A new gem that's a seaside walk from Brighton on the south coast of England, and within striking distance of many a Sussex vineyard. Above, the team, photographed by @foarke.
I was immediately drawn when I first heard the name of Wild Flor restaurant in Hove, Sussex, and not just because I believe that sherry is the greatest drink in the world (see the Oxford Companion to Wine entry on flor).
I first heard of Wild Flor just over a fortnight ago when Hove resident, the renowned whisky writer Dave Broom, came to our apartment to discuss his forthcoming whisky column for JancisRobinson.com. He spoke enthusiastically about the restaurant and its wine list and we decided to visit.
Wild Flor is a ten-minute walk from Hove station in a row of shops that includes a charity shop and a particularly good butcher, Canham & Sons. The setting is casual but warm. We sat ourselves at one of the couple of tables in the window, opposite which is a ‘reception desk’ that has obviously been made for the premises: various drawers contain everything that a busy receptionist or waiter will need to do their job efficiently – menus, wine lists, cutlery and napkins – while on top there is just about space for a laptop, a phone and on the far corner a container with five bottles of Alsace digestifs. I took the picture below as soon as we arrived soon after 12.30 when it was fairly empty but it filled up considerably soon afterwards, including a sizeable birthday party in the room upstairs which seemed to do nothing to slow the service.
The rest of the interior of Wild Flor is straightforward. There is a lot of exposed brickwork as well as natural light from the front and rear windows. Two of the owners, Rob Maynard and James Thomson, pace the floor with ready smiles, dressed casually and comfortably. They recognised Jancis but in character they made no fuss; their only acknowledgement was a card which they handed over to us as we left – a card that thanked us for our visit.
We were handed two menus, one headed May, the other The Spring Set, their set menu for Thursday and Friday lunch services and dinner Tuesday to Thursday but excluding the more popular Friday and Saturday nights.
The lunch menu, at £22 for two courses and £25 for three with dishes taken from the May menu, immediately attracted Jancis, who ordered a couple of haggis arancini with pickled walnut sauce and braised Sussex lamb with peas bonne femme. To test the kitchen, I ordered from the main menu two first courses: monkfish scampi with sesame scallop toast and a fried oyster followed by a vol-au-vent (when did I last see this puff-pastry concoction on a menu?) of veal sweetbreads with spinach and a sauce grenobloise (shown below). I also ordered their pommes Anna garnished with three-cornered-leek mayonnaise.
On the reverse of their May menu is a list of apertifs which invitingly begins with the question ‘sherry or champagne?’ The list contains one of the most fascinating glasses of sherry I have ever tasted, a fino from Bodegas Poniente, a property that takes its name from the poniente winds that blow from west to east across this part of southern Spain, made from grapes grown in El Aljibe vineyards. This nutty, deep-flavoured, complex wine with more than a hint of the Atlantic is produced by a magician called Alberto Orte. It impressed us both so much so that Jancis ordered another glass after her dry Riesling from Wittmann in Rheinhessen while I moved on to a glass of 2019 Nebbiolo from Alberto Marsetti in Valtellina. Maynard, just nominated in Harper’s 30 Under 30 list, came over to subtly but enthusiastically wax lyrical about the fino, which Swig cleverly import into the UK. Maynard is wine buyer/head sommelier; Thomson is in charge of operations, and his wife Faye is in control of reservations and communications, which leaves Alistair Munro in charge of all things edible. (See the team in the photo at top, with Maynard on far left and Munro on far right.)
Munro and his team, working in the basement, are accomplished cooks with a combination of good eyes, excellent suppliers and fine execution. Our only complaint was that perhaps the arancini could have had a bit more haggis. But by sticking to a monthly menu, Munro allows the ingredients to speak for themselves. Bedlam Farm nearby supplies excellent produce. There was a clever combination of flavour and texture in my fish first course and comfort in the succulence of the sweetbreads, as well as generosity in the combination of the lamb and the first-class braised lettuce accompaniment. The flavours were vivid. And there was real delight in the desserts.
The cleverly marinated gariguette strawberries with meadowsweet crème diplomate and a crumbled poppyseed-and-lemon biscuit is shown above. Below are the ‘petits fours’, also offered as a dessert: a hazelnut-and-cherry tartlet and spiced blood-orange jellies. We paid £135 for two including service and one macchiato.
Their playlist included numbers by Roy Orbison, Dylan, Procol Harum and Sonny & Cher, all of whom I remember hearing the first time round (most customers seemed to be our generation), a memory that seemed to chime with the remarkably generous prices on their wine list. On the back page it says that if you bring your own wine the corkage charge is only £20 a bottle and this policy seems to be actively encouraged. There is a good list of burgundies next to a range of international Pinots and the same policy is followed with red Rhônes and examples from further afield. There is the same eclectic emphasis in their selection of beers and ciders.
The quiet confidence of the menu, wine list and service is the result of many years of hard graft together in various restaurants. Maynard and Thomson first met in 2012 working at The White Horse in Steyning before moving on to The Ginger Pig in Hove where Thomson first met Faye. It was over ‘a long and spectacular lunch’ at Noble Rot that this trio first hatched the plan of setting up on their own and eventually came up with the name Flor as the working title for their project. But then, on the same day they lost a site, they heard of an opening in Borough Market called Flor, a bakery which has subsequently closed. They added Wild, borrowed from London’s Wild Honey, and proceeded.
They found 42 Church Road after it had been a short-lived steak restaurant, so it had the old, albeit extremely tired, bones of their new home. Expenditure has been minimal: £30,000 on bringing the kitchen up to date and only a further £5,000 on the dining room. It was encouraging in view of this article of mine to read in Thomson’s reply to my follow-up email that the £2,000 that they spent on acoustic ceiling tiles ‘were probably the best of the pennies we have spent’.
Thomson’s response to my question about the biggest mistakes they have made was also painfully honest. ‘Too many to mention but we massively underpriced everything for the first six months, partly by design to be attractive, partly just not having the time to fully keep an eye on things. So the first year was a real struggle and, to be honest, COVID-19 meant that we could right a lot of our initial mistakes. It was also during COVID that we met Ali who had started Alberta’s, a fried-chicken and sandwich place which we frequented. He reapplied for a job and then took over as head chef in December 2021, a very happy occurrence for us.’
Wild Flor seems to me to be an extremely benign restaurant, one in which all the individuals seem happy in their roles, individually and collectively. As a result, we left extremely happy and as we walked back to Brighton along the sunny seafront, we were already planning our return.
Wild Flor 42 Church Road, Hove BN3 2FN; tel +44 (0)1273 329 111