This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I have, perhaps not surprisingly for someone who has been at home recovering from surgery, been dreaming about restaurants a great deal over the past three months. Not specific restaurants, and not restaurants in the Platonic sense – great food and wine but no bill even if they are the stuff of dreams – but rather the bustling, sociable and human side of restaurants.
And while in the past I have occasionally gone to sleep thinking about my last restaurant meal, what has been most particular about these recent dreams is that I have woken up thinking about the restaurants themselves, too. Was this, I wondered, because the only craving I developed in hospital was the desire to start the day with a bowl of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, a breakfast cereal I had not even tried before?
Whatever the psychological explanation, this development led me to decide that to mark my return to this column, my first professional foray should be to somewhere where the breakfast would prove to be as satisfying as the dinner. This decision led seamlessly to a booking at Read's in Faversham on the north Kent coast between Sittingbourne and Margate.
Although I was fully aware that we would be in the professional care of David and Rona Pitchford, I had no idea that this is now the 37th year in which he has been cooking while she has overseen a young and enthusiastic waiting team. Nor did I realise that this partnership still includes arriving early to cook and serve breakfast because, as David explained breaking into his gentle smile, 'This is a shift the young chefs don't seem to like, but we do.'
For the past 12 years the Pitchfords have run Read's as a restaurant with six bedrooms from what was formerly Macknade Manor, described in an old sales document as a 'Georgian mansion with stabling'. The proud two-storey building seems to lend itself effortlessly to its new identity. There is a curved driveway to the front door; a large, mature garden surrounds the house, with an impressive walled vegetable garden to the rear; and magnificently senior trees provide a natural sound barrier to the noisy road outside.
Most pertinently, the house immediately announces its credentials as a place in which to eat and drink well. The hefty front door opens on to a narrow hallway that carries the cooking aromas straight from the kitchen at the back and also wafts them up to the bedrooms (best of all are those from the pastry section around 5pm). To the right is the bar while to the left is one of the three intimate dining rooms. There is conspicuously no reception area – the Pitchfords' emphasis is obviously on seating and looking after their customers as swiftly as possible.
And as this manor house has grown into its new identity, so the Pitchfords' roles have developed, too. His classic French culinary training is still the bedrock of the menu and is manifest in those dishes a professional can execute that look both elegant and effortless: a chicken liver parfait; terrines of duck confit and foie gras and chicken confit wrapped in cabbage, the latter served with their own excellent piccalilli; the hollandaise that came in a miniature pan alongside steamed, sweetly tender broccoli, just the foil for a slow-cooked pork belly with local apples. And two stunning desserts: a rhubarb soufflé and a plate of four outstanding sorbets, of which the orange sorbet had been given extra lift by the addition of the zest.
The Michelin star, which Read's has held for 20 consecutive years, has always attracted young, talented chefs and, as a result, Pitchford told me, his role today is not just to pass on all he has learnt but also to incorporate their ideas and enthusiasm. One of these newer main courses, a peanut-crusted breast of duck with a samosa and a Balinese consommé, worked intriguingly well and showed the fruits of this partnership.
With the arrival a year ago of Bradley Gent, born locally but who has been working in larger restaurants for the past decade, as front of house manager, Rona's role is now more co-operative, too. When I complimented her on the service, she confessed, 'We've been at this so long now that I have come to the conclusion that we will only hire people we like. I reckon that by now I can teach them all they need to know.'
A secondary consequence of this partnership is that, under Rona and Bradley's direction, the wine list, always an attraction, now offers an even broader and more generous selection. There is an unusually excellent Bordeaux selection while we drank with relish a 2004 Crawford River Riesling from Australia (£26) and a Ridge Cabernet 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains at £65 (the same as you'd pay retail in France).
Read's is firmly old-fashioned (sheets, not duvets, on the beds) but there is also a sense of timelessness about a meal or a stay here. Certainly, if the Pitchfords were more commercial, the wine prices would be higher and there would be pots of their piccalilli and the particularly creamy lemon curd served with breakfast for sale by the front door.
And they would certainly be making more of the fact that alongside the charms of nearby Canterbury, and the oyster beds of Whitstable, is The Sportsman at Seasalter – about which I wrote here so enthusiastically in January – only an hour and half's stroll away via the marshlands along the Thames estuary. Those who live nearby already seem to take full advantage of these two different but complementary restaurants.
Read's Macknade Manor, Canterbury Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XE
Tel 01795 535344, www.reads.co.uk
The Sportsman Faversham Road, Seasalter, Kent CT5 4BP
Tel 01227 273370, www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk