FOR anyone needing to treat the special someone in their life, you’d be hard pressed to beat a trip to Pressleys jewellers in Brighton’s East Street.

But put down that Rolex and step away from the Pandora necklace. Instead ring the buzzer and wait for the bearded chap to lead you upstairs. Because that is where the real gems are hiding. This week The Gourmand is dining at 1909 – Brighton’s newest small plates dining spot.

Taking its name from the year Pressleys first opened its doors to the Brighton public, 1909 is squeezed into a petite dining space on the shop’s second floor. Most of the space is filled with a horseshoe shaped open kitchen, with an arc of bar counter seating and a dozen or so extra tables.

We arrived for an almost embarrassingly early dining time and were the only customers present for most of the sitting. But with the friendly waiting staff chatting over a glass of red wine – I believe they were tasting a new option for the menu – restaurant atmospheres don’t get much more pleasantly laid back.

One member of the team will be a familiar face for many Brighton foodies. Head chef Jake Northcote-Green has previously held posts at Due South and around the corner at Plateau, another small plates specialist.

And diminutive dishes aren’t the only similarity on the menu. Northcote-Green has also brought to his new venture a passion for all things organic, including a selection of what they call “low intervention” wines. We opted for a white wine from the Austrian Diwald estate, as well as a pleasantly sharp gin and bitters cocktail.

On to the menu, and for anyone else feeling weary about the small plates dining trend –the ultimate first world problem – don’t lose faith. Because 1909 gets the trend spot on. Forget standard dishes shrunk in all aspects but the price tag, this menu is all about little and delicious tidbits, tapas-esque mashups of the very best ingredients.

First out is a plate of pickles, one of four small starters available. Slices of cucumber and kabu, a Japanese turnip, have just the right balance of sweet and sharp to wake up the palate. We partner it with a plate of bread, a crunchy sourdough served with a small dish of smooth whipped butter. And perhaps it’s because we are the only ones there, but our waiter keeps the basket topped up all night without even asking – or charging. It’s a nice touch.

On the topic of service and another big A+ goes to our lovely waiter’s completely unpretentious approach to the menu’s ingredients. Nobody likes to be left Googling their order and he happily went out his way to explain his ndujas from his labnehs. Incidentally – one is a spicy Italian sausage and the other a thick Greek yoghurt. And the pair are a marriage made in heaven when smeared over a shard of crispbread.

Next to the slightly larger plates – and here the unusual larder options continue. A simple bowl of aubergine is transformed into pool of dark and smoky delight. Griddled and pulped, it comes laced with garlic and topped with fermented negi – or curls of the softest, sweetest onion.

Squid and skordalia is as alluring as it is alliterative. Plump squid tentacles are curled across a thick puree of garlic and butter beans, with plenty of red onion, parsley and capers to cut through the richness.

Our next dish sees bobby beans encased in the lightest, crispiest batter and fried to a sunny golden. Clouds of shaved pecorino cheese and zingy pesto make for an unashamedly salty mouthful.

Some plates feature very little cooking at all – just excellent things paired and assembled with other excellent things. One such dish is a plate of thinly shaved coppa – a dry cured pork salami – layered over sweet apple slices and the brittle crunch of hazelnut. A dish of courgette ribbons come curled around an assortment of summery things – freshly shelled peas, mint leaves and rich creamy curd. A layer of tomato and sumac puree underneath adds a light and fruity finish.

The unexpected hero of the savoury choices is a simple plate of spinach. But it’s a salad unlike any I have ever tried – crisp leaves coated in a tarator, an Eastern European yoghurt sauce singing with walnuts, garlic, tahini and plenty of lemon juice.

There are two puddings on offer. The first is a plate of warm, feather light madeleines, layered over lemon curd and dusted demurely with icing sugar. The second, a plum and hazelnut tart, is the only dish that doesn’t get it quite right. The pastry shell is light and crisp, but the dry and grainy filling isn’t quite salvaged by the thick dollop of cream.

At the end of our sitting, just four dishes remain untried. But with the menu changing weekly, there will soon be plenty more choices to churn through. A word of warning – hungry, Viking sized types might consider a sarnie before arriving. The food here is delicious, thought provoking even, but it certainly won’t be described as hearty any time soon. But for everyone else, and I mean everyone, clear your diaries. Because there’s a new jewel in the crown of Brighton’s dining scene.

  • The Gourmand always pays for his meals.


Food: ★★★★★

Atmosphere: ★★★★★

Service: ★★★★★