As a boutique coastal getaway for food lovers, the Gallivant has won scores of fans. Now it's upping its game with fine-dining events with Michelin-starred chefs. Helen Massy-Beresford pays a visit
If the hushed atmosphere, thick linen tablecloths, clinking cutlery and whispered conversations of formal hotel dining rooms are your thing, the Gallivant is probably not for you.
Set on the East Sussex coast, just a few minutes’ scramble over the dunes to the broad, often-deserted expanse of Camber Sands, this friendly establishment is designed above all to make guests feel comfortable and relaxed, and to allow them to enjoy outstanding and locally sourced food.
Owner Harry Cragoe, bought the Gallivant in 2010, upgrading the rooms and dining options.
“We wanted to create a restaurant with rooms, rather than a hotel with a restaurant,” Cragoe says, adding that this is a formula that is popular in France but has been slower to take off in the UK.
“We want the emphasis to be on the food, the service and the quality of the ingredients,” he says.
The ingredients are certainly worthy of the limelight, with nearly all the meat and fish and more than 85 per cent of the restaurant’s vegetables sourced from within 20 miles, most from within ten.
The fresh fish and seafood come from the English Channel, the lamb from the Romney salt marshes and “potatoes are picked from the field just behind us”, Cragoe says.
Gourmet evenings in Sussex
When I visit, the Gallivant is hosting one of its popular An Evening With… gourmet events.
Guests have paid £285 a couple for four courses with matching wines plus bed and breakfast or £75 per person for the four-course dinner and wine.
It’s not a cheap one-night break but as I settle in to my room before making my way to the little shingle garden and bunting-decked marquee for prosecco and canapés, at reclaimed driftwood tables, it is obvious Cragoe has achieved his aim of offering guests a chance to unwind completely and sample top-notch food in relaxing surroundings.
Most of the Gallivant’s guests are from London, just an hour and a half away by train, or those who flock here from more built up parts of the south coast like Brighton looking to escape the crowds for a night or two.
Cragoe has lived in California and says the Pacific Coast has influenced the décor here in Sussex, helped by the single-storey set-up, giving it a relaxed, earthy vibe combined with an extremely upmarket, motel feel.
The Gallivant is just a few minutes’ drive from Rye, where visitors can while away a day browsing through antique shops and exploring winding cobbled lanes.
Though clambering across the dunes and blowing away the cobwebs on the beach across the road is the perfect place to work up an appetite.
Michelin stars at the Gallivant
Tonight’s guest chef is Richard Neat, who won his first Michelin star in 1993 as chef/co-proprietor of Pied-à-Terre and his second in 1996.
As the guests move into the bustling, neutral-toned dining room where the definition of the verb to gallivant invitingly adorns one wall – ‘To go about in search of pleasure or amusement, often in search of food’ – the gourmet event begins in earnest.
Neat, alongside the Gallivant’s own head chef Danny Perjesi, who recently joined from the Hambrough in the Isle of Wight, starts by serving up a delicate amuse bouche of quail’s egg and beetroot.
Next up come wild rabbit with horseradish and carrots; tangy and succulent Romney salt marsh lamb cutlets and a magnificently-engineered dish of salmon (Scottish, but smoked locally) wrapped around silky vichysoisse set off by the freshest scallops and prawns.
All courses are matched to a succession of wines, from Riesling to Rioja.
Staff are impeccably friendly and attentive but without a hint of the starchiness that can sometimes make a fine-dining experience feel more like an four-course exam than anything else.
After a dessert of zingy poached plums with vanilla and meringue, accompanied by a fragrant Chateau Petit Guiraud 2011 Sauternes, there is just time for digestifs and coffee before bed beckons.
And after such a feast it is wonderful to know it is just a few steps away.
Rooms are simple but elegant, with bleached-out beiges and blues lending a beach house vibe with driftwood mirrors, shell decorations and crisp white bed linen on incredibly comfortable beds.
The bathrooms feature luscious Noble Isle toiletries with fragrances inspired by the moors and coasts of the British Isles.
In lieu of individual mini-bars, a guest larder in the corridor operates on an honesty box system with drinks as well as a selection of nibbles and snacks, from popcorn and crisps to marshmallows and rosemary roasted nuts (though it is hard to imagine anyone who has dined in the Beach Bistro needing to visit it).
Neat, now the chef and co-owner of Park Café in Costa Rica, was the first British chef to win a Michelin star in France, at his Cannes restaurant, but he is just one of a string of illustrious chefs to join the Gallivant’s team for one night only.
Mitch Tonks, seafood specialist and owner of restaurants including the Seahorse in Dartmouth, Devon, will be there on 7 October, and brothers Henry and Matthew Harris of Racine and Bibendum respectively are the draw on November 13.
The Gallivant’s regular menu features Dungeness crab, roast Dover sole with rhubarb and red chard and Kent goats cheese with starters around £6-8 and mains between £14 and £21.50.
The wine list prioritises independent wineries and includes several from nearby on the South Coast, while many wines are available by the glass or carafe.
A dedicated wine evening on December 4 will give guests a chance to sample Little Beauty wines from New Zealand with Fleur McCree of the winery.
At breakfast the next morning, the gourmet experience continues, with another chance to sample local ingredients, from Burford Brown eggs to local apple juice, home-made granola and banana bread.
For those whose indulgence the previous evening has tipped them over the edge there is even a ‘recovery station’ complete with Bloody Mary ingredients.
A place that has truly thought of everything!