The Star
Eating Out

100 per cent marvellous

Enjoying a simple but stylish lunch at the Polizzi Collection’s latest hotel in East Sussex

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We wanted to sit in the courtyard garden of The Star at Alfriston, but the waitress explained that lunch was only available indoors:

“There’s a 60 per cent chance of rain this afternoon.”

The sky over the Cuckmere Valley was lapis lazuli, serene as a Madonna’s robe. Might we take a chance? The phone said no. When did we all become subject to this percentage rain thing?

All it means is the probability of some rainfall somewhere within a given area: reasonable enough until you look at the meteorological charts which in some instances count places as far apart as Bristol and Rennes as the same zone.

There are far worse places to grumble about the country going to the dogs than The Star’s bar

The percentage doesn’t refer to the area likely to be covered by rain, or the amount of time it will rain within the forecast period. No clouds = no rain, no more. Instead of consulting the heavens you can type your question into an app: “If the chance of rain is 20 per cent what is the chance it will not rain?” Frankly, if you need to ask that then you may have bigger things to worry about than the likelihood of precipitation.

There are far worse places to grumble about the country going to the dogs than The Star’s bar. This is the third hotel to join the Polizzi Group and by far the most accessible for London, but while owner Alex Polizzi may be catering to the wannabe Chipping Norton crowd, she has far too much taste to show it. No clutter of rustic objets, crowded prints or artful faux-shab; there’s little more in the way of décor than the beautiful bones of the fifteenth-century building itself.

Alex Polizzi

It’s pleasingly austere but not ascetic, there are posies of wildflowers on the tables, straw hats and racks of wellies for guests to borrow if the apps allow them outside.

The lunch menu shares this sparse perceptiveness, eight dishes, changed daily, two simple puddings and a choice of Sussex cheese. Dishes interpret English and Italian classics; we tried a Sussex Mayfield and red onion toastie, a home-made gnocchi with pea and cuttlefish sauce and a Milanese-style chicken cutlet.

Simple dishes, which could be wonderful or horrible according to the standard of the ingredients and the skills in the kitchen, and The Star’s renditions were superlative. The toastie was two oozing wodges of nutty, sharp cheese with a gaudy, spicy piccalilli which combined crunch and the correct slightly curry-powder taste, whilst the breaded chicken came with a sweet, ripe salad of Isle of Wight tomatoes, the juice melding with the rich crumb of the crust and some of the best aioli I have ever tried.

Guttural and sexy as Marsellais French, it needed an extra portion of excellent thin, crispy chips to scoop up the last murmurs of garlic. Gnocchi was the most accomplished dish, twisty pillows of dumpling enclosing a delicate basil and white wine sauce, the squid a team player rather than a chewy diva.

I was intrigued by the kitchen’s use of nuts and pulses to elevate fish — Casteluccio lentils (the tiny, tender variety from Umbria hugely prized in Italy) were on offer here as an accompaniment to poached salmon, and grilled local sardines with a tarragon, walnut and caper dressing with egg.

Someone here is clearly thinking about texture as well as flavour, the ways in which the tenderness of fish can be best set off by contrast, and perhaps in general it’s thoughtfulness which best characterises The Star.

Given the almost preposterous prettiness of the site and Alfriston village, it would be easy to get away with a far less refined offering, but Polizzi and her team clearly care intensely about quality and detail.

The Star is definitely a hotel rather than a pub, though the snug remains drinks only in the evenings. Along with a slew of awards, it has attracted a degree of snarking about rural gentrification and “inauthenticity”, as though real pubs kept dominoes behind the counter and women in the saloon.

Rather, it represents a realistic evolution, an awareness of what customers actually want right now, and this is reflected in the cosmopolitan, unfussy cooking. The Star is coy about revealing its menus, but some nosing about in the corridors confirmed that the evenings-only dining room will be gorgeous for a return visit.

Polizzi’s long-standing side hustle as the presenter of popular reality show The Hotel Inspector has seen her portrayed as the hospitality industry’s answer to Gordon Ramsay, but on the evidence of The Star the comparison is specious. Ramsay would put his name on a vending machine these days, whereas Polizzi seems to relish the challenge of her own high standards.

It represents a realistic evolution, an awareness of what customers actually want right now

Even her choice of teapots is perfect —individual vintage pewter rather than mass-catering bland china. Our lunch coincided with one of the guided walks she offers at the hotel and she was barely through the door before she set about taking drinks orders for her group.

Welcoming, unpretentious and sophisticated, Polizzi couldn’t be a better figurehead for her brand, not least because she took one look at the weather and transported the whole party outside.

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