Razak Helalat is slowly taking over Brighton. Starting with The Salt Room – the kind of place that acts as an oasis among the thronging hordes along the beachfront – he has expanded recently with the opening of Burnt Orange. It is a smart move. Neither restaurant competes with the other, but both serve specific purposes within the oceanside city – the former is a seafood-focused restaurant that is almost certainly the best option along the waterfront, the latter serves Mediterranean-inspired small plates that cater to the casual crowd.
Burnt Orange is billed as an all day, all night drinking and dining spot, a moniker that undersells itself. Yes, this is a place where you can drink all day and all night and eat during those times also, but Burnt Orange is, and should be perceived as, a culinary destination.
We had booked our table a few weeks in advance. When the day rolled around it happened to be in the midst of the UK’s first proper summertime heatwave, something that proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The train down was chaotic, wall-to-wall with bodies and a true test of 19 July’s unlocking process. The city was packed; hen dos, stag dos, family beach trips and girls and guys’ boozy days all rammed into Brighton’s heat-packed lanes. Making our way to the seafront was like a particularly precarious game of dodgem cars. Stepping through the arch at Burnt Orange, however, offered a much-needed reprieve.
The restaurant and accompanying courtyard quite literally feel like they could be in another world, far removed from the chaos and shirtless lads outside its front doors. This is the kind of place you could sidle into for a boozy lunch and leave after dinner – truly embodying the “all day” concept. Designed for sharing, the menu sits under the ever-popular, ambiguously labelled Mediterranean cuisine. There are Italian influences, Turkish influences, Middle Eastern influences, with ingredients ranging from za’atar to truffle. It is highly edible food – the sort of menu where you could easily order everything. In fact, you may want to come in a larger group so you can do just that. As there were just two of us, we decided to streamline things and opt for the Burnt Orange Experience menu. For £35 a head you’ll get to revel in the luxury of not having to choose, with a selection of the restaurant’s key dishes brought over at steady intervals.
What followed can only be described as a whopping amount of food. Incredibly generous portions and more than enough to leave you completely satiated for the rest of the day. The selection of snacks – brown butter flatbread, hummus, lamb shoulder “cigars” and calamari – fit perfectly with the restaurant’s intended purpose of a convivial watering hole, and yet set it out as a place to visit simply for the food alone. The flatbread arrived charred from the woodfired oven, positively dripping with a za’atar-spiked brown butter that had soaked into the outer layer, creating a salty, fluffy, delicately spiced piece of carb that you could have demolished all on its own. Its intended purpose was obviously to act as a vessel for the accompanying hummus, but the bread inevitably stole the show. The dip, meanwhile, had adopted the almost mash-like consistency that seems to be popular with hummus variations these days, delicious regardless, but lacking in a citrus-packed punchiness and well overshadowed by its bready friend.
The smoked lamb shoulder cigars were a masterclass in finger food. Easy to shove through your greedy pie hole, not overly pernickety and just simply delicious, they resembled a Middle Eastern take on a spring roll. The calamari fritti was tender, lightly spiced and paired with a preserved lemon aioli that was evidently made by someone who has whisked their fair share in the past – smooth, emulsified and delightfully creamy.
The woodfired dishes were where the meal really began to come into its own. Glazed cubes of pork belly were – and I don’t use this term lightly – quite literally melt in your mouth. Buttery soft meat was paired with a sweet sauce, all of it perfectly balanced by the zestiness of the accompanying pickled fennel salad. I could have eaten this five times over – that is, if I’d had any stomach space remaining at the end, which I definitely did not. The miso aubergine was meaty enough to impress even the most veg-sceptic of diners, ruby-red pomegranate jewels adding a subtle, tangy sweetness.
The knockout plate, however, was the flamed sea bream. My partner declared it his favourite, a true testament considering his carnivorous tendencies and the pork belly we had just demolished. The crispy skinned fillet was served atop a basil yoghurt and mango dressing, the former adding an enlivening herbiness, the latter bringing a sweetness that mingled wonderfully with the other flavours rather than overwhelming them as fruit so often does when added to a savoury dish.
Burnt Orange has managed to do what many fail to achieve. It has created a space designed for socialising, and yet one where the food takes centre stage, rather than feeling surplus to requirement. This kind of laid back eating/drinking/socialising space can feel like an increased rarity these days, especially in a country where the pub has always reigned supreme. Burnt Orange proves there is still merit to be had in the casual nature of such a destination. As we tentatively dip our toes back into socialising, it is places like this that feel so necessary. Designed for a good time, the restaurant-slash-watering hole is exactly the kind of place you want to go to rediscover the wonder of going out again.