Age & Sons, Charlotte Court, Ramsgate, Kent
Saturday 07 November 2009
Despite a rumoured sighting of Samuel L Jackson in a Herne Bay barbers, it's fair to say that the Kent coast has some way to go before it rivals the Italian Riviera as a tourist destination. Anyone who, like Billericay Dickie, fancied a rendezvous with Janet quite near the Isle of Thanet would hardly be spoilt for choice when it came to boutique hotels and atmospheric local bistros.
The once-thriving royal resort of Ramsgate should, in theory, be the perfect destination for a daytrip to the seaside, thanks to the imminent high-speed rail link from St Pancras. I had it all planned: a blustery walk on the beach, fish bought straight from the boat, perhaps a little antiques shopping, before a hearty lunch eaten in sight of the sea. I was thinking, it turns out, of Whitstable. Ramsgate is not, nor could ever be mistaken for, Whitstable.
The short taxi ride from station to harbour (courtesy of a driver with "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles) took us past boarded-up shops and repossessed properties. It was clear that the flood of wealth which washed over south-east England during the last decade has largely by-passed this far easterly corner. As my fellow day-tripper Harry said, taking in the blighted landscape, "Suddenly I see the point of Brighton".
Ramsgate may not be as affluent as some, but it does have a restaurant of which any seaside town would be proud. Age & Sons was opened last year by brother and sister Toby and Harriet Leigh (their uncle is Rowley, the erudite chef/patron of London's Le Café Anglais). Chef Toby, after stints at The Anchor and Hope and The Hinds Head, wanted to open his own restaurant, but couldn't afford to do it in London. A family trip took him to Ramsgate, where he found a Victorian warehouse, formerly used by local wine merchants Page & Sons (the "P" had fallen off the sign). With sister Harriet on board as general manager, Age & Sons was born.
The Leighs have converted the three-storeyed building into a flexible social hub that functions as café, restaurant, bar and music venue. The ground-floor café is a family-friendly haven serving an all-day menu. Upstairs, there's a slightly smarter restaurant which radiates quiet good taste. Whitewashed walls rise to a gabled roof buttressed by exposed beams, while an old hoist recalls the building's industrial heritage. The white tablecloths are properly crisp, but the tableware is mismatched vintage china, possibly sourced from the town's charity shops.
Toby Leigh's menus are similarly characterful. This is modern British cooking with a distinctly Kentish twist. Fresh fish is at the heart of things, but doesn't dominate – there's plenty of meaty dishes such as devilled kidneys on toast or venison chop, as well as Mrs Miggins-ish specials like turnip pie. Locally foraged ingredients add an intriguing twist to well-known dishes; gravadlax comes with buckthorn berries, sea bass with samphire and sea beet and you can order a bowl of roast chestnuts to pick at while you're deciding.
Excellent (and complimentary) home-baked bread, including a pillowy focaccia studded with cherry tomatoes, got lunch off to a fine start. Lamb sweetbreads, pan-fried with girolles, were marginally overcooked, but the accompanying sea beet was a revelation – dark, shiny, chard-like leaves with a mild ferric bite. Harry asked our charming Antipodean waitress what "milts" might be and was told they were "a kind of roe". Like sweetbreads, they were more about texture than taste, as though essence of mussels had been infused into a small sponge. Good, though. I still haven't broken it to him that he was eating the fully-charged reproductive glands of the male herring.
Neither of our main courses would have won awards for beauty – Leigh seems to take a more-is-more approach to saucing. My poached sea-trout was swimming in a creamy ocean, while Harry's shoulder of lamb came with a jus-like gravy that transformed the dish into an idyllic version of Sunday roast, completed by slippery, butter-rich mash and a chunky salsa verde.
Puddings were well-made; a blousy greengage and almond tart with good, crisp pastry, and an elegant chocolate Nemesis sprinkled with lavender-like buds of dried fennel blossom and rock salt.
Clearly galvanised into manliness by his ingestion of herring sperm, Harry tried to order a port, but they were all out – a shame, given that we were in a port. With tide times listed on the daily menu, Age & Sons is clearly closely connected with the sea, and must be quite a draw for the sailing community based at Ramsgate Harbour.
Prices are reasonable, with starters all under £6 and mains from £10 to £16. Our lunch came to £35 a head, including a couple of glasses of wine each, from a list that specialises in minimally treated wines. As we paid, we asked our waitress to pass on our compliments to Mr Leigh, who is clearly a chip off the avuncular block. "We're the best restaurant in town," she told us proudly. Which I suspect may be something of an understatement.
Age & Sons, Charlotte Court, Ramsgate, Kent (01843 851515)
About £35 per head, including wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Kent cuisine
The £55 tasting menu here includes brill fillet with a smoked herring roe sauce and salt-cured Seasalter ham.
Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable (01227 273370)
Dishes at this one-Michelin-starred eatery include roasted quail with smoked bacon, red cabbage and raisin jus.
Farnborough Common, Locksbottom (01689 854848)
Small restaurant, big flavours; try the mouth-watering fillet of black bass with ragoût of artichoke, garlic, tomatoes and olives.
23 Stone St, Cranbrook (01580 714 666)
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