Apicius, restaurant review: 'Enough panache to tempt me to move to Kent'

 

Cranbrook in Kent is the kind of place my generation is about to move to. It is almost within an hour's reach of London by rail and road, you can get more than a one-bedroom shoe box for half a million pounds, there are decent cricket pitches, it has an excellent co-ed grammar boarding school which sends kids to Oxbridge and, above all, there is a wonderful restaurant called Apicius, in which you can drown your sorrows with other parents after you've dropped off little Winston and Marla for the new school term.

Marcus Gavius Apicius was one of the original gourmands, a Roman Ramsay in the time of Tiberius so notorious for his gastronomy that Seneca called him the man who "proclaimed the science of the cookshop". He liked flamingo tongue and had his thoughts collected in various works that have been described, by food enthusiasts keen on antiquity, as precursors to Nigella, Yotam, Delia and all the rest.

In the kitchen here is another worthy successor: Tim Johnson, who used to be personal chef to John Paul Getty Jr. His wife Faith, a charming lady of South African provenance, is one of only two front-of-house staff, and explains that they opened this place nine years ago with the money they got when Getty died. Did you marry him for his cooking, I ask. "I married him for his passport," she says. What a bonus the cooking turned out to be.

The menu is pleasingly short, with five starters, mains, and desserts. But despite its brevity, there is no shortage of glamour. We are here with my aunt Mary, unquestionably the most glamorous person I know, so the menu and our party seem a natural fit.

For her starter, Mary has the vegetarian option, despite not being vegetarian. Just as well, as in my book, leek and potato velouté and toasted brioche crouton is not really veggie when it's served with poached duck egg. It is magnificent, though; the hot, velvety velouté an ideal receptacle for a perfectly poached egg.

I have very good lamb sweetbreads with a punchy celeriac purée, parsley salad and pungent garlic crisps; and Charlie has the wild sea bass ceviche with fennel, pickled ginger, pomegranate salad and soy sauce. It feels a curious oriental excursion from a European menu, the ginger could do with more pickling, the pomegranate is too sparse, and in general the whole plate wants a touch more acidity and oomph.

Aside from that, however, the food is generally outstanding, and probably worthy of an addition to the one Michelin star that Johnson received years ago.

Of the mains, I have a scallop-and-bacon brochette with truffle linguini that is hard to fault. Charlie's main of slow-roast shoulder of Kentish pork with creamed potato, braised fennel, prunes and confit shallots is excellent, the pig very tender, and the prunes a willing messenger between it and the buttery potato. Mary has a muscular and moist roast monkfish tail with braised puy lentils, pancetta, artichoke purée and red-wine jus, and it is just impossible to fault, tasting of sea and spring with each moreish mouthful.

For the desserts, we have a chocolate ganache with tarragon ice-cream, a bunch of sorbets, and a reblochon cheesecake. I've started to notice this around and about, an ultra-cheesy cheesecake, and it must be said it won't be to everyone's taste. There is a sharp, tangy kick to the reblochon, which is a total outlier if you're expecting sweetness. But its texture is its salvation: smooth rather than chalky, it rewards time on our palates in a way the other desserts don't.

For no particular reason, we also have a plate of very good cheeses, some dessert wine, and another glass from a generally excellent wine list. I think it is partly because of the feeling of immense comfort that this small dining-room generates. And also because it just oozes class.

Johnson worked for years under the great Nico Ladenis, and also such giants of the trade as Gary Rhodes, Roger Vergé and Andy McLeish. The technical competence and creative flair of his dishes are testimony to those rewarding apprenticeships, and at £32 for three courses over lunch, Apicius must be one of my favourite recent discoveries outside of the capital. And probably enough to warrant me and all my mates moving to Cranbrook.

8.5/10

Apicius, 23 Stone Street, Cranbrook, Kent, tel: 01580 714 666. £100 for two, with wine

Four more things I've been eating this week

Ginger snaps

Biscuit of the week is this 65-calorie-a-go crunchy companion from M&S. Could do with more flavour, but lovely texture for tea.

Geeta's mango chutney

After you've tasted my mum's stuff, most bottled chutneys are terrible. This one is actually more than half-decent.

Celeriac soup

I'm having a soup moment, to help me lose weight. (Can't you tell?). Celeriac with a dash of chilli can be glorious.

Prawn mayo on oatmeal

Sometimes, soup just won't do. I'm into prawn mayo right now, again from M&S, and had four of these last week.

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