Thackeray's, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Tracey MacLeod finds classy dining in the heart of Kent - and not a disgruntled old colonel in sight
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I'm not sure how Tunbridge Wells acquired its reputation as the grumblers' HQ of Middle England; one theory is that retired military types tended to make their homes there, then spent their twilight years firing off correspondence to newspapers deploring what they saw as slipping standards.

I'm not sure how Tunbridge Wells acquired its reputation as the grumblers' HQ of Middle England; one theory is that retired military types tended to make their homes there, then spent their twilight years firing off correspondence to newspapers deploring what they saw as slipping standards.

Now that those old buffers are dying off, and their splendid Decimus Burton homes are being taken over by affluent young families, it's surely time for this pretty spa town to lose its crusty image. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive when I received a hand-written letter postmarked "Tunbridge Wells" – could I have inadvertently caused offence in a previous column by splitting an infinitive, or making a non-U reference to a fish-knife?

Happily, the letter wasn't a green-inked reproach, but an invitation to visit a new restaurant in the town. Thackeray's has a promising provenance. It was recently taken over by Richard Phillips, formerly executive chef at St Martin's Lane, the glamorous but slightly absurd Ian Schrager hotel in central London. I was intrigued to see how Phillips would scale down his act from the flashy high concept of that hotel's Asia de Cuba to a smallish restaurant in this most decorous of provincial towns.

Thackeray's (named for the writer who stayed there on his visits to Tunbridge Wells) occupies a 17th-century building just outside the town centre, surrounded by green open spaces and attractive architecture. "Is this the posh end of town?" I asked the cab driver who dropped me off. "It's all posh," he replied wearily. Tardis-like, the building's quaint exterior yields to a spacious interior of gleaming modernity. Sober neo-Georgian features – wood panelling, dark oak floors, and walls painted in a restrained National Trust-type grey, probably called something like Dead Stoat – have been enlivened with unusual modern touches like a mirrored reception desk. Upstairs, a couple of eccentric private rooms are decorated with post-modern disregard for history or geography: one has an African theme, the other majors on goldfish. But it's all done in the best possible taste.

With Dido warbling on the soundtrack, and a few tables of Kentish ladies-who-lunch already in situ, the dining room exuded the happy thrum of the perfect attractive, modern restaurant. In fact, I was looking forward to launching into a little riff about The Way We Live Now, when I recalled that was written by Trollope, not Thackeray.

Richard Phillips' cooking is basically modern French, but with eclectic global borrowings – roast monkfish tail comes with jasmine-scented cous-cous, sea bass fillet with buttered calamari noodles. There is no sign that the chef packed any Cuban ingredients when he left Asia de Cuba, but a starter of seared Szechwan crusted tuna is familiar from St Martin's Lane. It's a measure of the kitchen's ambition that on the daily changing set menu (£16.95 for three courses) one of the options was pot-roasted roe deer in a bitter chocolate sauce.

Lunch began with an amuse-bouche which delivered an entire meal's worth of satisfaction in a neatly turned portion of smoked haddock brandade, impaled with a tiny spear of crisp bacon. The dishes which followed were even more lovingly worked. Particularly elaborate was a roast quail salad which explored various combinations of quail and beetroot – the breasts were served crossed like épées on a cushion of marinated beetroot and carrot, while a confited leg was stuffed with chicken liver and morel mushrooms.

Lobster risotto had a gentle bisquey undertow and was flavoured with fresh vanilla, a marriage which, for me, made the dish slightly too reminiscent of rice pudding. I also fell victim to the tricksy presentation, by nibbling a thin spear protruding from my mound of rice in the mistaken belief that it was some kind of red vanilla pod. It was, of course, a lobster tentacle. Talk about Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

Main courses showed a tendency towards vertical elevation which would never get past the local planning department; "mille-feuille" of calf's liver proved to be a couple of perfectly cooked pieces, towered up on a foundation of potato and spinach. Baby sea bream, from the set menu, was given a Niçoise theme by the accompaniments, which included olive tapenade and potatoes marinated in balsamic vinegar.

The pudding list is shorter and less fancy than the preceding courses, but no less accomplished, if the cherry soufflé I sampled is anything to go by. Its pink depths were perfectly light and airy, save for the occasional fat cherry, and I was relieved to see fresh vanilla back where it belongs, in ice-cream.

Cooking of this inventiveness and verve will no doubt find favour with the Michelin inspectors in due course; they will also approve of the gleaming table settings, Villeroy and Boch tableware, and quietly accomplished front-of house staff. These last, like their boss, have left upmarket gigs in the metropolis to come to Tunbridge Wells, and it shows both in their expertise and their relaxed demeanour.

At around £45 a head, Thackeray's prices may not be that much lower than the London equivalent. But for that you get fantastic cooking, in an environment which cossets and cherishes the diner. Even the residents of Tunbridge Wells would find it hard to complain. E

Thackeray's, 85 London Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (01892 511921). For more literary haunts, see 'Bites' overleaf.

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