If you've glanced straight at the score for this restaurant, let me explain. The food at Rocksalt scores a straight eight. It's excellent: fresh, imaginative and very, very well cooked. But the service is woeful: I mean properly bad.
And it all started so well.
I'm partial to the south-east coast – my friends Ann and Rick live in Broadstairs, Sally is down the road in St Leonards and Whitstable is Clerkenwell-on-Sea, it seems. Now Folkestone is getting a bit of big-city zhoozsh in the form of Mark Sargeant, another of those ex-Gordon Ramsay chefs making a noise on his own. Rocksalt is the first of his two projects in the town; the other – Smokehouse fish and chips – is coming soon.
So a weekend jaunt down to Folkestone it is. A stroll along the front to the harbour, bathed in sunshine, builds the appetite and the expectation – the dark-wood-clad building, with its sleek title picked out in white, can be seen from some distance.
The austere entrance is guarded by a Bond villain straight out of central casting. He makes sure we're not unexpected (Rocksalt is a hot ticket just a week in), then we have the big reveal – through a doorway into a curved room, of which one side is completely glass, with views over the harbour and sea beyond.
Folkestone is hardly St Trop, but the view is charming. A narrow strip of terrace would be delightful to sit out at during daytime; inside, the blond-wood parquet floor and dark-wood modern tables and leather-cushioned chairs are very modish.
Miss T asks for cherry Coke. The waitress says no but then, moments later, brings normal Coke and a saucer with three plump cherries, which is thoughtful and fun. Like I said, it started so well.
We nibble on some Kentish sourdough bread with Rocksalt taramasalata for £1.50. It's very good indeed, pale-pink, tangy and rich, and sets us up for starters proper: a tankard of grilled prawns, potted crayfish tails, fish soup and dressed crab with harissa and toast (all around £7.50). The generous shell-load of mildly spiced crab is my favourite, but the more poky crayfish ensemble is a close second. And the soup is the real deal: rusty orange with dense, shellfishy flavours. I consider a prawn but the tankard (it's a half-pint) is already empty and P is holding his greasy, shrapnel-flecked hands aloft. There's no finger bowl. We flag down a waiter. "Uh, sorry, I should have brought one."
The debris of the starters remains in front of us for 10 minutes. No biggie, since we're people- and seagull-watching and anticipating the arrival of duck-fat chips. A word about the menu: Rocksalt is very keenly priced. All sides are £2.50 and only the catch of the day is north of £15. This is sensible – Folkestone doesn't have quite the allure of, say, Southwold, so much of the clientele will be local – who should expect value for money.
Here, they definitely get it – on the plates at least. My main, today's catch of Dover sole with asparagus and sauté potatoes, is wonderful – a good-sized fish, buttery without and soft inside, with lovely seasoning. Mr M's special, sea bream, comes with samphire, crushed potatoes and coriander pesto. The fish is fabulous – meaty and generous, although the seasoning's on the mild side. The kiddos make short work of squid with lime and chilli, and lemon-sole fingers with mushy peas: from my forkful, both are very good examples of their genres.
This time the plates linger even longer – not ideal in any circs, but with fishy scraps it quickly becomes unpleasant. A waiter drifts over thrice, only to show a couple to a nearby (uncleared) table and take the bill to another couple. Is it just that we're at one end of the long room?
From a 7.30pm start, we finally get puds at 9.45pm, when the children are flagging. Excellent pavlova, chunky Bakewell tart and an imaginative cold chocolate and sea-buckthorn fondant give us enough energy to propel us back to our B&B.
If Rocksalt is to work, Mark Sargeant needs to fix the service, and fast. He's not in tonight, I'm told. He's not cheffing here at all, in fact – Simon Dyer is, and he's very good. The dozy staff forgot to put our two mains on the bill – which I only notice a day later. I've contacted Mr Sargeant as I really want this place to succeed. The sweet lady in my B&B was so excited about a smart new restaurant in town. Rocksalt's got pulling power, but it's going to take more than sourdough and salmon to keep people coming back.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Rocksalt 4-5 Fish Market, Folkestone, Kent, tel: 01303 884 633 Lunch, daily. Dinner, Mon-Sat. About £100 for two, with wine
Hambrough Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, tel: 01983 856 333
The view over the Channel is sensational, as is Robert Thompson's elaborate but delicate cooking at this fab hotel restaurant
The Seafood Restaurant
The Scores, Bruce Embankment, St Andrews, Fife, tel: 01334 479475
This striking glass box, hanging over the water, provides spectacular views over the bay, while its simple, fresh seafood is full of flavour
Portmeirion, Gwynedd, north Wales, tel: 01766 772 440
This wonderfully located dining-room in this fantasy-Italianate village, offers fantastic cooking (if with too many smears and foams for some)
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.comReuse content