My most memorable meal of last year was a dazzling lunch at Vatika, Atul Kochhar's restaurant at Wickham Vineyard near Southampton. There was something magical about eating wonderful Indian-influenced food in a high-windowed room surrounded by acres of vines. Rather like being in France, only with a more interesting menu.
I was hoping the magic might be repeated at Chapel Down, the Kentish winemakers whose sparkling wines have won international honours. Like Wickham, Chapel Down recently set up a destination restaurant in partnership with a named chef, in this case Richard Phillips, who already co-owns two restaurants in Kent, Thackerays and Hengist.
Phillips put in time with the Roux brothers and Marco Pierre White before becoming executive chef of the Sanderson and St Martin's Lane hotels (and thus responsible for some of the silliest designer restaurants to hit London). Now he's got his name over the door of a black-timbered Wealden barn in a sleepy corner of Kent.
Some elements of designer silliness have followed Phillips to the countryside. The first-floor dining room and comfortable bar area are studded with curiosities, as though someone had carried out a smash-and-grab raid at a design exhibition. In the bar, wing-backed armchairs have been covered in tweed suiting fabric, with a row of buttons up the arms, giving the illusion that you're sitting on the lap of a kindly uncle. The reception desk, unforgivably, is shaped like a giant corkscrew.
We were left un-greeted in the bar for ages, until I was forced to erupt into the dining room like a cork from a bottle of Champagne – sorry, "sparkling wine". Eventually, with an air of benign tolerance, we were seated in front of a very open kitchen, allowing us to see that on this particular Saturday lunchtime, the restaurant should more properly be called "Richard Phillips Not at Chapel Down".
There's a relaxed, continental feel to the place, which was thronged with a mix of age groups, perhaps attracted by the well-priced set menu, which offers two courses for £12.95. The waiter who distributed the prix-fixe menus looked taken aback when I asked if an à la carte menu was also being served. "Yes. Why, do you want to see it?" he asked, as though such an event was as rare as a solar eclipse.
The two starters we tried from the set menu seemed to belong in different restaurants. A robust smoked mackerel pâté with brown bread and beetroot relish, served on a wooden plank, was pure gastropub, while lobster ravioli in bisque was an altogether cheffier and more delicate dish.
From the à la carte menu, I liked a starter which did interesting things with a classic combination; thin, cured slices of beetroot held a delicate mousse of local goat's cheese, and crumbled walnuts were dotted over a drizzle of truffle-infused emulsion. Only the inclusion of cold, wet quails' eggs, apparently straight out of the fridge, let the dish down.
The schism between the hearty and the tarty continued with the mains; roast rump of Kentish lamb featured some of the best lamb I've had in ages, accessorised with a deconstructed ratatouille. Meanwhile, my friend was doggedly working her way through a hulking slab of beer-battered pollock and enormo-chips, while her husband was facing down a lamb "three-ways" from the set menu. This teamed slices of rump with side orders of grilled liver and heart, the latter so lightly cooked that it was still oozing blood. "I think there's a reason people don't eat heart," he concluded. "It's chewy and slimy."
The under-seasoned slab of layered potato which came with it was just one of several crimes committed against the potato in our name. Those triple-fried chips, tasting more of oil than potato, and the soggy "roasted" Jersey Royals alongside my lamb also implied that someone had a serious grudge against the poor vegetable.
A wildly over-salted piece of smoked cod, which could have been plucked from the Dead Sea rather than, as claimed, Rye Bay, and the underseasoning of most other dishes, spoke of a kitchen that was just phoning it in. And as for the waiters, they weren't even in e-mail contact. We never established who was looking after us, and – unbelievably in a wine restaurant – were offered no wine list. Instead, we made our selection – kicking off with a bottle of Chapel Down Brut (£29.50) – from the suggested wines by the glass on the menu.
A tired treacle tart and local cheeses, curling at the edges, added further ticks to the "could try harder" box. Which is a shame, because Chapel Down itself is run by people who do try really hard, and have built the wine operation up brilliantly. Sadly, on the evidence of our lunch, their restaurant, while having its sparkling moments, is distinctly non-vintage.
Richard Phillips at Chapel Down Smallhythe, near Tenterden, Kent (01580 761616)
Around £25 a head without wine. Set lunch £12.95 for two courses
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 10 per cent optional for parties of 8 or more – and 100 per cent of it goes to the staff. All tips go to the staff"