THE REAL EATING COMPANY
Nothin' here but history
Can you see what has been done
I read somewhere that the county town of Lewes had aspirations as another foodie enclave much like Ludlow. A very bold aim to be sure as, until recently, Ludlow was awash with Michelin Stars (at least two of them are now on their to London). My interest was piqued however so I got myself a return ticket to see what’s what.
Lewes is a very picturesque bustling small town nestling in the South Downs. It has a castle, a river, a white cliff and was home to that perpetual troublemaker Thomas Paine. On the food side there was a farmer’s market, somewhere called Bill’s which looked like fun and er..some other restaurants. All nice enough but hardly the basis for a foodie revolution.
Best of all though Lewes has Harvey’s Brewery. I would have liked to visit the brewery but was told that the waiting list is so long it would be easier to put myself down for membership of the MCC. Luckily in London we have a Harvey’s Pub, the Royal Oak, where we can enjoy Harvey’s fine beer but there’s nothing like drinking it near to the mother lode which in my case meant sitting at the bar of The Gardener’s Arms.
It’s a cosy little pub and despite being situated right on the main drag it’s not too busy and the staff are very welcoming. In fact, I could have easily stayed there for a few hours supping the seasonal Old Ale, munching their fine looking pies with the sweet strains of Patsy Cline playing quietly in the background (a bit of a Madeleine moment taking me back five years to an evening at Jo’s Coffee in Austin, oddly enough). As it turned out I only had time for a couple of pints before I had to walk across the road for lunch.
You’ve got to have a certain amount of chutzpah to call a place The Real Eating Company. What are they trying to say ? Until you eat here you’re not really eating ? Well I don’t know about the other restaurants in Lewes but where I come from we have plenty of places where you can really eat real, so with that name you had better be good. Unfortunately, TREC isn’t up to it. It’s not that it’s really lousy it’s just really mundane. I was hoping for something that spoke of our location, a few specials maybe. Maybe you get this in the evening – I don’t know. All I got was something that looked very like a brunch menu that you’d get in any number of gastropubs. This in itself wouldn’t be so bad if the quality was top-notch and there was a sense of generosity about the whole operation but instead I got a sense that there was an eye very much focussed on the bottom line. Much like you’d find in a chain (oh, it is).
The uneasiness started with the drinks menu. A glass of La Guita manzanilla – that’s right, the stuff you buy in the supermarket for about £7 – was a whopping £6 a glass (glass size not stated so expect the worse). That’s more than in Fino, a restaurant not exactly famous for its modest mark-ups.
None of the starters appealed so I went for the Mixed Charcuterie plate. When it came I thought they’d maybe given me a starter portion by mistake, but no, £9 quid got you three small bits of parma ham, six wafer thin slices of salami and a whole bunch of pickles. There was some consolation in the bread which was very good but, you know…
The rib eye steak at least looked the part and was properly cooked but tasted of nothing. It’s one of life’s more dismal moments when you take the first bite of a large piece of tasteless protein and realise you’ll still be eating it thirty minutes later. This inert bit of cow came with the loathsome fat chips (billed as ‘hand cut chips’) which were soft and seemed to serve no purpose other than for the kitchen to have a game of Jenga. I won’t even waste space mentioning the salad which turned out to be a few sprigs of watercress.
The puds also showed an enthusiastic hand with the calculator: £6 is pretty good going even compared to London (hey - maybe Lewes is the new Mayfair). This seemed to be justified mainly by having a fancy plate and sprinkling icing sugar over the dish. This surely couldn’t be down to the slightly dry ginger cake with a sugar overload in the form of honeycomb ice cream and sugared almonds. And just in case I hadn’t suffered enough the coffee was undrinkable.
Lewes seems like a pleasant place (although who can tell what dark heart beats underneath) and I’m sure it’s got loads of other restaurant that are much better than TREC but really you’re probably better off just stopping to have a look around the castle, downing a pint of the local brew and continuing your journey on to London-on-Sea (aka Brighton). And as for Lewes becoming the new Ludlow, I think there's more chance of England winning the World Cup in my lifetime (I'm taking about the football).