Ode to a train, and Kent

Deal beach and boats

The Kent coast, easily accessible from London, has much to offer the greedy. Deal beach, above, was pictured by Seth Carnill, who was responsible for all these photographs. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

When the history of English restaurants in the early 21st century comes to be written, I trust that sufficient credit will be given to those who created the Javelin train.

Originally intended to convey spectators to the Olympic Village in east London as part of the Olympic Games 2012 hoopla, this high-speed rail service continues to run at regular intervals from St Pancras station to all the main towns and cities of Kent, in many of which there are today some excellent restaurants.

Faversham boasts two of my favourite chefs. There is Stephen Harris at The Sportsman, on the coast at Seasalter nearby, whose website reveals that they are so overwhelmed with enquiries at the moment that they may take some time to respond and that in the Domesday Book of 1086 the land was worth all of 25 shillings. In Faversham itself there is the impeccable team of David and Rona Pitchford at Read’s, a restaurant with rooms in a manor house with gardens.

Margate seems to be bristling with good places. In addition to their original restaurant Angela’s, former art director of the Financial Times Lee Coad and his partner Charlotte Forsdike have opened Dory’s round the corner in fashionable small plates/no reservation mode. And quite soon, Ed Wilson, the talented chef of Brawn in east London, will reopen Sargasso in Margate. According to his wife and business partner, Josie Stead, they were attracted to Margate not just because of its unusually sandy beaches (they have two energetic young sons) but also because of the easy rail link with London.

Two other towns linked by Javelin, both with strong connections to the sea, offer excellent eating. In Chatham, once home to the Royal Naval Dockyard, there is the Pumproom restaurant at the Copper Rivet Distillery. Then there is Whitstable, long famous for oysters, most notably right on the beach, at the Whitstable Oyster Company. Lobster rolls are a speciality at The Forge takeaway, also on the beach, and I can recommend them enjoyed in the lee of a sea groin, the local name for the wooden structures that stretch down the pebbly beach into the sea.

But it was in Deal and Walmer next door that I was to discover two very different, surprising exponents of cooking.

Garden of The Rose in Deal

The first, and the slightly more expected, came at The Rose Hotel on Deal’s High Street. Once past its imposing frontage that still bears the words ‘Family and Commercial House’, the route to our table outside took us past a small, open kitchen and out into what the management has turned into a smart, thankfully sheltered, and highly colourful garden with tables on two floors (pictured above).

The Rose’s menu is a collaboration between the hands-on chefs led by Luke Green and advised by Nuno Mendes, the Portuguese chef who has made such a name for himself at the Chiltern Firehouse in London and the Bairro Alto in Lisbon. This unusual association came about via the friendship between Mendes and Christopher Hicks, the hotel’s owner, and its effects are striking.

Starters at The Rose, Deal

We began with a mixture of snacks and first courses. A combination of potato rosti and trout roe was enlivened by dill-speckled crème fraiche, as was the dish of potted crab by some spiced butter. Better still was the single steamed scallop served on the shell alongside a dish of tiny, barely cooked, new season’s peas. All of this we greedily mopped up with the help of a large Parker House roll, straight out of the oven and shared by the four of us and served with both crab and wild-garlic butters.

Parker roll at The Rose, Deal

The sea provided two excellent main courses. The first was a piece of slow-roasted hake alongside poached mussels with a ragout of what was described as spring vegetables underneath. In reality the delicious piece of fish was resplendent on a glistening mass of broad beans and peas. So too was my piece of halibut, whose firm white flesh was brought to life by the clever combination of grilled cucumber and a creamy sauce that was an astute mixture of fresh dill and butter.

I paid my bill of £147 for four which included a couple of Bloody Marys (this was a Sunday lunch) and we decided to skip dessert. Instead we headed out along Deal Pier, Kent’s last remaining pier, at the end of which is the windswept but excellent Deal Pier Kitchen, as we enjoyed a local Solley’s ice cream.

While the pier remains largely unchanged since its construction in 1957, behind many of the front doors of Deal and Walmer major renovations have taken place as their owners seek to benefit from the surge in staycations and have converted many into comfortable holiday lets. It was while staying in one that I encountered Jo Lewis of Sumac.

Deal-born to a family of restaurateurs, she met Benny Hod, her Israeli-born husband, when they bumped into each other in a dive shop in Utila off the coast of Honduras before settling back in Deal. There they put his Jewish credentials to the stove (his family share Ashkenazi and Sephardi ancestry) and the results have developed until today, when they include a shop, various pop-ups from time to time and a delivery service.

This, via a delivery to us, was Levantine cooking at its best. Crisp falafel, excellent lamb koftas, spicy harissa and zhoug dips, decidedly superior hummus and tabbouleh, and delicious labneh cheesecake. ‘What’s’, as my late Jewish mother used to say, ‘not to like?’

Faversham The Sportsman and Read’s

Margate Angela’s

Chatham The Pumproom

Deal The Rose and Sumac