Unlike Jay Rayner, who (to bastardise Mark Twain) presumably regards a walk as a good ride in a Golf spoiled, I rather like a stroll. Even better, a healthy yomp on a crisp winter's day. Better still, a healthy yomp on a crisp winter's day by the seaside with a splendid lunch to look forward to.
And so to Littlehampton. There's a sentence you don't come across very often...
The occasion was a kind of strange self-congratulatory treat after Antonia and I had both successfully been off the booze for a couple of weeks (it looks so trivial in writing). I say strange because the two weeks weren't quite up and the treat therefore involved... no drinking. But somehow we muddled through. We were staying in Bailiffscourt Hotel, of which more, I think, when we go back: the quality of the breakfast and the general level of service suggest we really ought to try the food in the restaurant proper rather than the making do with the decent enough fare available in the rabbit warren of parlours and lounges.
Got to love a hotel that provides wellies, though, so on Sunday morning, after a pre-breakfast swim in both indoor and outdoor (!) pools and, of course, a richly deserved post-swim breakfast, we set off on the two-mile walk along the beach to Littlehampton in search of a rather special café Antonia knew all about. Now I'm no expert, but this was a bloody long two miles. Not only was it blowing a fierce gale (despite the glorious sunshine), the beach was also of the big-pebbles-making-it-very-tough-on-the-calves-and-very-easy-to-fall-over variety. And when we finally reached the pier that we (rightly) assumed would bring Littlehampton into view, trendy beach café and all, the relatively modest walk stretching out in front of us turned out to be a sadistic optical illusion as the path took us on an inland diversion that must have added at least another mile and a half to the trip. No matter: all very bracing and worthy and we'd certainly earned our lunch.
And a very fine lunch it was too. The venue was the East Beach Café, a striking addition to Littlehampton's long, straight seafront. All dramatic curves and overlapping shapes evocative (on the outside) of shells and driftwood and (inside) of the weathered chalk pebbles we'd been slipping on an hour or so earlier.
The building is the brainchild of Thomas Heatherwick, a designer cum architect who's not above dropping in unannounced with his family on a busy Sunday lunch service to see if the staff and the cooking can live up to the space he's created for them. I'm happy to say that they can: not only did they find room for the Heatherwick clan (and the two of us), they served up some real treats.
I started with a dainty ramekin of potted shrimps, out of the fridge long enough to wake the flavour up a bit but not to melt the delicately crispy surface of the butter on top. Underneath, well judged spicing kept things interesting without dominating crustacea that had clearly gone in super fresh. For Antonia, big meaty field mushrooms on toast, which looked the business. For mains, I had a special of sea bream with sprouting broccoli. Brilliantly simple and - frankly - simply brilliant. Antonia had a mixed leaf and green bean salad with mini Welsh rarebit toasts. And chips, obviously. All good stuff.
So both a building and a menu that utterly confound expectations for seafront dining. Not for the East Beach Café sausage, egg and chips, soggy cod and squeezy sauce bottles in a damp and dingy dump. Instead, a stunning building, fresh fish, home potted shrimps and (in the evening) guineafowl terrine with quince paste. And on a freezing cold Sunday in the second week in February it was packed. Apparently it is every day.
Would that every seaside town had a place like this to walk to. (Jay, you might want to take a cab.)
East Beach Café, LittleHampton, West Sussex BN17 5NZ 01903 731 903