Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Folkestone serves up a mixed bag of food

Taramasalata – none of that over-pink stuff
The food and the travel: those are the key problem areas when traveling in the UK and both were brought into sharp focus for us last year when we visited Rye.

On the food front, it wasn’t necessarily just finding somewhere that was serving food when you needed it that was a problem (although it was, on occasion), but finding food that was worth eating.

Too often on that trip, even basic food such as fish and chips or an omelette was poor.

On the travel front, if you don’t have a car, then you’ll find it difficult getting around. Public transport is far from brilliant – while it is certainly expensive. Last year, for a short trip from Winchelsea Beach back to Rye after a lengthy walk, we paid £5 for two adult to climb aboard a Stagecoach bus.

This year, getting back from Hythe to Folkestone – around five miles, given where we got on and off – the bus fare was £6.40 (also Stagecoach). To clarify: both of these were daytime trips and outside any rush hour.

And dear Stagecoach – the mock leather seats do not compensate.

According to the Financial Times, the company’s pre-tax profits fell by 37% in the year to April this year (partly due to capital expenditure). The poor lambs only made a meager £104.4m.

Rip-off Britain, anyone?

But back to the food.

Driven out of London by the second festival to be staged just 100m away from us this summer, we decided to go away on a bank holiday for the first time.

Time was short. The flyer informing us that the park would be busy for six nights, plus set-up, rehearsal and then the strike, landed on the doormat just over a fortnight ago.

The Other Half suggested a longer sojourn in Folkestone than our first visit in June, when a two-day rap/dance/garage/whatever-the-hell festival had, by the end of the Saturday, left us in danger of throttling each other and in vital need of escape the following day.

Discovering that it’s only an hour (on the fast, more expensive) train from St Pancras to Folkestone, we’d headed to the coast.

This time around, we managed to book a couple of nights in an old-fashioned hotel on the promenade. A week later, we suddenly thought that, given that it was a bank holiday, it might be worth considering eating opportunities in advance.

Bass done scarily 'raw'
After a spot of Googling, we were just able to grab a 9.15pm booking at Rocksalt, the town’s only eatery to bother the good people at Michelin.

Having checked in to our hotel, we headed down to the harbour in search of a late lunch – still over six hours before dinner. Rocksalt is actually slap bang on the harbour – an unobtrusive, modern building that backs onto a collection of traditional fish ‘n’ chippies, seafood cabins and fishmongers.

There we bought fodder and sat down on a bench to eat, free entertainment provided by an example of local colour to our left, regaling listeners with something or other, while swigging from a bottle of red wine, and a seagull who was trying to telepathically divorce us from some of our chips (they’re polite seagulls in Folkestone), while watched and mimicked by a young gull.

Two points here. First, it’s tempting, but don’t feed gulls (yes, I know I’ve done so in the past): it’s making them behave aggressively and causing talk of gull culls.

Second, the takeaway was perfectly good for what it was. My complaints about food are not a snob thing that excludes such eating: it’s simply that, whatever type of meal I’m having, I still expect it to be good for what it is.

Indeed, the pub lunch that we had the following day at the Britannia Inn in Dungeness, after a morning spent walking over difficult terrain, in a howling wind, was also an example of being absolutely right for what and where it was (in my case, scampi, chips and mushy peas, with a glass of good Kentish ale on the side).

But I digress.

On Saturday evening, after dark had descended, we too descended back to the harbour. We were particularly fortunate to be offered a table on the terrace, directly above the lapping sea.

I say “particularly fortunate”, because inside was rather noisy. So was outside, to be fair, but since it wasn’t enclosed, it was less annoying. There is something about British diners: going out for drinks first before going on to eat.

Rocksalt is not a curry-after-the-pub eatery. The anti-social – and loud at those levels is anti-social – diners were neither posh nor ‘chavs’. And it was not younger diners that were the loudest either. A middle-aged group sitting four tables away from us could be heard throughout, with one of the women having to be escorted to and from the loo, and then later, out to a taxi, as she couldn’t stand up properly.

As we neared the end of our own meal, a group inside could be heard boisterously quaffing pints and ordering lobster, having arrived late. The staff looked less than impressed.

It’s not a joke when I say that I have no memory of anything comparable on the Continent (unless one is near Brits or visitors from the US).

But anyway, to the food.

As an amuse-bouche, we were brought fresh bread with a platter of toppings: the house taramasalata, butter, a butter mixed with pork fat, seaweed crisps and, of course, salt.

Every bit of that was lovely – and my goodness, that taramasalata was a dream of real delicacy, while the porky butter, when sprinkled with a little of the salt, was ... well, I’ll let your imaginations do the work.

I had a starter of bass, marinaded in gin, and served with a scallop, fried in a batter made with tonic water. It came with shreds of red chili, black olives, beautifully crisp pickled cucumber slices and a scatter of baby coriander leaves.

Little aside – this being Britain, our waitress had to check that I did know that it wasn’t cooked.

The fish was delightful: tender and delicate, while the scallop complimented it nicely and the garnishes worked fine – even the coriander, which as baby leaves, wasn’t overpowering and soapily unpleasant, as I usually find it.

The Other Half enjoyed his duck egg with black pudding, girolles and samphire – even though he thought the egg a fraction overdone.

For a main, he opted for the lemon sole with a hollandaise and I went for the Dover sole – in my case, this came with a brown butter with capers, and was simply superb.

The Other Half's duck egg, girolles and samphire
Delicate flesh, incredibly fresh and excellently cooked, with the capers cutting through the natural sweetness of the fish – this was why simplicity is wonderful.

For accompaniments (another British oddity) we chose Kentish cauliflower dressed with cobnuts and lemon, and a selection of seasonal green beans and peas.

Both were good – the cauli was a veritable treat and will be tried at home.

For dessert, The Other Half enjoyed a gin jelly, with Kentish strawberries and a lime and tonic sorbet, while I availed myself of a row of the restaurant’s own sorbets: raspberry, strawberry and black cherry, which simply sung with an abundance of real fruitiness.

On the wine front, we kept it simple with a Domaine Saint Felix 2015 from the Languedoc: a light white with citrus notes.

House-made fudge – instantly evoking northern bonfire nights of childhood – came with coffee.

A top-class meal, with very good, pleasant service, Mark Sargeant’s Rocksalt may not be cheap, but for this sort of dining experience, it was far from being over the top.

Fast forward 24 hours.

Almost from the moment we decided to make this trip, we had planned to visit Dungeness on our full day in the area, traveling to and from nearby Hythe on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. As such, we envisaged feeling fairly knackered by the time we got back to the hotel that evening.

With that in mind and after internet searches revealed a paucity of decent places to eat on a Sunday night – chains in the town are noisy – we had settled for the idea of dining in the hotel.

Like others of its ilk, our temporary abode thinks it still has to do Edwardian grandeur. Which helps to explain the attempted silver service and a menu that is stuck firmly in the 1970s.

Pity the poor vegetarian – they, and anyone else requiring ‘gentle’ food – faced the prospect of an omelette. And on the basis of the scrambled egg at breakfast ...

When away from work, I’ve dined in such places rather more often than The Other Half, and so was perhaps less surprised by the whole business – and it wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced anyway.

I feel for the staff: they’re not trained to the standard the hotel is attempting and they’re totally flustered when, for instance, you actually make a selection from the wine list that they’ve give you.

Heaven forfend if you actually ask for a bottle of wine – not just a glass of the house whatever.

It was an £18 Gew├╝rztraminer. After waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... I called the waiter over to ask what was up, only to be informed that his colleague was in the cellar, hunting. Moments later came news that it wasn’t to be found.

Next try – a £10 bottle of an English white that was on the wine list’s ‘sale’ page.

Some time later – by which point I’d finished my centimetre-thick slab of Ardennes pat├ę, served with melba toast, a doorstep of cucumber, a quarter of tasteless tomato and two fistfuls of frizzy lettuce doused in a thick Balsamic glaze – we heard that that was gone too.

“It’s been a busy weekend”, our waiter offered by way of a difficult-to-believe explanation.

We quickly ordered a large glass each of the house white. It turned out to be inoffensive and utterly unmemorable. Unmemorable, that is, except for costing £6 a glass.

For a main, we both opted for cod fillet in a lemon and herb crumb, with a dill cream sauce. Roast spuds and assorted roast veg were served on the side, by our waiter.

It wasn’t bad, but have you ever tried cutting into a roast potato with a traditional fish knife?

Dover sole with brown caper butter – and accompaniments
I concluded with ice cream and strawberries on the grounds of safety.

Yet around us, other guests were lapping it up and lavishing praise on the food.

And then there was the family of three from Yorkshire, who sat down behind us and said they didn’t need to see the menu – they’d have the roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, but “fetch us one with gravy on the plate and two with gravy on the side”.

I wish that I could amply describe the Yorkshire-born Other Half’s expression!

One of the other guests who was enjoying it all sent his breakfast bacon back on both mornings we were there – demanding it be cooked more. On the Monday, it was sent back twice before he found it to his taste. By that stage, they’d presumably substituted meat for old boot leather.

What a contrast.

Yet these contrasts provide yet further evidence of why traveling in the UK is fraught with issues. Thankfully, Rocksalt proved that it doesn’t always need to be the case. I really do hope to eat there again, but in the meantime, could someone unlock the mystery of why so many Brits struggle to eat a meal in a way that doesn’t impinge on their fellow diners?