Rocksalt – Saved by the cooking

We are always wary of Restaurants with good views and Mark Sargeant‘s fashionable Rocksalt Restaurant in its purposely designed building overlooking Folkestone Harbour is certainly a Restaurant with a good view.

We had a beautiful sunny day for our first visit to Folkestone and had a lovely time exploring the stunning Lower Leas Coastal Park before we headed round the corner to the regenerated Harbour and made our way past the kitchen viewing area into the Restaurant.  When Rocksalt first opened in 2011 it received several negative reviews that complained about both the food and the service – more recent reviews highlighted improvements in both these areas. Although it did not start of well for us, in that no one was there to greet us on arrival, leaving the barman to find a waitress who could take us to our table. The staff also seemed rather cold and brusk, with a few notable exceptions. Then just after we sat down we heard shouting from the direction of the kitchen, it might just have been noisy guests but it was off putting. Thankfully after this rocky start the pitch perfect food which was Rocksalts saving grace arrived. We settled down to enjoy a nice bottle of wine and some delicious seafood in the well designed surroundings. There are lots of cleverly positioned mirrors and wall height glass windows designed to open and effectively convert the entire restaurant into one big terrace.

When you can see the fishing boats bringing in their catches right out side the Restaurant it seems foolish not to order sea food (there are meat dishes on the menu but we made a point of ignoring them). We started with a scallop dish from the catch of the day menu, it was a tasty dish with 3 medium sized scallops and a lot of black pudding and creamy potatoes. We also ordered the Dressed Crab, the Harissa sauce served with it had been criticized in the early reviews for being underpowering then in later reviews for being overpowering. Now the tweaking of the dish seemed to have worked as it was just right, with the sauce effectively enhancing the tasty and very fresh crab meat. We followed the starters with a stunning Pan-Fried Fillet of John Dory with Smoked Bacon and a lovely Fillet of Cod with Cockles and Sea Aster served with mashed potatoes. We ordered Carrots and Jersey Royals side dishes, they tasted like they were fresh from the garden and were perfectly cooked with an earthy taste that went well with the meal. We also had a couple of good desserts. A Cold Chocolate and Sea Buckthorn Fondant and some Gypsy Tart, a famous Kent sweet I am keen to try again. Apparently it’s a school dinner staple. It was certainly way better than any school dessert I have ever had. We accompanied our desserts with a couple of glasses of nicely chilled dessert wine. Sadly there were only 3 dessert wine options to choose from.

Rocksalt also has a very attractive bar on its upper floor. Our visit was off season and the restaurant and bar were reasonably full.  I am sure Rocksalt gets really busy in the Summer as service gripes aside it is a real asset to the culinary scene here in Kent.

At the weekend when there is no set menu Rocksalt has prices that match its designer surroundings, so it’s very easy to run up a hefty bill, especially when you have to add side orders to complete the meals. Nearby there is a less expensive option “The Smokehouse”, a rather smart looking Fish and Chip shop/casual Restaurant that is also co-owned by Mark Sargeant.  It’s not that cheap for the area though, as we noticed it advertising Skate Balls for £7.50, the same price as the Sunday lunch at the nearby Grand Burstin Hotel, an eye sore that looked like a relic from the eighties, but cost aside I know where I would rather spend my £7.50. So keep up the regeneration Folkestone and show what UK seaside towns can really do in the 21st century.

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Chez Bruce – as good as ever

If there is a secret formula for what makes a good restaurant then Chez Bruce mastered it years ago.  We have eaten lunch here numerious times, it’s surprisingly good value (currently £35 for 3 courses). Definitely one of London’s best Michelin Restaurant deals.

On this visit I started with some stunning fish cakes with just a hint of saffron and my companion had a Spanish chilled Tomato soup called Salmorejo, this was so beautifully spiced he felt that it had spoilt him for other soups. For main course I chose the Confit Rabbit with coco beans, pepper relish, cherry tomatoes and Provençal sauce, a nice rustic dish of comfort food and he went for the Wild Brill with Roast Scallops, both dishes were of the usual high standard.  Then we had an extra cheese course prior to our dessert – The Chez Bruce Cheese boards are not to be missed. The dessert, which we hardly had room for after this feast, was an Apricot and Almond Tart and a Bramley Apple and Blackberry Crumble.  I would also recommend asking the friendly Sommelier to select glasses of wine to match your dishes as they have a good range by the glass (most for less than £10.00). Another nice touch here is the lovely home made shortbread that comes with the surprisingly reasonable bill. We are already looking forward to our next visit 😉

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Sketch – in a world of its own

A visit to Sketch is certainly an interesting and rather OTT experience.  I felt rather like a kid with a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  As you enter the building you have the Parlour on your right, where you can order an indulgent Breakfast, Afternoon Tea, Comfort food and Cocktails.  The rather low key Parlour is in stark contrast to Pierre Gagnaire’s Michelin stared restaurant in the Lecture Room. The name of the restaurant does not really conjure up what is revealed after you are escorted up the exotically lit staircase. The doors are dramatically thrown open and you find yourself in a jewel box like room, decorated with a red, orange, blue and gold palette.

My companion had brought his camera but had forgotten his SD card, so was annoyed that in such a photogenic environment we were not going to do the place justice, but by using our phones we managed to get a few shots of the experience.

The first hurdle is the Champagne Trolley, something I am not a fan off. If I want a glass I prefer to check the wine list first to make sure I know what I am getting, so we just stuck to tap water while we made our menu selection. Despite the hefty prices you can still go down the less expensive route by ordering from the Gourmet Rapide Menu.  However as we wanted to get the full experience on our first visit we opted for the regular Tasting Menu (it is expensive, but as you will see from this post – you do get a lot for your money) and asked the Sommelier to recommend a bottle of wine that would suit the whole menu. He selected a reasonably priced bottle of Irouleguy, Xuri d’Ansa 2004 that was drinkable both on its own and as an accompaniment to the food.

Next came the bread, served with some rather spectacular tasting seaweed butter. Then the feast began.   We had a wonderful array of beautifully presented dishes served by Sketches very efficient staff.  Ironically though the presentation and service did eclipse the food a bit.  The food was very good, don’t get me wrong.  The Foie Gras Terrine with Mackerel Bouillon and Clams was an excellent start.  The Marinated Stone Bass, Peas, Spring Cabbage, Mint and
Smoked Lardons was quite lovely, nice flavour combinations and textures.  The huge King Scallop served with Nettle Cream, Haddock, Watercress Salad, Seaweed Butter and Rhubarb was fabulous. One of these could have been turned into a dozen servings at Apsleys (who served up scallop slivers rather than the more generous presentation delivered by Sketch) and the other dishes were enjoyable too. They just didn’t quite meet our expectations, which were perhaps a little too high, due to the rather excessive hype that Sketch gets.  We found ourselves inevitably making comparisons with meals we had in other restaurants. It wasn’t in the same class as Le Bristol in Paris (although the menu was very similar to the one we had there a few years back – especially the lobster and sweet bread dishes).  Moments at the Mandarin in Barcelona had the edge on food presentation and taste.  The Ledbury, The Kitchin and Tom Aikens (at his peak) also won on the flavour front.

This was a tasting menu that definitely filled you up though, we were getting full even before we started on the Grand Dessert which consists of no less than five desserts and a selection of petit fours. However sometimes less is more and I think I would have preferred just a couple of spectacular desserts, rather than five OK ones.  That said, it was still discernibly better than a lot of Michelin starred restaurants out there, and as such I would have no qualms about recommending the Sketch experience, and that’s even without having had the full tour of the premises – we didn’t get the chance to visit the Glade, the Gallery or the East Bar as Blackberry had reserved the rest of Sketch for a product launch, so there was a bit of a buzz around that, as Jessie J was providing the music.

UPDATE : September 2012, Sketch has been awarded a second Michelin Star.

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The Ledbury – More or Less?

We started off the new year on a high, with lunch at The Ledbury.   There were two  menu options. The special lunch Menu at £45 or the Tasting Menu at £75, both available with matching wine.  Such a tough choice, but it was The Ledbury and we just had to go down the “More” route.   We had matching wines for each course (including a matching wine for the amuse bouche) making a total of 8 glasses each (I think).  Pretty heavy for lunch time drinking I have to say. In retrospect the “Less” route might have been the more sensible choice.

We found the restaurant to be rather quiet on this visit, only a few tables were in use during our mid week lunch. So if you pick your day carefully it is possible to get a reservation at this temple of gastronomy.

We started with Chantilly of Colchester Oysters with a Tartare of Scallop and Oyster, Horseradish and Dill – a very elegant dish, this was followed by Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso. Then we had Hampshire Buffalo Milk Curd with Saint-Nectaire and Truffle Toast. The Truffle Toast was the highlight for me, delicious. We were four glasses down at this point when we moved on to the fish course of Roast Native Lobster with Broccoli stem, Natural Yogurt and Indian Spices in Brown Butter. This was followed by Pork Cheek cooked in Pedro Ximénez with Puffed Grains and Spiced Cream and Roast Haunch of Fallow Deer with White Beetroot and Smoked Bone Marrow and several more glasses of well matched wines. We finished with a light pre-dessert and the dessert of Pavé of Chocolate with Milk Purée and Lovage Ice Cream.

The food was universally good, we just felt that we had over done it.  I am always happy to go to The Ledbury but I think next time I will stick to the set lunch.

One tip though, if you do want to go down the Tasting Menu route,  is to do it at lunch time – the Tasting Menu is £30 cheaper then than the one offered in the evening.

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The Ritz – getting past The Glitz

As a birthday gift I was treated to lunch at The Ritz by the other half of No Expert.  We had some concerns as you do, when visiting somewhere so prestigious and potentially wallet busting. High profile venues like The Ritz all too often live off past glories. Fortunately this was not the case here, although there was no getting past the cost factor. The wine was very expensive.  Don’t expect to find bottles at the £30 mark,  the lowest price is around £50, but give it its due, the bottle of Marlborough Pinor Noir we ordered was delightful.  We very sensibly chose on this occasion to go for the set lunch which consisted of three courses for £45, rather than go a la carte, where you could pay the same price for a single course!

I should also say at this stage, that the set lunch was very good indeed, so by going down that  route you really are not slumming it. Indeed we are currently debating the likelihood of naming this the winner of this years best restaurant (the meal was that good).

There was the inevitable Champagne Trolley to avoid before the meal began.  We were quite happy to just go with a jug of tap water (admittedly a silver plated one).

The amuse bouche was served in a Champagne glass and we chose some rather nice bacon flavoured home made bread.  The set lunch menu was certainly enticing, I started with a rather moreish Mackerel dish and my companion had a very tasty salt beef and foie gras terrine.  This was followed by main courses of duck and venison, delivered under cloches and revealed with some theatre.  This was comfort food of the highest order, both were absolutely delicious. Then for dessert we had a classic Ritz dish, the Chestnut Souffle with Rum ice cream, a real treat.  We did not order coffee but were still presented with what I can honestly say were the best selection of petit fours I have had in a restaurant for a long time.  So in summary although the food is not cutting edge by any means, one of the reasons this meal stood out for us, was that nothing jarred, from the bread right through to the petit fours, everything was uniformly excellent and that is a rarity even in the best of restaurants.

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Seven Park Place by William Drabble – A tale of two menus and an offensive statue

I had a lovely lunch at Seven Park Place by William Drabble in the rather quirky St James Club and Hotel, but that was mainly down to the company and the fact that I ordered À la carte rather than going for the Set lunch menu.

We were a fairly large group and ordered a mixture of À la carte dishes and Set Menu dishes.  À la carte dishes are usually larger portions and perhaps more extravagant, but in a Michelin star restaurant you still expect the set menu to be of a pretty high standard as well.  I tried some of my companions dishes and it did seem like the set menu ones had come from a different kitchen.

From the À la carte menu I had the delicious Poached  lobster tail with English asparagus, pea shoots and truffle dressing for starters, that dish was definitely up to scratch. I followed this with a tasty pigeon dish.  This was in stark contrast to the mousse of foie gras and wild mushrooms starter from the set menu that I tasted which was pretty bland and the pork belly that was a bit too fatty and insipid in both taste and color, with tiny slithers of crackling. My companions were not blown away by the other dishes they had either.

The desserts were pretty ordinary all round, although the home made chocolates presented at the end of the meal and the boxes of marshmallows were a nice touch.

There were also several issues with the service. The staff were very nice, but one of our groups main course did not arrive with the rest of the tables so he had to wait a while for it. We were also seated in a booth like area that made it impossible for the staff to serve the people in the back three seats, so plates and cutlery had to be passed around the table. I have never been in a restaurant of this calibre where the waiter has to ask a customer to use his napkin so he can pass him a hot plate! There was also a couple of minor mix ups with the wine too.

On a completely different subject, there was a piece of art on display, which was most definitely a talking point for all the wrong reasons. It seemed to us to be in rather bad taste.  Quite offensive actually, take a close look at the picture of the statue above and you will see what I mean.

So if I was looking for a word to sum up the experience I would have to say “Flawed”.

Marks out of 10

Food (two sets of markings for the food as the menus were so different)
5.6 (À la carte)
4.4 (Set Menu)

Service 4.8

Ambience 4.9

Seven Park Place by William Drabble on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

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