Restaurant Inspector

THERE is one dilemma above all others which confronts traditional and respected eating establishments in conservative and rural areas.

How do you introduce contemporary menus to attract a new generation of diners - without alienating your existing customers?

For each restaurant, the answer will be slightly different.

One of my favourite Sussex hotels the Spread Eagle at Midhurst has come up with its own, unique solution.

The Spread is traditional to its core. A wonderful family-run business which dates back, in part, to 1430 - when it was a noted coaching inn.

Over the succeeding centuries it has grown and matured like some fine oak - out of which timber much of it was hewn.

But although it has a timeless air, the Spread has always been at the cutting edge of innovation.

Its spa and conservatory were the last major additions, neatly crafted into the historic building.

Now the menu in the wonderful dining room is coming under the spotlight.

But the hotel knows its valued clients well. Remove their favourites and you might just lose them too.

So it has taken the extraordinary step of launching two parallel menus.

The Midhurst ‘Traditional’ has everything a regular would expect. This might include Selsey crab or Sussex asparagus to start with. Main course suggestions are whole grilled lemon sole or steamed steak and oyster pudding. While the desserts are firm favourites - warm baked Bramley apple crumble with vanilla ice cream being one such option.

But on the other side will be something new and innovative. The Chef’s menu.

Frankly, this new option is long overdue.

It will appeal to all those who love TV’s Masterchef or who have real appetite for something more contemporary.

There is nothing typical about the new menu. But it might include starters like roast partridge with celery and walnut salad, or baked goat’s crottin with fresh tomato and olive oil emulsion and black olive tapenade, or even whole grilled scallops with cauliflower puree and fritter, caper and raisin dressing.

Main courses are likely to include grilled cod fillet with a crispy potato galette, buttered courgette ribbons, peppers and confit tomatoes; or rump of lamb with aubergine caviar and fricassee of asparagus, peas and beans.

Leading the transformation is a new head chef - 27-year-old Nathan Marshall.

But in one bizarre sense, Nathan is almost a part of the establishment.

His first ever job in a kitchen was washing the pots and pans at the Spread Eagle at the age of 16 - and his associations date back to the age of 13.

He progressed to helping with a few bits of prep work and was soon offered a position as a commis chef. He then spent the next ten years working around the world including stages at some of the UK’s best restaurants, before ending up as sous chef at Ockenden Manor for four years - the Michelin starred sister hotel to the Spread at Cuckfield.

Midhurst born and bred - his family live just across the road and he attended Midhurst Grammar School when it was still of that name - Nathan returned to the Spread in November, with a mission to source as many ingredients as locally as possible.

His approach to food is simple. Source top quality local ingredients and treat them with respect to produce first class dishes.

He loves the buzz of the kitchen - but Nathan is no loud-mouthed TV chef. He keeps very calm; and he is very much a part of the team - hands on in every sense when it comes to the cooking.

He understands the importance of the whole meal - and how vital the vegetables are to the balance of any dish.

And he has a natural, instinctive approach to excellent cuisine. Without doubt, Nathan is a culinary star in the making.

The direction for all these changes have come from the executive chef of Historic Sussex Hotels Martin Hadden.

Martin knows first hand the importance of fresh, locally-sourced produce. As a child his parents moved to North Devon where they established their own ‘Good Life’ smallholding - at roughly the same time as the television series was inspiring a whole new approach to self-sufficiency.

It was a life-changing experience and one that was to influence his future direction in life.

The Spread Eagle is nothing like the seventies’ TV sitcom but there is no denying that a visit there really is a taste of the good life.

Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa, South Street, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9NH

Telephone: 01730 816911 spreadeagle@hshotels.co.uk