WHITSTABLE, a small seaside town on the north Kent coast about 112 hours from London, is the sort of place that seems to have been by-passed by the hurly-burly of modern life. Whitstable's long, pebbly beach, punctuated by weatherworn wooden breakwaters, is a stranger to amusement arcades, hotels and burger bars. Instead, rows of wooden beach huts in faded colours and clapperboard houses look out, when the tide is low over acres of mud-flats. The little town is, in short - the very height of estuary chic: (think Derek Jarman's garden, think Long Island Beach House, think Hamish, think driftwood, think Sizewell B.)
The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Co Rest-aurant is entirely in keeping with the mood. A converted Victorian schoolhouse, right on the beach, with bare floorboards, whitewashed brick walls, rickety wooden chairs, gingham tablecloths and pastel sea views, it gives you the most pleasing twin sensation of being an ancient Kentish oyster fisherman, and someone frighteningly stylish from the pages of Elle Decoration, both at the same time. All sorts of London media types, it seems, frequent it, as do several members of the Cabinet. "Nozzer" Lamont, locals claim, is in there pretending to be an ancient oyster fisherman-cum-interior decor magazine model practically all the time.
It wouldn't be a very good place to come, though, if you didn't like fish. There is no escape from sea creatures: lobsters, eels, oysters, anchovies, halibuts and skates, pan-fried, chargrilled or poached, from pounds 4 to pounds 6 in starter form and pounds 9 to pounds 25 as main courses. When you eat seafood so close to the sea, you imagine they have just scuttled up the beach to present themselves in a helpful, self-effacing manner at the kitchen, or at least been purchased that morning on the jetty from Captains Birdseye or Pugwash. But it seems that the British sea is no longer a kind of paella without rice. Although the oysters are local, most of the fish come from far and wide. Nevertheless the other diners - fashionable young couples, up-to-the-minute babies wearing bandanas, and Howard's Way-style grown- ups (but sadly no Hezzas, Nozzers or Hurdys) - were tucking in happily to fish so whiter-than-Persil-white you expected it to come out in holes at any second.
It being an oyster restaurant, I thought I ought to have oysters - something I've managed to avoid before. (As a friend of mine puts it, "Why eat a cold?") With oysters, quite a lot relies on presentation because, frankly, if you took half a dozen of them out of their shells they wouldn't look very appetising. The restaurant had, however, made a most attractive montage out of the flaccid creatures, arranging them in their shells on a tin tray covered in ice, garnished with two different kinds of seaweed. "It's edible seaweed. It's got a weird name," said our waiter, only remembering when my companion questioned him that, actually, one of the edible seaweeds was not edible at all and had recently been picked up on the mudflats. That sort of sloppiness about what is and isn't edible on the table is very irresponsible and could easily lead to diners munching their way through serviettes like goats or breaking their teeth on the salt pots.
I managed to get the oysters - very reasonable at 75p each - down without incident by smothering them with the delicious shallot and red wine vinegar sauce and thinking about shopping. I think I would have preferred the sauce on its own, but had nothing in particular against the featureless molluscs until about four minutes later when I suddenly began to have the feeling that they might not be dead and still keen on swimming. My companion was in raptures about the dressed crab, though she had to leave the claws as she thought it was going to take her the entire afternoon to eat it.
The waiting staff were rushed off their feet but managed to be cheerful and attentive. You would have thought, said my companion, that having saved money on the uncomfortable old chairs, they could have forked out for another waitress or two. When our main courses arrived, though, concern for others was lost in our own pleasure. The parsley sauce on my grilled plaice tasted of fresh parsley - of all things - and was full of nip and flavours. The flat fish itself was in a delicious, subtly tangy coating and as white and fluffy inside as a tennis sock. "Ooh, look at that," said my companion, breaking into the flesh of the baked halibut, declaring it and the accompanying mustard sauce "Perfection".
The puddings were superb. My companion's apple tart was refreshingly tart, with a light, cakey pastry, while my bread and butter pudding was so spicily scrumptious I feared it would be gobbled by the undead oysters before my stomach had a chance to enjoy it.
With its easy, seaside ambience the place is a perfect escape for Sunday lunch or a hot weekend. The back of the building houses the tiny Imperial Oyster Cinema and the restaurant is candle-lit in the evening. The Oyster Co rents out fishermen's huts for pounds 15-pounds 20 per person per night. We decided to check them out.
"You need to talk to Richard, the owner," said our waitress, "but I'm not speaking to him." "Oh, I'm speaking to Richard," said another waitress. "But I think you'd better come back in an hour. He's very grumpy at the moment." When we returned, all became clear. Grumpy Richard was tall, dark, designer-stubbled, devastating and difficult. The fishermen's huts he showed us were lovely, but my companion was eager to get away, muttering: "I don't think there's any need to look upstairs, is there?" and "I think we should get back to London now."
"What's the hurry?" I said, scurrying after her and stealing a backwards look at Grumpy Richard. "That's exactly the type you fall for," she said, bundling me into the car. "We're getting away from here as quickly as possible. Especially with all those oysters inside you."Reuse content