Burnt Orange, Brighton: ‘Delivers on its smoky promise’ – restaurant review

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Burnt Orange, 59 Middle Street, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 1AL (01273 929923). Starters £4-£10, mains £8-£19, desserts £4-£7, wines from £22

Brown foods are the best. We know this. Brown foods are about caramelised sugars and the Maillard reaction; they’re hefty flavours, emphasised and accentuated. They conjure images of prehistoric campfires and the lick of the flame before the lick of the tongue. So much about Brighton’s Burnt Orange, which opened in June, is calculated to trigger these lustful, crisped and crispy thoughts. The name was given to a shade of orange in 1915 and is, say web sources I’ve decided to trust, designed to evoke thoughts of leaping flames.

Step inside the achingly refurbished site on Middle Street, just up from the seafront, and it’s all very much burnt orange. Take in the toasty toned leather banquettes, the varnished slat-wood frontage to the bar, the downlit stone walls with chunks of flint, the paint work in shades of… well, you get the idea. By this point the presence of a stonking wood-fired oven at the heart of the kitchen almost goes without saying.

‘Glazed with miso, pelted with pomegranate seeds’: roast aubergine. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

At Burnt Orange there’s a lot of searing and blistering, smoking and flaming. The menu is sprinkled liberally with these words. There are also outbreaks of Persian limes and harissa, preserved lemons and wild garlic. It thrums with an apparent eagerness to display on-trend credentials. Because the site is just a few doors down from where Skint Records used to have its offices, they have even asked the label’s one-time star signing Norman Cook, AKA Fat Boy Slim, to “curate” the music.

At which point I ball my fists and feel moved to repeat a rant. Curate is not another word for “choose”, however much those bearded men who write craft beer menus might wish it were otherwise. Cook hasn’t curated anything. He has chosen some tunes.

‘Fried to crisp’: lamb shoulder ‘cigars’. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

Oh look. I appear to be assembling the evidence for the prosecution. What saves Burnt Orange from being an annoyingly self-conscious exercise in trend-surfing is the food. The complex dish descriptions and that wood-fired oven deliver on their heat-bubbled promise. Given the team behind it, led by skilled restaurateur Razak Helalat, that’s unsurprising. They know what they’re doing. They also have the Salt Room, housed in an outcrop of the cheerless Hilton Metropole on the front. There, among many good things, I was served an expertly flame-grilled whole fish, which showed a clear understanding of the power of both direct and indirect heat. Elsewhere in Brighton (and more recently, London), they have the Coal Shed where everything is, as the name suggests, cooked over burning coals.

Now, it’s all about the impact of smouldering wood. Among the starters at Burnt Orange there’s a crudo of smoked stone bass. There’s grilled halloumi from Sussex, as well as heat-blistered sardines with fried bread and an anchovy cream. Lamb shoulder has been long-smoked until it is on the edge of a breakdown, then shredded, formed into fat filo-wrapped “cigars” and fried to crisp. On the side is a dollop of cooling yoghurt. It is a lot of textures and butch lanolin flavours playing catch-up with each other. Spiced calamari fritti, under a generous leaf fall of sliced chillies, come with a preserved lemon aïoli the colour of daffodils. The thinnest slices of friable toast are piled with salted cherries, tomatoes and a tumble of buffalo stracciatella, that milky, foetal cheese of stretched curds. It’s a canapé designed by someone who has never spilt food down their shirt. It’s nice to eat: fresh and curiously purifying amid all the caramel star turns. It’s just a total bugger to get into your mouth, without disgracing yourself. I disgrace myself.

‘Piled with salted cherries’: stracciatella on toast. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

The main courses are where the real action is. A thick slab of aubergine has loitered in the oven until it has reached a paunchy baba ganoush softness, and is laid on a puddle of sour cream. It’s glazed with miso, pelted with pomegranate seeds and finally, for texture and giggles, sprinkled liberally with fried onions. Most things should be. A slab of rib-eye is marinated in fermented chilli for flavour rather than brow-furrowing heat, then given a full wood firing, and topped with melting Tropea onions, capers and a dribble of jus.

‘It’s very nice. It’s just not a shawarma’: pork ‘shawarma’. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

There’s also something described as a pork shawarma, which does make my brow furrow. I associate shawarma, an Arabic word, with the generally Muslim, non-pork-eating Middle East. Subsequently, I check in with Claudia Roden, the great expert on the region’s food. In Greece and Cyprus, she says, there is a kind of doner using sliced pork, which is referred to as a shawarma. Except here, they are serving heavily sauced cubes of pork belly. I send over a picture and Roden identifies it as souvlaki. Words used on a menu like this do matter. They should help you understand what you’re ordering. These don’t. Still, the cuts of meat are pleasingly soft and heat-kissed to a sticky dark caramel. For light against the shade, there’s a perky salad of shredded fennel. It’s all very nice. It’s just not a shawarma.

The short dessert menu is another one of those designed for ease of service. There’s a well-made lemon tart because, right now, offering one is apparently a condition of getting a restaurant licence. Naturally, there’s a scoop of chocolate mousse. This one comes with sugared macadamias and cherries. The real eye-catcher is their drop-dead-gorgeous pistachio ice-cream, with dribbles of chocolate and fresh mint. Bravo. Have that. Prices are keen, with most dishes in single figures and only a few in the teens. Or you can pay £35 a head and get them to chuck half the menu at you.

‘This one comes with sugared macadamias’: chocolate mousse. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

On a warm weekday lunchtime Norman Cook’s choice of top tunes ricochets vigorously off all the hard surfaces in a way that will make the space difficult for some. Restaurants tend to be set up by younger people who have yet to experience the sensory ravages of age. One day it will be their turn. Still, service runs at a cheery clip, and there’s a good stage show from the open kitchen. A quick note on booze. Among the cocktails is a concoction of Grand Marnier, vermouth, bourbon and cherries called the Bitter Untwisted. It should probably be the house drink of the Restaurant Critics members club, should one ever open which trust me, it never will.

News bites

In a crowded market the Delicious Cookbook, which is designed to be personalised, looks like fun. It starts with a choice of cover, the option to put the recipient’s name in the title, and a dedication inside. There are then a dozen recipe sections – Impressive Main Courses, Marvellous and Meat-Free, Showstopping Desserts and so on – from which you choose six, before swapping recipes according to taste. The shellfish section includes baked eggs with crab and cayenne, while for meat-free there’s a tomato, thyme and ricotta tart. It costs £21.99 for the paperback and £24.99 for hardback.

Five years after they were forced to shut their original restaurant in London’s Shoreditch, the team behind the Mexican Santo Remedio, near London Bridge, are returning to the area with a new venture. Santo Remedio Taqueria will open in September. It will have a changing list of monthly specials and a takeaway hatch ‘serving an array of Mexican street food favourites’. Visit santoremedio.co.uk.

The South Lodge Hotel in West Sussex has appointed chef Greg Clarke to run their Pass restaurant for the next six months. Clarke, who has time at Midsummer House in Cambridge and the Ledbury in London on his CV, will offer a £50 five-course menu at lunchtime and an eight-course dinner menu at £95. Dishes will include a mushroom tart with Baron Bigod and blackberry leaf, and roast mallard with heart ragù.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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