Restaurant review

Restaurant Review: Flint Barns at Rathfinny Estate

Since the first vines were planted, this special place has come a very long way and serves incredible food alongside its wines, as Nick Mosley discovered.

I remember visiting Rathfinny for a site visit near Alfriston about a decade ago. The first plantations of vines had begun but it was difficult to imagine what the estate had become. Now one of Europe’s largest wine estates, there are acre after acre of vines rolling in every direction, literally as far as the eye can see.

The ride to Rathfinny immediately transported me to a different place and time. Fond memories have returned from pre-Covid trips to the wine regions of Australia and New Zealand, and – of course – a well-known region south of Paris that is also renowned for its sparkling wines.

Rathfinny Classic Cuvée sparkling wine

Passing the famous Tasting Room restaurant run by Chef Chris Bailey, our objective on this visit was the Flint Barns – an informal lodging and restaurant complex surrounding a walled courtyard. We had a heat wave that week so we were greeted at the door and then thankfully escorted to the open marquee instead of being seated in the rather stuffy main dining room. The marquee is clearly an amazing event space and I can well imagine some pretty special weddings and celebrations taking place there.

Faster than you could tell, a glass of Rathfinny Classic Cuvée 2018 pinot noir-dominated sparkling was in our hands and savored to the fullest: flavors of apricot and custard with just a hint of sweet lemon. As we perused the menu our table offered an incredible view of one of the vineyards and the knowledge that on the crest of the nearby hill was Cuckmere Haven and the cool breeze from the English Channel; the worries of the day evaporated and it was clear that it would be a special experience.

Our other guests were mainly couples, although I dare say this was due to it being a mid week night, with many also enjoying a night in the barn rooms. There didn’t seem to be any attempt at a dress code – flowing sundresses, shorts and flip flops abound – so I pointed out to my sister, who was joining me for dinner, that we were best dressed in the room. Well, there’s a first time for everything…

Now, I’ve been to a lot of restaurants recently and more often than not find the menus a bit boring and repetitive, especially when it comes to the ‘modern British cuisine’ moniker. The Flint Barns menu is the first I’ve opened in months where I would have happily ordered every dish. Obviously that wasn’t doable so I opted for the seared mackerel to start and then the pork belly for main course. My driver – aka my sister – chose the local asparagus burrata followed by sea trout.

There’s nothing worse than really “fishy” mackerel, but luckily this dish had none of that. The flesh of the fish crumbled into moist bites at the mere wave of my fork. The natural creaminess balanced by the freshness of apple and cucumber, a pinch of sea salt and a wasabi and fresh cream sauce that enveloped all the other elements in a luxurious blanket of deliciousness.

Pork belly, smoked bacon and sausage with asparagus and butter bean ragout

Pork belly, smoked bacon and sausage with asparagus and butter bean ragout

The pork belly was a standout example of what you can do with this cut of meat; and believe me – without naming names – I’ve seen a lot of really bad blubbery attempts. From the layer of fat, it’s clear the beast has had a good life and the chef certainly knows how to prepare carefully to maximize taste and texture, including the deliciously crispy yet chewy thin layer of crackling skin. The bean and bacon cassoulet that came with it was a triumph and I could have totally had a bowl of it.

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As traditional method sparkling wine takes time to ferment and develop its character, the first wines to come from Rathfinny Estate were stills under the Cradle Valley name. If I didn’t know better, the still glass of Pinot Gris that accompanied my pork dish could have come from a much warmer climate. This is one of the more rounded English stills I’ve drunk; I enjoyed it so much I bought one to take home, which is really high praise.

Dessert was ice cream sandwiched between two white chocolate cookie wafers with pecans and apricots. I tried with my fork and spoon, but ended up using my fingers because it seemed so much easier. My sister had a beautifully plated savory goat cheese with figs on malted bread; so simple yet so elegant.

English goat cheese with candied figs and malt bread

English goat cheese with candied figs and malt bread

Although I guess you would say it is gastropub style cuisine, the quality of the ingredients and the execution of the cuisine takes it to the next level. And the price – for the food and the wider dining experience – is hard to beat with two courses priced at £30 and three courses at £35. The wine list has a clear focus on Rathfinny’s own wines – again affordably priced with a still from £6.25 a glass and a sparkling from £9.25. From a quick glance at the menu prices of some well-known Sussex gastropubs, Rathfinny is much cheaper.

As I mentioned earlier, there is another gourmet restaurant open on weekends. For more informal experiences, you can drop by the new “Hut” food truck open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for pastries, coffee, savory pasture platters and, of course, wine by the glass.

Rathfinny Estate is perhaps Sussex’s most magical dining experience.

Flint barns at Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston, East Sussex BN26 5TU

01323 87 00 22 • www.rathfinnyestate.com