EATING OUT:Plain food, not vanity fare

THACKERAY'S BISTRO; 85 London Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1EA. Tel: 01892 537 559. Tues- Sat, lunch12.30-2.30, dinner 7-9.30; average two courses pounds 17. Tues-Thurs, set lunch pounds 7.50, dinner pounds 8.95. All cards except Amex and Diners

SPENDING the summer largely in East Sussex, I hope I can devote this and the next two columns to that area. It has a great many excellent pubs, some of them offering very ambitious pub food. But for a prosperous part of the country there are remarkably few good restaurants. Lewes, our county town, which five years ago had two, The Bull House and Kenwood's, now has one pretty run-of-the-mill Italian, a Chinese, two fish-and-chip shops, one good cafe, The Riverside Brasserie, in a converted warehouse by the river, and my favourite railway tearoom, The Runaway.

Eastbourne, where I remember being taken as a schoolboy in the Fifties to my first real restaurant, Chez Maurice, now has nothing but its hotels, and some of those have taken a dive into the cheapest end of the package trade, putting the once respectable Queen's gastronomically on a par with East Germany before the Wall came down. If anyone has discovered otherwise I should be delighted to hear about it.

The former home of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in Tunbridge Wells - a snug little red-roofed house with white-painted hung tiles and pretty gables, behind a wall at the top of the common just short of the Kent and Sussex hospital - now accommodates two restaurants: Thackeray's House, an expensive but frequently recommended haunt on the ground floor, and Thackeray's Bistro in the basement. They are jointly owned but separately managed. As the posher half was closed for their two-week summer break, I asked my wife to meet me in the Bistro.

We approached it from different directions and, as it turned out, with different expectations. My wife, who had loaded the car with plants for the garden, most of which fell out when she opened the back en route, found herself being laughed at by a bespectacled young man in a blue sweater. As my wife claims to enjoy being laughed at she immediately found the young man hugely attractive and asked him the way to Thackeray's Bistro. He told her how to get there, but said he didn't think she'd like the food very much.

I, on the other hand, having arrived by train, asked directions from an equally charming Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells colonel figure who managed to overcome any instinct to laugh at me, told me to follow the path along the south side of the common till I got to the very end, "and there it sits". "I think I can promise you," he called after me with grave good manners, "a very good lunch."

The door to Thackeray's Bistro is excessively discreet, hardly altered I imagine since Thackeray's cook put the bottles out, and is approached past a small dustbin yard. Inside it is low-ceilinged and rather dark, with one window missing a few glazing bars, having instead a pane of plain glass that could either have been where the air-conditioning used to be or where Thackeray's cook, if she drank half as much as he did, might have thrown the kitchen range. The walls are decorated with prints and photographs of a generally theatrical nature, including a particularly interesting picture of an English film star of the Thirties, Heather Thatcher, who bears a marked resemblance to the Terror of Chester Square.

The clientele was somewhere between the young man in the blue sweater and the obliging colonel, middle of the road and discriminating, and one couple sat at a table where the old kitchen range used to be, inside the beamed fireplace.

Upstairs in Thackeray's House, I discovered from a menu, we could have had a four-course set menu at pounds 42 a head, including turbot fricassee with lobster and samphire and Gressingham duck. The restaurant did not accept credit cards. Downstairs there was a similar warning, in this case that the Bistro did not accept luncheon vouchers.

Many of the starters or light meals, which actually included a ploughman's lunch, did not seem likely to reveal much about the cooking: a basket of crudites with avocado and salsa verde, or fresh Galia melon. Aware of our responsibilities, we therefore asked for a risotto with saffron and mussels and a cold - it was also available hot - watercress vichyssoise.

A loudspeaker on the shelf by my left ear was playing banjo solos. I managed to get the waiter to turn it down to a less obtrusive level, but as lunch went on I came to the conclusion that he wasn't the best person to have appealed to about noise, clattering plates as he did with the abandon of a flamenco dancer.

My wife had chosen the risotto and was slightly sniffy about it, suggesting that the rice was not of the best quality, that it was a bit overcooked, and that there was too much liquid. I thought it was perfectly all right and very wholesome, enjoying the flavour of the saffron and mussels, and quite happy with the two spoonfuls of what amounted to fish soup that remained when she had finished the rice.

My own watercress soup was satisfactory and well balanced, full of watercress flavour but perhaps lacking an edge. It needed salt and pepper.

For our main course I had lamb's kidneys with oyster mushrooms and my wife had noisettes of pork with sweet-and-sour onions. They came with broccoli, spinach and new potatoes. The onions, large ones cut into long shreds and served in a separate bowl, represented the most imaginative aspect of the cooking. Otherwise everything was plain and straightforward, only to be faulted, as my wife put it, for "lacking in finesse".

Finesse was possibly not what I was looking for in the apricot ginger and walnut pudding with toffee sauce, but even my wife admitted it was very good. She was also grudgingly approving of her strawberry burnt cream.

The bill, with two glasses of house white and two cups of coffee, came to pounds 41.05 plus the tip. They may not take luncheon vouchers, but they do accept credit cards.

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