After London – and Bray if you’re the sort who gets Michelin stars in their eyes – funky, friendly Brighton stakes a serious claim as Britain’s gastronomic capital. In The Coal Shed, it has a steakhouse that is among the UK’s best.
In this, the most cosmopolitan city on the South Coast, chefs enjoy an embarrassment of riches, with access to world-class produce emanating from the Sussex coastline and surrounding countryside. Think artisan cheeses, rare breed animals roaming rolling hillsides, the best of British wine, arguably the freshest seafood in the country and you’re still just scratching the surface.
The city’s restaurant scene makes the most of its enviable location at the heart of a venerable foodie paradise: the Gingerman
group pulls off the gastropub concept as well as anyone, Terre à Terre
takes vegetarian cooking to Blumenthalesque creative heights, and the Chili Pickle
ticks all the right boxes for nouveau
Indian without succumbing to any of its pitfalls. Then there are the myriad fish restaurants – Riddle and Finns
stands out amongst an above average crowd – that exploit the ocean’s finest fruits. Judging by a recent visit over bonfire weekend, the recently opened Coal Shed looks a good bet to take its place amongst the city’s elite.
The Coal Shed
bills itself as “specialists in grilled meat and fish,” and while I’m sure our aquatic bretheren are admirably represented – the head chef was, after all, poached from the aforementioned Riddle and Finns – it seemed to me to be really be about the meat and, more especially, about the steak. You don’t, after all, install a £18,000 Josper oven in your kitchen just to cook sea bass.
For the uninitiated – and there’s no shame in not being a culinary geek – the Josper oven is basically a luxury indoor charcoal barbeque. The godlike status it enjoys in gastronomic circles derives from the fact that it combines the unrivalled taste of meat grilled over hot coals with the control and precision of traditional indoor ovens. In the right hands, it is capable of producing some of the best steaks in the world, perfectly juicy and pink inside with just the right amount of crispy char on the outside. It’s a seriously voguish piece of kit at the moment and, for the Coal Shed, a statement of intent, as it places its ambition on a par with that of London’s most revered steakhouses, Hawksmoor
The restaurant’s décor supports the idea that this is a steakhouse first and foremost: with industrial-style lighting, no frills tables, and a shiny, overstocked bar, it certainly looks like an American-style meat Mecca. Smaller in scale and a bit brighter, perhaps, but it feels the part and inspires a certain degree of confidence, as well as expectation. That said, not many New Yorkers would be willing to put with the Arctic draught that swept over us every time the front door opened, and none would forgive the frigid, if stylish, restrooms. But then perhaps those of us who dine out on this side of the Atlantic are made of sterner stuff. Certainly, we should be prepared to make a few sacrifices in the name of great steak, as it’s not exactly dime-a-dozen fodder over here.
We are also accustomed to the kind of brusque treatment that is only excusable in a very good Brooklyn deli (or anywhere in France, for that matter), but the Coal Shed’s service is unquestionably one of its strong points. Led by head honcho Raz Helalat, it is friendly and enthusiastic without being suffocating and invasive: no, Chad/Amber, I don’t care what your name is and I won’t order the special, so save your plastic perkiness for the next High School Musical audition and make with the wine list. (The Coal Shed’s wine list, incidentally, is excellent, but more on that later.)
The meal began with a disappointing announcement: the evening’s quota of BBQ Jacob’s Ladder (beef short ribs) and spiced lamb cutlets was exhausted thanks to the demands of an extremely busy weekend. While slightly frustrating, this was actually a positive omen: that the Coal Shed clearly takes the freshness of its food seriously.Too many restaurants nowadays are happy to freeze and defrost rather than risk disappointing their diners. The best are usually prepared to tolerate our anger: when I had a 9 o’clock table at St. John
, the menu was so empty I wondered why they had bothered to stay open. If the Waitrose fish counter can be excused for only having salmon at the end of the week, surely it would be curmudgeonly to condemn a restaurant that puts quality above quantity.
In the end, I plumped for the steak tartare. The key to good steak tartare is the quality of the beef, followed closely by the precision of the seasoning. Both were spot on in this example of Mr Bean’s favourite meal
: the same 35-day aged, local longhorn beef that goes into the Josper was expertly chopped at the last minute and perfectly spiked with cornichons and onion so finely chopped that it was undetectable except to the palate. A quail’s egg, still in its shell, was perched artfully on top – a nice touch. Al’s starter of scallops with oxtail ragu was similarly well executed: the scallops juicy and springy, the oxtail rich and moreish without being overpowering. It was proof that the restaurant could, indeed, do good things with fish.
But if it were to be a truly memorable meal, the steak would have to steal the show. We opted to share an 800g cut of bone-in prime rib. Ordered medium rare, it was cooked to within a millimetre of total perfection. Sliced roughly into beautifully bloody chunks, erotically juicy, this was meat of the highest quality. The Josper and the obviously gifted chef manning it had – to borrow a term from the steak capital of the universe – knocked the baseball out of the park. It was the sort of steak that makes you realise what a crime it is to pollute top-quality grilled beef with overpowering sauces.
Sides – ordered separately – comprised beef-dripping chips, garlic mushrooms, and seasonal greens. All were expertly prepared, with the chips being especially worthy of the extra couple of quid involved – high praise indeed from a cheapskate with an aversion to deep-fried potatoes. The accompanying béarnaise sauce partnered exceptionally well with the chips, but you would deserve to eat nothing but Tesco sandwiches for the rest of life if you let it anywhere near your steak. Of course, I’d have liked to see a mac ‘n’ cheese offered as well, but that’s more of a personal obsession than a serious criticism.
Accompanying our meal was the Humberto Canale Estate Malbec. A fine example of Argentina’s varied and unique terroirs, it hails from Rio Negro in the Patagonia region of the country rather than the Mendoza area most of us know. Geography aside, it was a splendid bit of grape, putting most New World reds I’ve quaffed recently to shame. Full-bodied and bursting with spicy fruit flavours, it finishes with smoky cedar notes that complemented the steak’s magnificent char perfectly. Malbec may just be the grape that God created with steak-loving winos in mind. At £25 for a bottle that retails for just over a tenner, it was a worthwhile investment for a meal of this calibre.
Dessert is usually an afterthought for me and this night was no different. That isn’t to say the Coal Shed’s kitchen didn’t provide a more than commendable ending to the meal, just that it takes something special for me to get excited about the sweet course. The offer of cardamon pannacotta nearly did it, but I stayed true to form and passed on the puddings, opting instead for an interesting selection of local cheeses, served at the right temperature with decent crackers, nice chutney, and a bit of fruit to freshen the palate. Cheese plates rarely offer more than what the tin says, but they are a good measure of a restaurant’s philosophy, and this one confirmed what was already obvious from the first two courses: that the Coal Shed carefully sources prime local ingredients, serves them simply but perfectly, and then lets the quality speak for itself. A Knickerbocker Glory received the thumbs up from Al, and with that it was damage time.
After pushing the boat way out – I managed a glass of very acceptable sweet wine as well – I remember the bill coming in at around £100, excluding a well-deserved tip. At just over £50 a head for an evening of almost total self-indulgence, the Coal Shed represents very good value. Perhaps you’d expect the tab to be a bit cheaper outside of London, but Brighton clearly feels it has the goods to compete with its northerly neighbour on the dining front. On the basis of this meal, it’s hard to disagree. More frugal diners than ourselves could have enjoyed a perfectly satisfactory meal for less, but with so many good things on offer, self-restraint was out of the question. Of course, I might well be humming a different tune if they hadn’t gotten the steak so right.