Review: The Curlew, Bodiam
A warm, relaxed and sociable slice of rural locally-sourced foodie heaven from a top chef to watch, perfect for large rowdy gatherings of friends and family or date night.
This award-winning former coaching inn just outside Bodiam in East Sussex reopened to huge acclaim in February 2020. Headed up by an uber-talented Good Food Guide Chef to Watch and under the stewardship of the team behind The Small Holding just across the border in Kent, brothers Matt and Will Devlin, The Curlew promised relaxed, seasonal, social dining with locally-sourced and home-grown ingredients, and an enviable wine list to accompany.
Will trained under Gordon Ramsay and is both down-to-earth and clearly a ferociously talented fanatical foodie. His passion for good food and its ability to bring people together is palpable. In the 18 months since opening, despite the undeniable challenges of the pandemic, it’s won praise from foodies including Guardian critic Grace Dent, who described her stint at The Curlew as ‘as lovely as this job gets.’ I rolled up with Muddy Kent editor Ali on a chilly evening, in need of some TLC and with high hopes.
The low-lit rustic interior and roaring logburner surrounded by cosy-looking armchairs instantly warmed my cockles, as did the friendly staff and warm welcome from Will, who eagerly gave us the tour. Decked out with natural touches like burnished copper vases bursting with evergreen foliage reflecting an earthy brown and green palette with flashes of sparkle, The Curlew is every inch a little slice of calm, unpretentious, rural foodie heaven.
Inspired by the inclusive feel of his famed No Fixed Abode pop-ups, Will has set out to create a relaxed and casual approach with The Curlew. Think long wooden tables full of sharing dishes that everybody can pile into and enjoy. Food is served as and when it’s ready, tapas-style, rather than the traditional starter, main course and dessert and you’re encouraged to order as much as you like from the menu. If you enjoyed a dish – ask for more!
This makes the whole experience flow in a natural, relaxed way and the conversation seemed to flow equally naturally as a result. Not that the lovely Ali would ever be difficult to talk to, but for those eagerly-anticipated date nights where you’re desperate to grab some time together but also frantically scanning for topics other than work and the kids, the steady stream of new and interesting dishes to try provide a really deliciously authentic talking point. The decor and styling creates a warm and intimate cocoon, free of wildly distracting flashy features. There’s relaxed because you’re not making an effort, and relaxed because everybody else has made a huge effort to make sure you’re relaxed – The Curlew does the latter perfectly.
SCOFF AND QUAFF
Most of the food served at The Curlew comes from the farm at The Small Holding, and the rest is sourced seasonally and hyper-locally. The menu is simple and light on detail, options are organised into snacks like scones and butters (£4) and pork dumplings (£6), followed by a selection of meat, fish and veg-based sharing dishes. Further down are larger offerings like the rib of Sussex beef (£64), whole smoked chicken with farm salad (£34) and 24-hour lamb with green sauce (£38).
Ali and I were advised not to try and conquer the menu, but to choose a few bits that took our fancy and take it from there. Each dish was explained to us as it was brought out and a range of influences feature, from the traditional airy and flavoursome cheese and bacon scones to the Asian-style pork dumplings with dipping sauce.
We chose some dishes because they sounded delicious, like the heavenly miso roasted cod with seaweed sauce (£11) and the salt baked carrots with dill seed mayo (£7). They were indeed delicious – small and perfectly-formed bites of flavour and texture. Others we were simply curious about. Chicken and waffles (£8) turned out to be an American-style combination of fried chicken in the lightest, most flavoursome batter served on a crispy, airy waffle with sour cream and fiery chilli. We ate this with a side dish of roast parsnips with fennel yoghurt (£6), not the most obvious combination but like everything about The Curlew, it just works.
Even so, dessert was the star of the show. We chose meadowsweet marshmallow s’mores which were served with much fanfare alongside a mini grill for us to toast over, and a feathery chocolate mousse that literally disappeared on the tongue. Will calls this ‘interactive eating’. Ali and I, giggling like children as we wiped sticky, warmly-seasoned marshmallow off our fingers, would probably just call it ‘joy’.
The drinks list is also all locally produced, such as vodka from Blackdown, one of the oldest Sussex distilleries, and gin from Shoreham-based Slakes. As we were both driving Ali and I eschewed the wine list, much to the disappointment of staff who had been excited to talk us through which local wines from Sussex vineyards paired best with which dish. Instead Ali sampled the botanical Seedlip alcohol-free gin and pronounced it a winner, and I had coffee and juice, the staples of harassed mothers the county over, only much more luxurious than your usual Costa.
AROUND AND ABOUT
Situated just outside Bodiam, The Curlew is handy for visiting some sensational National Trust properties. Bodiam Castle, just up the road, is the most sensational fairy-tale moated castle with a rich history and beautiful grounds, perfect for exploring on a romantic date or with the fam. Meanwhile Bateman’s, the home of none other than Jungle Book writer Rudyard Kipling, is definitely worth a visit for literary or outdoorsy types. Hastings and the coast isn’t far away either, about 25 minutes in the car. But if you’re looking to hit the water locally, we recommend Bodiam Boating Station where you can hire a canoe or kayak, go on a river cruise or even stay over. Head across the border into Kent and you’re not far from Bedgebury forest which is great for families and activities like cycling and Go Ape.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Social dining really is the buzzword here, everybody is welcome, so great for big multigenerational family events or rowdy groups of friends. I also think it’s got date night written all over it.
Not for: It’s family friendly but this is still a grown-up restaurant not a country pub, and there isn’t masses of space for running around or a playground, meaning it’s not the best choice for little Johnny’s 7th birthday with 28 of Year 2 in tow.
The Curlew, Junction Road, Bodiam TN32 5UY, 01580 860531 facebook.com/thecurlewbodiam/