One of my favourite London walks tracks the course of the Westbourne river from the Thames near Chelsea Hospital, up towards Knightsbridge, along the Serpentine, north through Bayswater and, if you’ve still got the energy, onward past Maida Vale and Kilburn to its source on Hampstead Heath.
I’ll spare you the poetic rhapsodies a journey such as this is liable to induce, especially given that it’s hardly short on interest of a more practical stripe. The river is mostly underground these days (apart from the Serpentine, which it was widened to make at the behest of Queen Caroline, and a short section that pole-vaults over the Underground lines at Sloane Square in a metal aqueduct), so you have to infer the line it once took from the traces it left behind: the border between the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, say, or the occasional water-loving tree – an alder, a willow, a birch – that’s still drawing nourishment from the sodden earth beneath.
Over the years I have often looked in vain for some sort of physical frontier between Brighton and Hove. There’s a peace memorial on the beach, and a little street, Boundary Passage, complete with a Grade II listed granite block, laconically inscribed “BP”.
But there’s no river, lost or otherwise; no portentous geological feature (like the thin destruction layer marking the end of the Cretaceous period that we visited on a trip to Umbria a few years ago and were, to be honest, a little underwhelmed by); no sudden change in custom or ritual. The glorious stucco facades of Brunswick Town, painted the colour of Wall’s ice cream, straddle the boundary with bosomy indifference. On both sides, you’ll find ageing rock stars, zero-waste shops and many, many restaurants.
Perhaps the two towns are happy in their compound identity, sharing their metropolitan status and their football team with the stoical resignation of conjoined twins sharing a spleen. Does it matter? Probably not. But it’s interesting, or it is to me – though as an only child, perhaps I overestimate the mystique of sibling relationships.
Anyway, whatever we mean by Hove, this week’s restaurant could legitimately be described as Peak Hove, The Hove Truth And Nothing But The Truth, Essence of Hove, The Omphalos of the Hovians etc. It’s on roughly the same latitude as the station, slap bang opposite the town hall, near the intersection of – yes – Fourth Avenue and Church Road.
It’s a welcoming, contemporary space, if not a wildly characterful one, with a bar along one side and reefs of wine bottles covering the other. Two cheese plants stand sentinel at opposite ends of a wide, glass front.
At our late-lunch slot, the joint was as full as you could imagine it lawfully being in these times. As Tier 2 refugees we found all the unabashed household mixing going on giddily risqué, as if we’d stumbled into one of the most notorious fleshpots of Weimar Germany rather than a “neighbourhood restaurant and wine shop” in Hove.
The menu is eclectic but essentially quite tapas-y, though chef goes up a gear (grills, a tasting menu) in the evening.
We had some ’nduja croquetas (excellent, with a slightly rough, crumbly texture); a gem salad with “maple miso”; fried chicken with gochujang and “kimchi remoulade”; blue corn tacos with mackerel, pickled jalapeño and apple and “marjoram slaw”; some fantastic cured trout, of that almost wine-gum-like firmness and translucency one longs to encounter, on crispbreads; a dessert of frozen lime curd with Zeitgeist-approved pink peppercorns; some cheese, almonds and lovely pickled veg. Unsurprisingly, their wine game is strong.
Our window seats gave us an unrivalled view of the town hall and the comédie humaine of Church Road, which on a rainy Saturday featured a good deal of pumpkin juggling and rainwear-twirling, not to mention an extraordinary number of dogs. Behind us the room bubbled away in what, we realised once we’d calmed down a bit, was a perfectly normal and sane, but these days agonisingly rare, way.
So: food that was thoughtfully conceived and skilfully cooked (great ingredients, naturellement, a nice use of acidity and various different strains of chilli heat, a good range of textures, a few ingenious flourishes), and served with grace and assurance in a room that was clearly conducive to happy sociability.
I’ve been racking my brains trying to put my finger on why Fourth and Church, for all its many evident strengths, didn’t quite make my soul sing. I suppose in a strange way it’s something to do with that assurance – and the palpable reassurance that this cohort of Hovians was drawing from it. I found myself wondering whether it might be possible for a neighbourhood restaurant to anticipate the tastes of its neighbourhood a little too frictionlessly.
But I can’t criticise anyone for that, especially in these precarious times. The headline on Fourth and Church is that it’s great (especially the tacos) – and as we beat on, boats against the current, along our respective rivers, be they lost, imaginary or otherwise, whether we’re in search of some mystical revelation or Lost Frontier, or just a comfortable place to dry out, we should surely avail ourselves of whatever pleasures and consolations our current tiering status permits.