I don't want to be negative about the "Garden of England" but the area around the Chapter One restaurant suffers from a slight reputation problem. Since the 1950s, this suburban district on the edges of Farnborough, Croydon and Bromley has been considered Desperado Central: a lawless terrain of mock-Tudor homes and gated communities where retired armed robbers, Cockney racketeers and their kohl-drenched partners in crime used to retire to spend their ill-gotten gains. Of course, this is a foolish cliché, like the idea that Kent is full of gin-soaked lechers motoring to roadhouses in Maidstone with young popsies called Joy or Samantha in the MG's passenger seat. But there's a real feeling of stepping into the past about stepping into Chapter One.
For years it was The Fantail, then The New Fantail, before acquiring its present name 17 years ago. The original mock-Tudor establishment has been given a modern extension, but carries an authentic 1950s vibe. It's years since I encountered a restaurant with a long horizontal window (overlooking a rather horrible car park); mind you, it's a while since I encountered net curtains either. Or long vertical mirrors, used to create a shimmer effect behind the banquettes. You can almost hear Sinatra singing "Fly Me To the Moon" on the PA (though there isn't a PA or, thank heaven, any music). It's the kind of place to which you think you remember coming with your parents, and drinking Irish coffee. But there's a relaxed, nostalgic feel about it, and the waiting staff pamper you the minute you sit down.
The head chef, Andrew McLeish, trained with Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico and has inherited all the great man's virtues. His cooking combines vertiginous sophistication with fabulous flavours; the beauty of his creations doesn't mean that he skimps on taste. My smoked eel with beetroots and celeriac featured quite the prettiest frilly rasher of bacon (sorry, chargrilled pancetta) I've ever seen, with a beetroot jus like an elongated lollipop. It was delicious. So was a raviolo of langoustine, with a whole crayfish inside the toothsome pasta. Salmon gravadlax was thick-sliced and happily accessorised with poached quail's eggs and a fennel salad. Even the unpromising "compression of pig's head" looked beautiful and tasted intensely piggy while a hazelnutty mousse married with it perfectly.
There was a slight hiatus in delivering the four main courses – two sat before the lady guests, the other two remained in the kitchen, while the maître d's eyes flickered nervously. I took the opportunity of ordering more Argentinian Malbec (excellent at £25) from the splendid wine list, and all was well. The mains maintained the high standard. Pan-fried wild halibut was sweet and moist, and the accompanying shredded celeriac danced along with tiny St George mushrooms; the only bum note was a superfluity of lobster foam. (Hasn't foam had its day now? Can we please go back to sauce?) Poached and roasted quail wrapped round melting-away foie gras was a rich choice, lifted by braised red cabbage. Sea bass, lightly cooked with cockles in butter sauce, inspired memories of East End pub-land circa 1959, and came with some lovely samphire of the edible, non-twiggy kind. I had three versions of veal, beautifully arrayed like a Viking longboat: the rump was pink and nondescript, sweetbreads were divinely crispy and veal cheek was a revelation – astonishingly brown and fibrous.
A word about vegetables. We treated them as an afterthought and tried them when our main courses were finished. They were astounding. When were carrots ever so tasty? How do you mash potatoes to the unearthly consistency of Chapter One mash, so delicious you feel you'd eat it in bed for breakfast? It's sous-vide cooking that does it, apparently; I'm becoming a passionate fan.
One of the many fine things about this restaurant is its sensible pricing policy. All starters are £7.50, all mains £17.50, all puddings £7.50. I thought the price a bit steep for puddings, but we all shared an assiette of desserts for a £2.50 supplement. The iced peanut parfait with strawberry sorbet was a stunner, the blood-orange trifle was rather ordinary, and the hot chocolate fondant with vanilla ice-cream close to paradise. I haven't room to mention the cheese course (luckily I had room on the night), but I think, by now, you get the picture.
Chapter One is my top gastronomic find of the year so far. Hats off to Mr McLeish and his talented team. And when I tell you there's currently a Monday-to-Saturday two-course lunch promotion for £14.50 (three courses £18.50) – what are you waiting for? I can hear the squeal of those MG tyres from here to Maidstone.
Chapter One, Farnborough Common, Locksbottom, Kent (01689 854848)
About £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Kent classics
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