I think a lot about when your perception of a restaurant is cemented. Sometimes the feeling you get when you walk in is kept throughout the evening. Other times things start wonderfully and go progressively downhill. Occasionally a place begins on the wrong foot and then pulls it back, leaving you feeling like you had quite a nice time in the end.
While I am in the business of critiquing restaurants, I don’t think I pay too much attention to details. I don’t particularly think I’m a fussy diner, and I try as much as I can to write about a place as if I didn’t even know I would be reviewing it, rather than picking it apart, limb for limb. It is my biggest nightmare to make a fuss at an establishment. I have worked in hospitality and I know what it’s like to navigate the ins and outs of demanding diners, kitchen hellscapes and days where nothing seems to go right. It does, however, leave me deeply attuned to the frustrating negatives when service simply isn’t up to scratch.
I desperately wanted to like Tillingham, and there was much to enjoy. The location is spectacular, there is no doubt about that. Rolling vines, endless greenery and fairy light-strewn courtyards make for peaceful surroundings. There is a walk you can take along a relatively undulating path through the vineyard that weaves its way to a viewing platform. The experience of sitting at golden hour, surrounded by fledgling grapes is well worth the sweat-inducing inclines. Our room was mid-century meets minimalist; tasteful and comfortable, an enormous window framing the vineyard view like a particularly gorgeous photo. It was also boiling, a desk fan not doing much to break the relentless heat. The wine, of course, was lovely. Tillingham is doing some truly exciting things in the viticultural world, helping to put England on the map of wine making countries to watch.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t loads to love aside from that. We arrived to a full car park. The winery is obviously a popular spot for visiting diners, but when check-in time is 3pm and thus perfectly timed for both long lunchers and late diners, where are overnight guests meant to park? We ended up looping the car park multiple times, waiting for someone to leave and relieve us from this automotive groundhog day. It seems like a naggy detail, but this arrival set a foreboding tone for the subsequent 24 hours.
We decided to grab an afternoon drink after check-in. Waiting at the bar to order, we were told they were a little busy and if we took a seat they would come and take our order. Fine. It took almost 10 minutes, and over that time someone went up as we did and was served. Opting for a bottle of the Tillingham sparkling (a toast to my sister finishing her chemotherapy) it was plonked down with three plastic tumblers and without a chill bucket. A quick survey of the room showed that, A, yes other people were drinking from glassware and B, they seemed to have run out of them behind the bar, evidently the reason we were given pool balls instead of drinking vessels. At £60 a pop it wasn’t a cheap bottle, and the kiddy cup drowned the no doubt esoteric palate of the wine. Linen-clad staff, meanwhile, gave it all an air of Nine Perfect Strangers’ Tranquillum – that is, if you replaced microdosing yogis with cold brew drinking hipsters. I would hardly have been surprised if Nicole Kidman had popped out from behind a corner spurting that terrible attempt at a Russian accent.
Things didn’t get any better at dinner. Tillingham is billed as the kind of place you stay at and dine in. There is the main restaurant, purportedly the draw card, a more casual al fresco pizzeria, and the aforementioned bar. We booked into the former, a barn-like upstairs space with vaulted ceilings and windows that frame the views beyond. The original table they tried to take us to was on one half of a communal table, shoved in the corner by the coat rack, with a perspex screen separating you from Mr and Mrs Jones. Feeling a little precocious, and hoping for at least some semblance of an outlook, I asked if we could sit at an available space a little closer to the window, which we were, to be fair, swiftly led to. It felt like the rest of the evening was a punishment for that minor request.
The meal itself was split into three courses: a four-part starter, a main and a dessert. Starters were set down like it was a 400-metre relay at the Olympics. Gem lettuce served as an almost boat-like base for a divine concoction of aubergine and chilli, topped with a lemon oil that I wanted to nab for my condiment rack. This was speedily cleared off to make way for runner beans in an anchovy sauce topped with golden breadcrumbs, the sauce spoon-worthy and heightened the gastronomical kudos of the humble green vegetable. Before we’d had a chance to savour the rest of this sauce at the end, it was whipped away to be replaced by a tomato, cucumber and lovage salad, served with brick-like slabs of focaccia. This is where my culinary gripes really began: who serves bread without so much as a whisper of butter or olive oil? Especially bread like this. Was it meant to be a base for the tomato salad? Why? Who wants to eat their salad like that? Bread without butter is one of life’s greatest culinary tragedies. I would have loved the bread two plates earlier, to mop up some of the wonderful aubergine oil, or to scoop the remainder of the anchovy sauce. It was quickly followed by two pieces of corn on the cob. How are three people meant to share two pieces of corn? Our waiter evidently came to the same conclusion at the same time and whipped the plate away before it’s base even had time to touch the ground, much like an airplane failing to land in a thunderstorm (my ever-darkening face could have been seen as a little thunderous itself).
When it returned with three pieces, rolling around the plate like forlorn bottles at the footwell of a speeding car, it was delicious. Shrimp butter mingled wonderfully with the charcoal depth of the corn, adding a seafood-packed salty punch and a whack of lip-smackingly luscious butter that countered the delicate sweetness of the corn (I would have loved a slick of that on my bread, actually). One of my fellow diners mentioned the speed with which this had all been served, plates placed in front of us almost as quickly as they were taken away, and our waiter promised there would be a respite before mains. I suppose this is a subjective word, but we had been in our seats for a total of 35 minutes since arriving before our mains were set down, approximately five minutes after we were assured of a break in service. Is there a speed-dining competition going on at the moment that I’m not aware of?
This is where things got really bad. I don’t like to paint a plate of food as inedible but what we were served was pretty close to it. Fatty, tough, sinew-strewn lamb steaks were so rare they looked like they might baa and wander off into the fields outside. Lamb should be served pink, yes. Should it be served fleshy, impossible to cut through and chewier than a rubber pallet? No. Should a rare piece of meat be impenetrably covered in fat that hasn’t had the opportunity to properly render and melt into the surrounding tissue? Definitely not. I tried to hack my way through it but unfortunately the majority was left. The meat was served with lentils and cavolo nero, so salty that you needed a jug of water just to navigate their grainy depths, which I did simply due to being hungry as a result of the unmanageable lamb. One of my fellow diners takes a particularly liberal approach to salt, chucking it on food like it’s necessary for their survival, and yet even they couldn’t stomach this saline-soaked concoction. I think our displeasure was fairly obvious, and we mentioned the over-salting of the dish, to which we were offered a complimentary cheese course to make up for it. We declined. At this point, we simply wanted to get out.
Dessert wasn’t much better. My almond cake surpassed caramelised and fell firmly into coal-mining territory. It turned up about 45 minutes after our mains, a move which seemed like an almost pointed middle finger to our earlier comments about the speed of the meal. It took even longer to get the bill, and by the time we managed to escape we felt so uncomfortable that we scurried off to our room with a bottle of dessert wine.
That final drink didn’t do much to help knock us out, partially due to the relentless slamming of doors somewhere in the building until at least 1.30am, when we finally managed to nod off. We emerged at breakfast that morning, bleary from the broken sleep, and were seated at (you guessed it) the exact table we had asked to be moved from the previous evening. At this point I felt a little like I was being hosted by a gaslighting ex-boyfriend. Was I going crazy? Had we been particularly rude the previous evening? Was this seating placement a pointed move? I suppose we’ll never know. It was the final nail in the coffin however, and had us careening out as quickly as our rental car would allow, dust inevitably left in our wake – much like those Tranquillum guests should have done before Nicole Kidman had the chance to lock them into a meditation room.
Tillingham could be amazing, and maybe we just had a particularly bad experience. But when you’re paying this much money and so very excited to be somewhere, there really is no excuse to be left so desperate to leave that you just about run to the car park. I felt like I spent our 24-hour stay consistently overlooking tiny details, until they became impossible to ignore, stacking up like an impenetrable wall. Unfortunately for us, the first impression failed to be broken and no amount of sun-strewn hills could patch over the rest of the experience.
Tillingham, Dew Farm, Dew Lane, Peasmarsh, East Sussex TN31 6XD | 01797208226 | tillingham.com