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The Ancient Raj

I’ve no idea what a Pilgrim’s annual mileage was, but as I battled with Canterbury’s early evening traffic my empathy for them was the only thing flowing around the ring road. Fortunately the Promised Land awaiting me in North Lane drove me onwards. I had one goal: curry. More precisely, the curries, nectars and assorted paraphernalia created by the Ancient Raj chefs. I use the term ‘chefs’ loosely, as ‘gods’ could easily replace it. We’d been lucky enough to eat here a fortnight earlier at the behest of two lovely friends. On that glorious evening the Cobras bit hard, and as such I wondered the next day whether I’d imagined the whole thing. Could it have been that good? Every dish on the money. Excellent service. Great value. There was only one way to find out – I rebooked. As we all know only too well, things are never as good as the first time, so, as we crossed their low-beamed threshold, I prayed that a little cumin-covered miracle might come our way. It did, in the quite unexpected form of a pianist. Now if I was picking an accompaniment to curry there’s a fair chance it would be cold and alcoholic not warm and melodic, but, rather surprisingly, the music hit the spot too, adding another layer to our remarkable experience in the process. We chomped our way, 4:4 time, through flawless papadams that lay happily beneath the customary trinity of chutneys, but which jostled to be smothered in the seldom-seen coconut one (a rose-tinted favourite I discovered 25 years ago in a South Norwood curry house). We quickly dismantled an entire pot of this ruddy ambrosia before running headlong into the mains.  I basked in the Duck Xacuti (breast of Barbary duck in a harmonious massala sauce flavoured with star anise, fenugreek, chilli and coconut), which was one of the loveliest things I’ve tasted in ages. My recently vegetarianized wife (I know) picked out the vegetable biryani and was very glad she did so. We also enjoyed the peshwari nan, special rice, saag paneer and some onion bhajis, all of which left us both more than happy. They quickly cleared our dishes away and returned with the dessert menu. Never being one to waste space on such trivial things, I returned to the menu proper and ran an accumulating finger over the lines. There were still ninety or so dishes that I hadn’t yet tried. Hmmm. There was only one thing for it, I thanked God for capacity and ordered lots more. So why not trek on over and catch up on this pilgrim’s progress, I could be here a while.

25-26 North Lane, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7EE, 01227 455882.

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17 million pounds spent.  4500 panes of glass fitted.  150,000 annual visitors expected. Finally, the wait is over.  Yep, the Turner Contemporary Café is now open on Friday and Saturday evenings for supper. On arrival at this landmark destination Sarah, my new fave person, lovingly escorted us to our VIP window seats. I’m reliably informed that Turner fell instantly in love with the skies over Margate, and as we watched the sun setting, sipping bubbly and nibbling on home-baked bread, it wasn’t difficult to see why. Stunning. I was initially drawn here by the price: two courses for  £18.50 or three courses for £23.00, including a glass of Prosecco or Fino sherry. Bargain.  For those sums there was never going to be a huge selection on offer, but surprisingly any of the three options per course would have put a smile on my hairy mush. We agreed a divide-and-conquer approach, meaning that only three dishes would escape our delectation.  The ones that didn’t get away were: Kent shellfish bisque  – excellent, great depth of flavour.  Chicken liver parfait with port butter & orange brioche – very good but not quite sweet enough for me (I Iater found out from a real foodie’s review that it was possibly due to poor trimming of the livers). Pancetta-wrapped Guinea fowl with beetroot – splendid, but I thought it a teensy bit dry (Mrs G assures me it was spot on). Sea bass with a fricassee of shellfish and vegetables (courtesy of the lovely Windmill Farm allotments) – excellent despite my being deprived of langoustine, langoustine which happily swam it’s way onto every other sea bass plate (bitter? Moi?). I considered mentioning it but the service was so good that I can only imagine they’d have brought a dozen, peeled them at the table and then gently placed them into my gaping gob. An undoubted pleasure for me but perhaps not for the other diners, so I kept quiet. Blackcurrant fool with shortbread – faultless, with a pistachio-topped biscuit still warm from the oven. Finally, the cheese board presented us with an array of quality cheese served with generous lumps of quince.  As if the whole experience wasn’t splendid enough they’re going to be changing the menu every week. Amazing. Art lovers around the world should be eternally grateful that Turner never visited Margate when this café was open, as he may have been inspired to use his oils for cooking rather than painting.

Turner ContemporaryRendezvous, Margate, Kent CT9 1HG,  01843 233000.

The Lifeboat

At times it can be hard to love Margate. A walk through the High Street will leave you questioning the relationship and a quick spin round Morrison’s will have you preparing your “It’s not you it’s me” speech by the time you’ve paid for your WKD and Mayfair lights. I don’t want to feel like this, it just happens. To reaffirm my passion I make regular visits to the old town, trot along the harbour arm or maybe just noodle around Ron Scott’s for an hour until I’ve remembered what it is that we have together. I’ve often thought how helpful it would be to have a decent pub to sit in whilst I nursed my heart back to full strength. As I stepped over the Lifeboat’s threshold I realised that this might be just that. The orphaned furniture made me think that I’d stumbled back onto Mr Scott’s premises but the roaring open hearth ensured I’d be going nowhere soon. This really is no ordinary boozer. Julian is no ordinary landlord. He is essentially a joyful eccentric who’s made a local all about local. Julian’s utopia hosts beer from every brewery in Kent, stocks 14 varieties of Kentish cider, and even pours local wine courtesy of a vineyard in Barsole. He keeps a handful of interesting soft drinks but definitely no ice. This is a pub for everyone. On our visit we nestled amongst alcoholics, pensioners, artists and students, all of who were treated quite perfectly by the charming barman. He helpfully came over and sat with us to discuss the various local foods on offer that evening. Dressed crab (Fruits de Mer, Broadstairs), pies (Victory News, Broadstairs) sausages  (a secret location in Ramsgate – grilled in a sandwich maker thingy on the bar) and cheeses courtesy of every maker across Kent. You get to choose one from many types of chutney to accompany your snack (which they insist on spooning out to avoid any cross-contamination) and all orders arrive with chunks of bread (Aquini’s, Margate). All are served up at little more than cost price.  On this trip we polished off a dressed crab, a mixed game pie and a sausage in bread. With two rounds of drinks we just about made it past twenty pounds. You’d pay that for the crab with a couple of drinks in most places and that’s without the option of playing Monopoly. It truly is an extraordinary place that will only get busier with the publishing of the excellent Discover Thanet guidebook and the opening of the much-needed Turner Contemporary. With only days remaining I’d suggest you man the Lifeboat while you still can and see for yourself why Tracey Emin famously said; “Julian, I’ll never stop loving you”.

1 Market St, Margate, Kent, CT9 1EU.

The Three Mariners

I’m not yet sure what brought my writing to such an abrupt standstill in September but hopefully the next 400 words will help me find out. Could it have been laziness? Well, I catch the 05.54 during the week and just about get home for bath time so it’s not that. Perhaps there’s no time? Not that either. It might be called High Speed but I’m still the daily recipient of almost three hours of opportunity. Then it must be a lack of subjects? I’ve four unwritten reviews waving regularly at me from my MacBook that would vehemently disagree. I clicked open the one titled The Three Mariners and was instantly transported back to the pilgrimage we’d made one Sunday in November. A truly divine experience. The diner’s Holy Trinity of great food, excellent service & good value was bestowed upon the entire congregation ensuring we left as two happy disciples. It seemed only right to make a follow-up visit to ensure relevant preaching. The superb staff and the delightful dining room both greeted us warmly on our return. The lunch menu contained ten starters, eight mains and seven desserts, so if you are of an indecisive nature then this could become your own personal hell. It also only offered up one solitary dish that I wouldn’t have happily ordered and enjoyed (beetroot is the Devil’s work after all.) The remarkable list has an equal balance of fish and meat, champions local produce (the fish is lovingly supplied by Fruits de Mer of Broadstairs) and represents excellent value for money. We patiently spent a good while observing dishes go past and seeking the staff’s advice before we finally dived in. Mrs G loved the blini of gravalax – a stack of salmon on a crumpet-sized blini (£5.50) and I was enamoured with the local skate cheeks in lemon, garlic and parsley (£5.50). Both were perfectly constructed and tasted fantastic. Next up was roast breast of corn-fed chicken with sage & onion stuffing, roast pots and veg (£12.50). There was far too much cabbage on the plate for my wife’s liking and only a few of the other veggies. A small problem that was smothered by the enormous and perfect Yorkshire pudding (50p extra). The honey glazed confit duck was stunning and was complemented perfectly by the sweet red cabbage and mash. The extra Yorkie I’d ordered left little space for manoeuvre but the slight inconvenience was well worth it. By the time our brilliant waitress returned with the dessert selection I’d decided to abstain – a tough decision with seven stunners calling my name from the next room. My beautiful companion picked what would have been my last choice, the passion fruit pavlova with lime ice cream (£5.50), probably worried that I’d have a second wind. Having removed the pattern from the dessert plate we paid the bill, said our ‘thank yous’ and then grabbed a menu. “Why do you want that?’ asked our waitress. ‘I’m writing a review,” I chirped. “I wish we’d have known”. I’ve no idea what more they could have done, aside from cut the food up and put it in our mouths. As we stepped out of the darkness into the sunshine I knew that I had to write. I needed to get to my desk. I started to run. No idea where I was going. It took me 40 days and 40 nights to return but now I’m back. The Thanet Gannet is resurrected. Hallelujah!

2 Church Road, Oare, Faversham, Kent, ME13 0QA, 01795 533 633.

Hannah Dining Suite

In 5,4,3,2, 1…

(Smile at camera)

Good evening and welcome to Dev TV. Tonight I’m lucky enough to be eating at the Hannah Dining Suite in Quex Park [now being run by Dev Biswal of The Ambrette fame]. I say lucky because it’s taken me three goes at getting fed. The first was thwarted by gas problems (them not me). The second buried by a funeral wake. But as we sit here now in this vast room making conversation with our host, sipping aperitifs and admiring the remarkable menu I’m positive it’ll be third time lucky.

The cuisine Dev has chosen to charm us with here is traditional British (no repeats with him then) assembled from his travels around our splendid isles. The man to take us on our journey is executive chef Patrick Beach.  He’s got just 90 minutes to steer us around the UK with 6 impeccable courses. Let’s cook!

Our first stop is the North East of Scotland.  Their contribution to the programme is Cullen skink. [It proves to be an amazing creamy haddock and potato soup that drowns the memory of all the others sloshing around in my head. Next is a simple and well-executed Welsh rabbit (sic). Pukka! Ensuing closely is the Kentish mackerel with gooseberries. The observant amongst you will recognise this stand out dish from its television debut earlier in the year and I’m happy to report that this one also proves fit for a king. All the while Thanet’s own food royalty glides around the room, skilfully managing his guests with the dexterity of a plate spinner. Dev is a natural. A producer’s dream.

Our galloping gourmet delivers the next course himself: nice touch.  The Irish stew arrives trapped in a glass jar, which our silky-pawed hero fumbles and empties onto the table. The evening’s first kitchen nightmare.  A nightmare that goes away as quickly as it arrived. No fuss. No use of the f-word. The man is a pro. I find the stew a little too simple, lined up with the other team members, and feel it stems the flow of the previously perfect menu.

At this juncture we have a choice of Ramsgate fish and Quex chips or steak and kidney pie. We order one of each and agree to swap half way through. Once out of the kitchen we decide that they are far from equal. The former wins our hearts with its excellent battered hake and pan-fried bream, superb peas and perfect chips. Who needs molecular gastronomy when simple food can be this good?

The epilogue involves parkin, brandy ice cream and saffron-infused pineapple. It is sublime and brings our journey to a beautiful end. Before we go I’d just like to say that it’s been great to be here and if you’d like to come and enjoy the experience yourself then its £25 per person. A remarkably small cost to be fed by such a master chef.

(Look seriously into camera)

Dev and Patrick have given us a truly great British menu and I think it’s fair to say that cooking doesn’t get better than this.

Goodnight.

(Fade out)

Quex Park, Birchington,Kent, CT7 0BH, 01843 842168.

“We’re running low on gas”, quipped Bex as if starring in a low budget horror movie.

A bead of sweat ran down my wrinkled brow. Paul continued the theme happily occupying the back seat oblivious to the evaporating fuel. Bats flapped, owls hooted and we bounced across the Kent countryside aboard the ‘Hairdresser’ (aka my Suzuki Vitara). We were travelling in this boneshaker because Mrs G had taken the family wagon to a baby-shower leaving my newlywed Northern guests and me in a jalopy that only usually sees sunny days at the beach. Being Broadstairs biggest clown (with car) I ’d forgotten where the pub was but luckily my glamorous assistant Bex pulled me from the lion’s mouth with the aid of her magnificent iPhone, shepherding us in with minutes to spare. It’s not my first visit to The Fitzwalter Arms so I knew roughly what to expect. A lovely little pub with a homely dining room on the side. A short menu full of local produce, plus the added thrill of an open fire that drained the damp and chill from the squally August evening. The atmosphere is quite relaxed and the informal yet knowledgeable service put us totally at ease. Bex chose courgette salad with chilli, garlic and a courgette flower fritter (£5.50), Paul tried the smoked mackerel and horseradish on rye bread with apples and beetroot (£7.50) and I went for the red mullet soup with saffron aioli (£6.50). Everybody was happy with his or her choice. I absolutely adored my soup, Bex’s fritter filled the plate and Paul even sung the praises of the Devil’s work (beetroot). The mains were equally as impressive. Love’s not-so-young dream adored their roast free-range chicken leg, chanterelles and thyme (£13.50) and I, under advice, opted for the confit pork belly, crackling and apple sauce (£14.50). What good advice too, as I am now one of the chosen few that have gnawed on the world’s best crackling. Hallelujah! It must also have been around this time that the food Gods decided to pop into the kitchen and tinker with some chocolate and stuff. Now it may have taken them somewhat longer than you’d expect, what with them being deities and all, but when it did eventually arrive my hot chocolate pudding, coffee ice cream and Earl Grey sauce (£6.00) almost moved my mountain. A fitting end to a heavenly meal. We happily paid the bill, bundled into the roofless rattletrap and set off into the foreboding night. The sky was lit with stars, the air chilled with howls and Paul frozen from lack of heater in the back. All the time the far away silhouette of Richborough power station guided us home like a derelict lighthouse. I knew that once alongside it the desperately needed petrol station was only metres away. The little jeep jerked its way along Sandwich road and was running on fumes by the time we eventually passed the monument to more prosperous times. Sadly, the petrol stations were done for the evening, as were we. We coasted, powerless, to a standstill:

“We’ve run completely low on gas”, I informed Bex as I reached into the back for the petrol can. I walked off into the darkness not knowing what lay ahead…

I’ve always said that you should treat every meal as your last and as I stand here now, carving my review into a tree, I’m rather glad that I chose The Fitzwalter Arms for what may have been mine.

The Street, Goodnestone, Kent, CT3 1PJ, 01304 840303.

One of the advantages of occasionally working from home is managing to get more done in a morning than you could ever hope to achieve in an entire day in the office. Another advantage is being able to have lunch with your wife. I might often spend £10 a day on a paper, coffees and lunch so attempted to stick as close to that as possible. After 20 minutes sniffing around the net i’d come up with a few options and eventually picked two courses at the Bell Hotel in Sandwich for £11.95. Ding dong.  These offers do, however, always involve some form of compromise and as we set sail for the port of Sandwich we braced ourselves for a very short menu, small portions and cheap ingredients. We arrived. They didn’t. My impressive starter of sea trout tartare, cucumber gazpacho, horseradish and lime shouted summer, whilst the ham terrine with tomato chutney, quickly vanishing across the table, brought a smile to Mrs G’s lovely mush. These were quickly followed by rump of lamb with smoked potato puree, baby courgettes and rosemary jus for me, and plaice with butter and new pots for her. Mine was superb. It’s normally only onions that bring a tear to my eye but today an exquisite courgette had me reaching for the hankies. The lamb was quite prefect, each mouthful a pleasure. No weeping from Mrs G – she’s a toughie – but a thumbs up all the same. Now my wife loves her desserts and was mesmerized throughout lunch by the numerous raspberry creme brulees (with almond shortbread) passing the table. So many went by that I couldn’t believe they hadn’t run out. Just before she ordered hers they did. Dong! Dong! How she didn’t cry I will never know. The cream cake pick-up en route home helped, but I know it will be a long time before that culinary scar has healed. As I type, sitting at my London desk, I’m pondering how I might convince my bosses to open a Thanet office. Maybe I’ll send them a link to my blog, that should do the trick.

NB If you have a third course it will be £14.95

Upper Strand Street, Sandwich, Kent, CT13 9EF, 01304 613388.