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The Pass, South Lodge Hotel

Ben Wilkinson at The Pass, South Lodge Hotel

Published on 1st January 2023

It’s bitterly cold as we take the short walk from the car park to the front door of South Lodge Hotel. My wife is clinging to my arm in that anxious way people do when they’re unaccustomed to visiting five-star hotels. Or maybe it’s because it’s bloody freezing.

This is a treat for us. This is only the third time I’ve dined at The Pass, the Lower Beeding hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, and my first visit in six years. On each occasion, I’ve been invited as a member of the press, to coincide with the arrival of a new menu or chef. Last time, there was even a couple of ‘influencers’. I recall that they drank a lot, taking advantage of their brief window of opportunity, before the world tires of gorgeous people pouting in amazing places. 

 I push the front door. It’s not as heavy and cumbersome as it looks and, as cold air bursts inside, I recall having done the exact same thing on my last visit. We’re greeted in the marble-floored foyer by Monika Zurawska, who leads the front of house team. Her informal approach helps put us at ease. Perhaps she can sense our mild trepidation. Not that she’d need to be a mind-reader to do so. Before we’ve even sat down, I’ve apologised (needlessly) for having an old coat and told her how rare it is that we have the chance to go out as a couple. What with having two children and a dog at home… 

‘Drink?’ she asks. 

‘Yes please!’ 

We settle into our seats. The Pass has always offered an intimate, immersive ‘chef’s table’ experience, with the 28-seat restaurant offering diners a view of the team at work behind the glass. The kitchen is also used by chefs at The Camellia, the ‘house’ restaurant. We catch our first glimpse of new head chef and Monika’s partner, Ben Wilkinson. It’s his recent arrival that prompted an invitation to AAH. 

‘They’re very calm!’ notes my wife, as a chef meticulously places decorative floral petals on a dish. I point out that we’re only the second guests to arrive, so they’re hardly overstretched. However, the kitchen remains a picture of serenity all evening. Lewis Hamlet, Executive Chef at South Lodge, strolls over for an informal chat. He tells me that there’s genuine excitement about Ben and Monika’s arrival and that the team is tighter than it’s been in a long time. In recent years, The Pass has hosted a string of chef residencies, but now there’s a more settled atmosphere, promoting a culture of consistency conducive to creative cuisine. He didn’t use those words, exactly… 

We watch Ben as he prepares food only yards away. His ears may be burning as I offer my wife a brief overview of his culinary experience, focusing on how he transformed the fortunes of the Cottage in the Woods in the Lake District, before accepting the challenge offered at South Lodge. I present his CV as though I have a passing knowledge of every chef in the country, but my wife isn’t fooled. 

‘Did they send a press release over beforehand?’ 

‘Yeah!’ I admit, a touch deflated. 

I interviewed Ben later, after we had finished our meal, and he described how he first met Monika. She was on a placement year at a restaurant in the Lake District, while studying for a degree in hotel management in Poland. That was 16 years ago and they’ve been together ever since, most recently at Cottage in the Woods, a Michelin star restaurant in the forests above Keswick. 

‘It was the most beautiful location, but that was both a blessing and a curse,’ says Ben. ‘People make a special trip to visit, but because of its isolated location, we were limited in terms of what was possible in terms of the menu. But we had a great time, with Monika running front of house while I led the kitchen. Within a few months, we had three Michelin inspections and after only eight months were awarded our first Michelin star. I had learned from past experiences not to be overly elaborate with food. I simplified the parts and didn’t try to be too clever. I just focused on sourcing good ingredients and cooking them nicely, and it worked. We thought it would be a quiet life in the hills, but it went crazy! From the day we received the star in November 2019, there was 100% occupancy in the restaurant. There was a waiting list to get on the waiting list! I had further ambitions and wanted to push on, but the owners were at a different stage in their careers, so I decided to look for something else and we parted on good terms.’ 

‘I was invited to come down to South Lodge and cooked for Dan Wait (Operations Manager) and David Connell (Managing Director). We had shared goals, so we decided to go for it. Monika and I come as a team and we’re excited about the challenge. Although it’s a more formal dining experience than what we’ve been used to, I like elegance and enjoy creating clean dishes. I’ve also been given a little more freedom in terms of sourcing the best produce, so I’m confident we can create an exciting menu here.’ 

 Oh yes, the menu! Back to the review... 

‘Do we all eat the same thing?’ asks my wife, glancing at the blank flip side of the eight-course Taste Menu. 

‘Of course!’ I reply, like a seasoned critic, although I subtly cast an eye around the other tables to check nobody else is ordering off the á la carte. 

After a sublime selection of amuse-bouche, our Taste Menu experience officially begins with Chalk Stream Trout, with oyster, cucumber and roe. We both had an idea of what it might look like, as we enjoy a fair share of trout at home. An uncle of ours likes fly fishing and occasionally drops by with his catch. But what we were presented with at The Pass surpassed any of our own visions: an immaculately presented kaleidoscope of choreographed colours in a small, tart. Yes, kaleidoscope is a bit of a cliché. But that’s what it was. 

‘Don’t eat it!’ said my wife, as I was just about to take a bite. ‘I need to take a photo!’ 

Turns out a colleague at the school she teaches at likes to sample the best restaurants in the area. The Taste Menu costs £120 and the wine flight is another £85, so I suppose this colleague wants an honest opinion (and pictures!) before committing to a costly night out. 

When I was finally allowed to eat it, I was delighted to find the dish every bit as wonderful as it looked. Next comes Ajo Blanco, comprising prawn, grape and almond, perched centrally within a delicious soup. Momentarily forgetting the person sat opposite has known me since I was 18, I pretend to know all about this traditional Spanish dish, which – I point out – is often served with grapes or melon. 

‘Did you Google that before we came?’ asks my wife. 

I abandon plans to impress her further still with other facts I had read hours earlier and will have soon forgotten, like that turbot can grow up to a metre in length. 

If you’re sensing a relaxed tone to the evening, you’d be right. Whatever perceptions we may initially have had about visiting The Pass vanished quickly. There’s no pretension, and even selecting wine to match the dishes (we didn’t opt for the wine flight, but my wife sampled a few of the specially-curated wines) is a 

pressure-free experience in Monika’s hands. Later, the chef put this into some context. ‘Sometimes I look around the room and see several tables of people laughing, with Monika in the midst of it,’ says Ben. ‘People are having a good time and that is important. Leading the front of house and creating a good atmosphere is an undervalued skill. We want to serve great food and also have an environment to match. That’s why the chefs go out and talk to customers. Guests enjoy the interaction and ask lots of interesting questions about ingredients and techniques.’ 

Unfortunately, interesting questions escape me as the chef serves our third dish, Celeriac, featuring a rich, savoury beef cheek at its heart with fillet and black winter truffle, providing a delicate finish to this warm, wintery dish. Heralding the business end of the menu, we were served next with Day Boat Turbot, accompanied by sea leeks, winter chanterelle mushrooms and complemented by the refreshing zing of a sauce made with sparkling wine from the Ridgeview vineyard. This was soaked up by a side of treacle bread, served with peppercorn and salted butter. 

The fish was swiftly followed by a tender, earthy Fallow Venison. The rich, dark tones of the meat, beetroot, kale and red wine contrasted strikingly on the plate. Perhaps more than any other dish, the turbot and venison demonstrate how Ben’s menu marries ingredients from tried and trusted sources with new suppliers based in Sussex. 

 He said: ‘There is a journey for us, in terms of discovering local producers. I have friends who have put me in touch with good suppliers, and South Lodge has well-established partnerships too. Other ingredients are from suppliers I worked with in the Lake District. I know a brilliant wild mushroom forager, while I bring in truffles from Wiltshire, as they’re superb. The venison from the South Downs is beautiful, although it has subtle differences to the red deer I cooked with in the lakes, and we’re now working with a fantastic supplier who can deliver high quality, fresh fish from the day boats.’ 

The menu takes a slight sojourn with Three Sheep Cheeses (this can be taken after desserts if you prefer), before the meal ends with two lovely desserts, in the form of Lemon Thyme (yoghurt, lemon and olive oil) and finally Hazelnut (coffee, maple, chocolate, pear). We disagree as to which is better, but between them, they round off a perfectly balanced meal. So perfect, we had to take our petit fours home in a box. 

With my wife having enjoyed wines from New Zealand, South Africa and France with all the glass swirling and sniffing of a connoisseur, she had merrily taken on the role of assistant food critic. 

‘It’s all beautiful…’ she says. 

There’s a ‘but’ coming. 


Told you! 

‘Where’s the story?’ 

This is my fault. Earlier, I said that for a restaurant to earn a Michelin star, it needs to tell a ‘story’ through its menu. To take customers on a ‘journey’. I’d whispered it, partly because talking about the star is a little uncouth in a restaurant that doesn’t have one, but mostly because I was talking nonsense. 

‘The story is important,’ I sigh, as I set about contradicting my previous statement, ‘but it’s mainly about the cooking. However, judges do like to see the personality of the chef expressed through their cuisine.’ 

 I suspect the question of the star popped up at other tables too. And presumably it’s a honour that The Pass would be keen to have again. Pennyhill Park and Manor House, both part of the Exclusive Hotels stable, already boast a Michelin star and perhaps that only fuels South Lodge’s desire to join them. And of course, being in a hotel that has two other good eateries (The Camellia and Botanica, the Mediterranean-themed restaurant at the spa), The Pass needs to offer something extra special to entice people. It’s a question I put to Ben… 

‘I wouldn't say there’s pressure to obtain a star,’ he says. ‘It’s something I want to achieve again, but I feel as though I’ve continued to cook at that level anyway (since leaving the Cottage in the Woods). I suppose from the hotel’s point of view, that’s why they approached us and why we’re here. There is a certain standard they’re looking for and, hopefully, they believe we can achieve it. But first and foremost, we want people to see there’s a good restaurant here and for people to talk about the experience positively. If we’re busy, that will give us the momentum to push on to the next level.’ 

It seems a pity to end with talk of the star, as if the success of a restaurant hinges solely on an accolade from a French tyre company. So, I won’t. Instead, I’ll refer to a conversation I had a day or two before our visit. A friend asked if I was excited about going to The Pass, to which I replied that I wasn’t, particularly. 

‘Truth is, it’s not really my thing!’ I replied. 

And it isn’t. Not normally. I’m more of a chicken and leek pie guy. A fried eggs and ham man. I’m not someone who’s entirely convinced by the need for a water sommelier. But as it turned out, this was my thing. Every dish got us talking excitedly, in a way only great food can. The tenderness of the venison, the lightness of the turbot, the almost obsessive colour co-ordination of the trout tart, the head-spinning zest of the yoghurt; they all contributed to a memorable evening. 

The Pass is open Wednesday – Sunday, 6.30pm (last seating 8.15pm).