. Pies may feature. There might be outbreaks of piccalilli or shepherd’s pie, which would suggest a British sensibility. But it’s all filtered through an understanding of the eternal verities of rugged French and Italian country cooking. It’s food that lubricates conversation, rather than trying to be the focus of it.
James Hickson, who runs front-of-house here, and chef Sam Coxhead have indeed worked at Green Queen Street, the Canton Arms and St John. They are clearly not attempting to escape their birthright. According to my companion, a Hastings and St Leonards lifer, the Royal was once one of the roughest pubs in town. Not any more. Hickson and Coxhead have stripped the space back to the very best of the wood and painted it in calming shades of pea green inside and what colour charts tell me is called “ocean blue” without. The walls are hung with vintage French aperitif adverts. They make a non-pub-goer like myself feel I’m in a safe space. There’s a blackboard for guest beers. It’s all extremely civilised. Doubtless this will infuriate some locals who liked it when it was the other type of pub. It’s not my culture. I can’t get involved.
The menu is short and tightly written. There is a big scoop of soft, melting pork rillettes that could double as a face cream when the Olay has run out. Or you could just rub it straight on to your thighs to deal with the cellulite. It’s going to end up there anyway.
The nearest thing to cooking among these starters is a buxom fillet of mackerel, which is what you’d hope to find down here on the coast. Its skin is bubbled and crisped. It perches atop fat, roasted plum tomatoes and a surging landslide of pesto. Behold the beauty of bright red on brilliant green; of sweetness and acidity and spankingly fresh fish. A rainbow of baby beets and leaves comes dressed with yogurt and the Middle Eastern burst of cumin, sesame seeds and za’atar. It’s a plate of food that’s checking on your welfare.
There are a couple of non-meat dishes like this among the mains: a tortilla with peppers, tomatoes and olives, or new season coco beans with spinach and artichokes. Servings are generous. Many kitchens look at a duck breast and see two portions. Here, you get what looks like the whole thing, the fat rendered, the skin crisped, the meat blushing. It comes with green beans and an Iranian-influenced sweet-savoury walnut sauce.
I could raise an eyebrow at their decision to call monkfish wrapped in crisped pancetta a “saltimbocca”, because raising an eyebrow is part of my skill-set. To qualify for the title there should be a sage leaf and a marsala sauce. When I asked whether all that was present James Hickson described it, wearily, as a “non-traditional” saltimbocca. Honestly, I’d hate dealing with me, too. It’s a very good roasted monkfish wrapped in pancetta and comes with nutty borlotti beans and a sprightly Sicilian lemon salmoriglio sauce.
You could probably guess the dessert list: something involving chocolate, a tart, meringues. This is not surprising, but no one comes here to be surprised. They come to be fed. That plum and almond tart is a deep-filled beauty, with a thin case, and a soft, light filling. Sour cream sends it on its way. The meringues are crisp shelled, but gooey within and come with strawberries and cream, because it is the law that they must.
There are “feasting” menus available at around £27 a head, ordered in advance, if you can get a larger, Covid-observant group together. They sound extremely encouraging. The pork feast, for example, starts with that great Tuscan soupy stew ribollita, goes through suckling pig shoulder with choucroute and finishes with tarte tatin.
Sometimes my job requires me to do peculiar things, like getting on a late-afternoon train from London to the coast just for an early dinner, and then getting back on the train home again. I always discount what us old Jews call the schlepp involved with accessing a restaurant, when reviewing it. But as I sat on that train home, through the fast-falling evening light, I concluded a trip to St Leonards to see the latest addition to this particular extended restaurant family had been a delightful and entirely rational thing to do.
We’ve become used to new food take-away services. Norma, the Sicilian-inspired restaurant on London’s Charlotte Street, has gone one better with the launch of Norma at Home. As well as a delivery model, they’ve also started sending out the chefs. Culinary director Ben Tish and his team of cooks and waiters will come to you, to serve a full sharing-style supper for up to 24 guests at £60 a head. The menu might include the likes of whole shoulder of lamb with asparagus and aïoli. There’s also a canapé menu for up to 30 people at £25 a head and a feasting menu. Visit normalondon.com.
Good news: in October, chef Asma Khan is relocating her much-loved restaurant, Darjeeling Express, from its original site off Regent Street, to a much large space in Covent Garden previously occupied by a Carluccio’s. It will feature both a deli and restaurant and, Khan says, will enable her to continue training a generation of female restaurant owners, managers and chefs through her all-female brigade. Darjeeling-express.com.
Many operators have described the government’s eat Out To Help Out scheme, offering a 50% discount of up to £10 a head on all food and non-alcoholic drinks from Monday to Wednesday, as a raging success. Some are now extending it themselves. The West Country-based Sri Lankan group, The Coconut Tree, will be running the full deal through until the end of September and then scale it back to lunchtimes only through October. Visit thecoconut-tree.com.
Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper, One Meal a Lifetime in the Making, is published in paperback by Guardian Faber on 3 September. Buy it for £8.69 at guardianbookshop.com. To launch it, he’ll be in conversation with Grace Dent, live-streamed on 4 September. For tickets, visit jayrayner.co.uk