I mention Kent's famous spa town, home of that legendary man of letters- to-the-Telegraph who goes by the name of "Disgusted", not because I seriously believe it ranks alongside the others in my list, but because I ate there for the first time last week. The experience reminded me (and I needed reminding) that one of the least exploited benefits of living in London, food-wise, is the possibility of leaving the city after a day's graft, for a relaxing dinner out of town.
The suggestion was made by friends who live in East Sussex, whom we hadn't seen for far too long. After a number of aborted weekend plans we decided to stop the rot with a mid-week dinner, at a location that more or less bisected the distance between us. Given that we wanted to travel by train (specifically to travel back by train), Tunbridge Wells was the obvious place to stick the pin in the map.
So we shared the 6.45 from Charing Cross with a herd of besuited commuters. While they stared holes in their papers, or snoozed fitfully, we looked out of the window. It's hardly surprising that, making the journey for the ump-teenth time, they were not motivated to count the hovering kestrels, or marvel at the blossoming hawthorn. They were, after all, just going home. We, on the other hand, were travelling.
Our destination had an incongruity that ser-ved to heighten expectations, but also admitted the possibility of disappointment: Tunbridge Wells's only Japanese restaurant, Igen, unlisted in any guide I could lay my hands on, but recommended by the friends we were meeting. I forgot to ask what the name means, but turn left outside the station, walk up the hill, and you'll find it just next to the cinema.
The seven or so mottled grey formica-topped tables are fixed to the floor and wall, and the lighting is a little on the harsh side. In short, the premises is minimalist and functional - without any of the cache that those adjectives can command in a cosmopolitan context.
When our friends Sarah and Adam arrived, Sarah was still expressing, as she had done on the phone, anxiety about their choice of venue: "We've only been here once," she reminded us, "and we thought it was great. But you know, it's not London." Not being London was just one nice thing about Igen. Another, related perhaps, was the staff. There were just two, both Japanese - allaying one of my fears about the unlikely location of the enterprise. One waitress did all the serving and one chef did all the cooking. Between them they had more charm and enthusiasm than the combined brigades of several large London restaurants I could name.
We all kicked off with mixed sushi. Instead of the eight or so pieces you usually expect, each portion consisted of only four. Had two of these been the make-weights of the average sushi set (bland boiled prawn and rubbery sweetened omelette) this would have been a disappointment. Happily these were nowhere to be seen. Instead we got fresh salmon fillet, belly of tuna (the best, fatty cut of the fish), salmon roe and pickled mackerel. And the portions were huge: almost too big, I thought, as traditionally each piece of sushi is meant to be eaten as a single mouthful. In this case I was sure it couldn't be done. But Adam proved me wrong, downing his salmon roe piece in a single chomp without so much as a grain of rice hitting the table. We all attempted to follow his heroic example, but not in every case with complete success.
The waitress, who barely stopped giggling the entire evening, cajoled us into sharing two other starters in which I had expressed an interest. Unagi kabayaki is grilled marinated eel fillets, and Igen's was superb; the sticky sweet soy-based glaze not quite smothering the rich oily meat of the eel. Gyu tataki, she told us, was "a Japanese version of steak tartare, only much better," unwittingly issuing a challenge to Marie - steak tartare is her desert-island dish. In this case the steak, presented in chopstick-friendly strips, is not quite raw, but has been flashed on a very hot griddle. The accompanying piquant sauce is wasabi based, and delivers that almost painfully pleasant kick of horseradish hotness up the nasal cavity. Marie loved it, but would not be drawn on the tartare comparison: "steak tartare is French," she said incorrigibly (for so is she), "this is Japanese."
We followed with vegetable tempura. The light crunch of the batter, and the variety of delicious fresh vegetables inside it (sweet potato, yellow peppers, lotus root, spring onion) were somehow restorative of appetite. At least, I don't think it was sheer greed that persuaded us to order another round of sushi. Our continuing dialogue with the manageress had revealed some as yet untried "specials": squid, scallop, and the aforementioned eel fillets, turning up with a similar glaze, this time on top of a fat finger of sushi rice. I was only too happy to be reminded just how good it was.
By the end of the meal, we all felt woozy and contented - and not just from the warm saki and cold Kirin beer. Atmosphere is a word much abused in the restaurant business. In truth it comes not from fancy furnishings, piped music, or even from fellow revellers (we remained the only table of diners throughout the evening). It comes simply from the company of friends, the food on your plate, and the warmth of the people who present it to you. In this case, all were well worth travelling for.