12.01.2018 / words: Rich Lee
When the highly anticipated Sorrel finally opened its doors in Dorking at the end of 2017, it marked the return of one of Surrey’s most celebrated chefs and an unmissable new dining experience…
When Steve Drake announced his departure from his Michelin-starred restaurant in Ripley in 2016 after fourteen years, it felt like a blow to the county’s fine dining fans. But then it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that a chef with the energy and drive of Steve Drake would bounce back with an even more ambitious vision. It just took him a while to realise it, which was torture enough for devotees of his fiercely inventive cooking, but surely agony for the man himself.
He may have moved his operation to Dorking, taking ownership of the 300-year old building formerly inhabited by the restaurant Little Dudley House, but Drake’s shadow hasn’t quite left Ripley behind. His protégé Fred Clapperton, Head Chef at the Clock House, formerly Drake’s, won a Michelin star within a year, and another, Mike Wall-Palmer, is hoovering up awards as Head Chef at the Drake-owned Anchor pub over the road.
Development of the new restaurant, Sorrel, progressed over eleven arduous months, with launch announcements dropping sporadically only for delays to dash our hopes; anticipation for Sorrel had been an excruciating feature of 2017 for Surrey’s diners. But then the restaurant finally opened its doors in October and was instantly the hottest ticket in the county. Just a few weeks later and it was our turn for a table. So, you might ask, has Sorrel been worth the wait? Foodie, please...
Bounding up the steps and through Sorrel’s peculiar glass-cubed portico, we’re warmly greeted by the restaurant’s front of house team only for our gaze to fall upon the open kitchen to our left. Super-stylish, ultra-modern and bathed in natural light from glass walls and ceiling, it’s a dazzling space for the Chef Patron, Head Chef Richard Giles and their crew to work in. It’s also clear that Drake has used Sorrel as an opportunity to build his dream kitchen from scratch. Because you would, wouldn’t you? It’s slightly incongruous when compared to the dining room, which has retained its olde timbered charm and intimate sophistication, but it works.
Service was slick and friendly from the moment we arrived, although having only been open for a few weeks, there was a slightly rough-round-the-edges, unstuffy charm to Sorrel that I hope it never totally loses. We’re guided to our table where we pour over the menu, which offers a superb value lunch option of three courses for £35 per person. But then there’s the famed Discovery tasting menu, £90, resurrected from the previous restaurant. It comes down to your budget, naturally, but to bypass Drake’s 9-course journey of gastronomic adventure feels like sacking off Space Mountain to ride the Teacups. And besides, we’d waited long enough; only the ultimate experience would suffice.
After a few tantalising ‘snacks’ to amuse our bouches, the meal begins properly with a warm pumpkin mousse, light yet rich and spiked with smoked paprika, parmesan and parsley and studded with crushed praline; it tasted of perpetual, blissful autumn, of warm fires crackling with enigmatic aromas of North Africa.
There is a single pearly scallop in a frothy mushroom ‘milk’, a gentle kick below from garlic and the soft, woody perfume of white truffle above. Drake has an uncanny gift for weaving together flavours of forest and sea, and here it was manifested to perfection. (After the meal, I’ll gush over this astonishing dish with its creator, only for him to wince: “See, that’s one I struggled with, to keep on the menu. It’s little more than scallop, mushroom foam and a touch of parsley and garlic. It’s pretty simple.” With dim-witted alacrity I’ll suggest that ‘if something’s good then it’s good, right?’ forgetting that for a chef working at the level of Steve Drake, merely ‘good’ more often feels like failure. “Yeah but you know, we’re chefs,” he’ll reply matter-of-factly. Note to self: Chefs got to chef.)
Scallop, mushroom ‘milk’, garlic and white truffle
Next came sweet raw venison, peeking shyly out from beneath a nest of sorrel leaves, layered over creamy smoked egg yolk and a bitter orange puree. Capers and anchovy brought some puckish tang and a little puffed rice some crispy pop. There followed a plate as bang in season as it was possible to be; a jaunty beetroot crisp over a wedge of sharp, fudgy Bosworth Ash goats cheese nestled against compressed apple and tenderest beetroot that had been salt-baked to give a little edge to its mineral mellowness. Sat above a glossy beet syrup, dusted with sesame and a blob of pleasantly piney mayo of Douglas fir, this dish captured the season perfectly.
We ate buttery red mullet, served with a delicious-if-bewildering ‘fish bread’ (a sponge bread made with fish stock), perfect for soaking up the sauce. Duck from nearby Etherley Farm came in a shimmering, sweet date glaze coating juicy breast and rosy thigh. A tender rubble of mushroom and cauliflower beneath conjured flavours of Morocco thanks to the warm, smoky spice ras-el hanout. Close your eyes, let those flavours play over your tongue, and you’re there.
This being Drake’s place, the kitchen weaves all sorts of delightful morsels among these masterful courses throughout the meal; flirty little bites like duck liver meringues, crispy-crumbed hunks of beef to swipe through bone marrow and seaweed mayonnaise, and a tiny tartlet of punchy Barkham Blue cheese tempered with delicate rosewater gel and tarragon.
Red mullet, ‘fish bread'
To end on a sweet note, we were served hibiscus ice with cinnamon mousse over a tart sherry syrup and a gossamer thin sliver of pear, followed by a layer of hazelnut cake, a fascinating ‘toasted milk’, and subtle notes of lavender and sour cherry. This menu, graced with perfectly matched wines chosen by Sorrel’s sommelier Sazan, truly is a journey of Discovery, and one we didn’t want to end.
For those of us who aspire to cook anything fancier than a carrot, attempting to decipher the cunning composition of ingredients and arcane techniques behind Drake’s creations is an exercise in bafflement and futility. It’s just not worth it, and it should never be so academic anyway, to enjoy food at this level. Ours is not to reason why, but to simply enjoy the return of one of Surrey’s most talented chefs, working at the height of his powers once again.
Yes, Sorrel has most definitely been worth the wait.
Hazelnut cake, ‘toasted milk’, lavender and sour cherry