The Jolly Sportsman, Lewes, review: 'fine cooking, not fine dining'

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Cornish hake fillet with saffron potatoes, spinach, clams and parsley, on the menu at The Jolly Sportsman
Cornish hake fillet with saffron potatoes, spinach, clams and parsley, on the menu at The Jolly Sportsman Credit: clara molden for the telegraph

The Jolly Sportsman, Chapel Lane, East Chiltington, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 3BA

Contact: 01273 890400; thejollysportsman.com

Price: lunch for two, £70 

This time last year, The Jolly Sportsman (TJS), nestled on the South Downs in bosky East  Chiltington, five miles or so north of Lewes, was on the market. However, it hasn’t sold; whether that was a down to a change of heart on the part of chef-patron Bruce Wass or a lack of interest from would-be gastrepreneurs, it’s good news for the locals. 

On its website, TJS declares itself to be “fine cooking, not fine dining” and while it has lots going for it –  appropriate “Pavilion Grey” paint on the exterior, numerous micro-brewery delights and a great wine/aperitif list on the interior – not the least of these lots is a landlord who offers more than keg-hauling and making with the bantz at the bar. Since he took TJS on in 2008, Wass has won AA rosettes and  plaudits in the Michelin and Good Food guides. 

Eschewing refined elegance for stylish fuel-stoking, successful pub food is food that knows its place and never eclipses a great time

I visited the Sportsman on a weekday lunchtime in January – metaphorical tumbleweed rolling down Main Street, saloon bar doors swinging – yet despite the fact that me and the Bloke constituted 50 per cent of the clientele, our front-of-bar welcome didn’t even remotely read as “You want lunch? Now? Really? And we were so  hoping to catch up on the filing…” I admire that in any restaurant, frankly, especially one effectively situated in a field.

I rolled with the fixed-price lunch (two courses for £14.90; three for £17.90): what’s not to like about  “organic pork and fennel sausage roll with buttered mash, Brussels tops, shallots and red wine”?  Eschewing refined elegance for  stylish fuel-stoking, successful pub food is food that knows its place and never eclipses a great time. 

The interior of The Jolly Sportsman Credit: clara molden for the telegraph

This was that food: a pig-roll with poke, courtesy of the fennel;  super-smooth mash and a punchy protein-rich reduction. The Bloke, meanwhile, went à la carte with a squid, scallop and saffron risotto, none of which exactly screamed “January Pub Lunch”. However, he’s from Walsall and perhaps felt  sausage rolls screamed it a tad too loudly, even with the modifiers  “organic”, “fennel” and, ahem, “wine”. On the other hand, I’m  entirely comfortable in my  capacious Southern skin and can therefore slide up and down any menu’s Pole of Pretentiousness, greasy or otherwise. The risotto got thumbs, too, as did Bloke’s warm gingerbread cake with sea salt butterscotch and clotted cream (also from the carte).

I stayed on the prix-fixe piste with a fine  plum pudding pie and custard: as far as I can tell, the only difference  between the set and the carte is that the former has fewer nouns. Fine by me. Service was great, low winter sun streamed over the Downs, through the trees and the  Venetians and on to our plates. 

Sussex Coppa ham with salsify and vinaigrette Credit: clara molden

Post-plum, I  requested an off-menu macchiato, and the lack of faze made me ponder how far pubs have evolved in the past two decades. I can nowadays think of only one that still boasts a sticky carpet and where, if you ask for coffee rather than ale, they shrug and pour hot water on to Nescafé. But then I do live in Sussex.   

Word on the country lanes is that Wass was ready to retire, hence the sale. Yet I doubt that even the most pleasant of country pubs gets snapped up by some enthusiastic DFL (Down From London-ers) after just the one starry-eyed visit. (“Look, darling, all of THIS for the price of a nice one-bedder in Notting Hill! Let’s buy it now and start Living The  Farrow & Ball(s)ed-up, half-timbered Dream!”). 

Chocolate praline tart with salted caramel ice-cream and chocolate caramel sauce Credit: CLARA MOLDEN

For the record, I am slightly in awe of those whose dream-turned-reality is running a pub, if only because they are the opposite of me. All that heart-of-the-local-community stuff must be extremely emotionally burdensome, never mind being constantly on duty as a relentlessly customer-facing  people person. 

Having to live above the shop would be my deal-breaker; as if everyone’s work/life boundaries weren’t already blurred to the point of Impressionism.  Thing is, owning and running a pub is dementedly hard work. Perhaps that’s why Bruce is still in situ. But if Landlordship is getting on top of him in the kitchen, it’s not remotely apparent on the plate. 

The Sportsman’s décor – au naturel tree-shaped wooden tables, some “art”, fussy metal chairs, pastelly tongue-and-groove: aka School of Nineties Eclectica – is looking lived-in; the space is one in which Good Times have clearly been had and it could do with a spruceover™. However, if fashionable pub interiors are not your thing, I can confidently recommend a visit any time this side of the summer solstice. 

I suspect, as with ships, it’s bad luck to change a pub’s name: however, suffice it to say, if I ran The Jolly Sportsman it would be neither. For the record, as Landwomyn of Ye Grumpy Criticke, I’d be a) hiring a great chef and b) calling time at 6pm every Sunday.