Lonely Thanet Guide – Gourmet Food in Kent
By Rupert Parker
Once known as the garden of England, Kent is now making the best of its produce and restaurants are sourcing their food locally and cooking up a storm.
In a house that was once home to the famous author William Makepeace Thackeray, Thackeray’s restaurant exploits its location by sourcing Kentish and Sussex vegetables, local game, the finest cuts of meat, fresh dairy products and English wine. Chef Richard Phillips is proud of his green credentials and takes great pride in researching the best local suppliers.
The starter was a trio of pan seared scallops interspersed with smoked haddock bonbons on a marinated carrot and orange puree and dressed with a tomato and cumin vinaigrette. For main course I opted for roast loin of Chart Farm venison sourced from a 400 acre farm near Sevenoaks, just over 20 miles away. Desert was roast spiced fig with plum jelly, fig mille feuille, brown bread ice cream and orange confit.
Richard Phillips is clearly a chef of the highest caliber and his desire to source locally as much as possible is to be admired. This is complicated cuisine which scores by his subtle use of the palette of flavours. If you fancy an overnight in Tunbridge Wells, then choose the Hotel du Vin, a Grade II-listed sandstone mansion built as a private residence in 1762, now fully restored to high class comfort.
The Raja of Kent Indian restaurant serves authentic Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine and specializes in game dishes. Pheasant, venison and duck all appear on the menu and there’s a plentiful supply of vegetarian items. I had the Junglee Titor Shaslic which was breast of pheasant seasoned, marinated in yoghurt with special spices & herbs, and cooked in the Tandoor with peppers, tomatoes & mushrooms. It was delicious.
We’re all familiar with the fish and chip shops that offer eat-in facilities but usually they’re primitive affairs with formica tabletops and utilitarian seating, an afterthought for those customers who don’t fancy a takeaway. Eddie Gilbert’s breaks the mould by being both fishmonger and chip shop downstairs and a light and airy seafood bistro above.
This is a winning formula and part of the secret is that they buy fish direct from the local fishing boats every day and source local potatoes and vegetables. Beer comes from Gadds, a Ramsgate micro brewery and they also offer a choice of Kent wines. Try the oysters with a touch of wasabi or the smoked eel soldiers and soft boiled duck egg.
The town is undergoing something of a revival with a rejuvenated centre and the forthcoming opening of the Turner Contemporary Arts Centre. There’s even a plan to restore Dreamland, the 20’s amusement park, and trendy shops are springing up all over. Gourmet Indian food is a rare beast on Britain’s suburban high streets, but curry is definitely off the menu at the Ambrette restaurant.
Young chef Dev Biswal grew up in Calcutta and is on a mission to transform the British Indian dining scene. He’s also keen on getting away from lager and pairing wine with his food The short, eclectic menu changes daily and often features his signature dish of fillet of fresh water Nile perch, pan-fried with peppers, coriander, fenugreek and carom seeds, as well as locally sourced game, pork and seafood. On special occasions, the Ambrette offers a six-course tasting menu, with matched wines chosen by Chix Chandaria from Hix & Buck, for the bargain price of £49.99. Dev is also is the Operations Director at Hannah’s Dining Rooms in Quex Park nearby – here his food is traditional British and very good too.
A great place to overnight is the slightly eccentric Walpole Bay Hotel. Built in 1914, it’s being restored to its former glory and it’s like stepping back in time as you enter the ambiance of a bygone era. Fortunately all facilities have been updated and it’s in a prime location, overlooking the sea,
This is the posh end of Thanet, and the town nestles on the cliffs overlooking the sandy beach. Right in the centre of the action is Peens Gastro Bar whose kitchen is open daily from 10-10 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They source everything locally and their aim is to produce innovative honest food with a rustic edge. Certainly the huge breakfast, that I sampled, achieved their goal and I must add a special mention for the kedgeree, as well as their gargantuan Bloody Mary’s – a great way to start the day.
You can easily spend a week exploring Kent’s culinary delights and the list above only scratches the surface. The area is also fast becoming the wine growing centre of the UK and the Chapel Down Winery at Tenterden is well worth a visit.
Thackeray’s Restaurant, Tunbridge Wells 01892 511921
Hotel du Vin, Tunbridge Wells 0845 365 4438
Raja of Kent, Tenterden 01233 851191
Eddie Gilberts, Ramsgate 01843 852123
Ambrette Restaurant, Margate 01843 231504
Hannah Dining Suite, Quex Park, Birchington 01843 842168
Walpole Bay Hotel, Margate 01843 221703
Peens Gastro Bar, Ramsgate 01843 861289
Chapel Down Winery, Tenterden 01580 763033