Kokedama is the new vegan small plates concept from the team behind The Roundhill pub. It is situated within the Needlmakers in Lewes, a lovely historic site in a lovely historic town, and opens 6.30pm-11.30pm Friday and Saturday.
The Kokedama concept is a triumvirate of all things good with the world – small plates, cocktails, and natural wines – and comes with no small amount of expectation.
The Roundhill team have revolutionised plant-based pub dining in Brighton, and one a spate of awards along the way.
This weight of reputation is a heavy one to bear, and yet on a blisteringly hot Sussex day, I found that Kokedama not only matches all expectations, but surpasses them with ease, elegance, and no small amount of self-assured swagger.
The restaurant offers an a la carte menu, but this review will concern itself with the centrepiece of the whole show, a seven-course (nine if you count the amuse-bouche and palate cleanser) tasting menu and wine pairing that takes you on a tour of local produce and really quite a lot of local drink.
Now, to address the vegan elephant in the room, this is, brace yourself, a small plates menu.
Small plates. Two words that can strike fear into the noble hungry diner; two words that have become almost synonymous with deep sighs and eye rolls; two words that, when combined, defy all logic to spell out “Uber eats on the walk home”.
Yet, for as much as small plates have become a warning light, they can be deeply enjoyable when done right.
When a tasting menu is quite simply a menu for tasting rather than a four-hour spate of open wallet surgery and gastronomic ego massaging, they are the perfect introduction to a restaurant, and wonderful thing to boot.
Kokedam does small plates right. The tasting menu is simply a collection of beautiful things showcasing beautiful ingredients in beautiful ways.
The courses are sparingly described – as is the way these days – but here it does not feel like an act of pretense, but an embodiment of the restaurant’s ethos. The simple idea that you will be served a small selection of ingredients that are lovingly cared for and complement each other in the most wonderful ways.
As we steady our chairs on the cobbled floor we are greeted by our wonderfully attentive (but not in the overbearing Butlin’s red coat way) server, a luxurious mushroom tartare, and the first of many glasses of local wine.
This hearty introduction is followed by an equally hearty dish of olives, dukkah, toasted focaccia and an olive oil so divine I was heartbroken to not see it pop up in a glass as a late pairing.
The menu becomes increasingly serious as it progresses, but even in the wider journey towards richness, it offers respite and intrigue.
Following the thunderous introduction of mushroom, olive and chargrilled carbohydrates, a plate of cucumber, jalapeno, hazelnut and dill, is placed before us.
Its refreshing sweetness, crisp cold bite, and small bursts of heat liven the senses alongside a spritely 2018 chardonnay.
As I found myself dabbing at the last morsels of sauce on the plate, the single best potato dish I have laid eyes, or fork, on arrives in its place
Jersey Royal, pea, asparagus, chervil. It is British summer in edible form. It is a masterclass in marrying the subtlety and grace of fine dining with the innate human desire to gorge on deep fried potatoes. It comes with a Rioja Blanco and I have not a single care left in the world.
The menu continues in similar form. Almond, leek, watercress, shallot, is a nod to the fine Spanish tradition of using nuts as a thickener for sauces. It is heartier than the name suggests and it is a highlight of the proceedings.
A beetroot, orange and horseradish dish blurs the line between refreshing sweetness and hearty savoury tones before miso aubergine, cabbage, radish, peanut, and enoki plate rounds off the mains with earthy delight.
It is at this point I should hasten to add that the wine pairing is full, proper, glasses. I say this now, as it was at this point that my partner and I began to request an awful lot of table water and smaller glasses of the wine to follow.
The staff were understanding of our plight – we made the mistake of having a few drinks beforehand – and help us reach the end of the menu sitting upright.
A dry ice-infused palate cleanser wafts over our table as we ponder the next day’s headache, before the menu’s two desserts arrive.
There are scant words that can do justice to what followed, so with all my journalistic acumen, I shall defer to the Kokedama descriptions.
Chocolate, olive oil, pistachio, orange.
Parsnip, strawberry, elderflower.
Read that back.
One an unrepentant dive into Mediterranean decadence and the other a glorious fling of British summer.
It is a shame of biblical proportions that you cannot order both – for getting a guest to share is some feat. A dessert wine is duly poured, but there is precious little in the world that could deter from these two acts of pudding pomp.
We shake our heads in disbelief at what we have just witnessed and spend the entirety of the journey home, and much of the following week discussing the meal and recommending it to every man, woman, and child that will listen.
The team at The Roundhill deserve enormous praise for what they are doing in broader contexts of plant-based eating and community-centric business, and while Kokedama lives by these same mantras, it is an unashamed gastronomic delight in and of itself.
(Update October 2021) The team have launched their new autumn menu and you can book a table for a la carte dining, the tasting menu with or without wine painting (£60pp / £98pp).