Margate is changing. And these days – if you plan your route carefully – you can avoid anything that looks boarded up or burnt out. You can drive past the Turner Contemporary arts centre, and the smart bars overlooking the Margate sands, and park up in the old town for a bite to eat. It's not a long drive, admittedly. But you get the point. Just remember to park somewhere well-lit – change doesn't happen overnight...
The Ambrette is symbolic of the new Margate – it used to be known as The Indian Princess, but chef Dev Biswal decided that the name sounded too old-fashioned. So he changed it. The food is still resolutely Indian – Biswal still comes from Mumbai – but it doesn't serve curry. And there's pork on the menu. Biswal wants the Ambrette to be known as a modern Indian restaurant with a difference.
It sits on the premises of the old George Hotel, which dates back to the mid-18th century. But, like the rest of Margate, it still needs loving. And a coat of masonry paint. There are only two designated parking spaces and – according to a large sign on the wall – the council is pursing an aggressive clamping policy. I'm glad of a table by the window. Not for the view, you understand – more so I can keep an eye on the car.
My six-year-old daughter doesn't like anything spicy. And, in her short life, Indian has always been about the spicy. So I want the Ambrette's "Gourmet Set Lunch" (three courses for £19.95) to put an end to all that – to put to rest her delusion that Indian food is all about fat and gravy. I got her to Margate by promising her she can have her own choice of dessert. But when the food starts to arrive, there's no need for any more talk of bribes.
Biswal's signature dish of freshwater Nile perch is off the menu. So instead we try the claresse. We are happy to be told that claresse is a freshwater fish from the European catfish family. We are even more happy when we taste it. It is pan-grilled, but soft and sweet inside its crust of sesame seeds, black pepper and coriander seeds. We don't give the perch a second thought.
The brochettes of lamb have been marinated in pineapple, and roasted – over charcoal. They arrive at the table, as soft as paté, on a mildly spiced bed of sweet potatoes. It's the right time for the waiter to bring my daughter's lassi to the table. With a straw – one of those with a joint towards the top. "You can drink round corners," he says. "Cool," she says. And promptly forgets all about the mildly spiced bed of sweet potatoes.
I've always wanted to rid the world of reheated bread rolls, pre-grated Parmesan, and overfilled wine glasses. The list used to include inter-course sorbets, but when my daughter and I taste the Ambrette's granita with space dust, well, I change my mind. As the waiter arrives with tiny tasters of mushroom soup (with a dab of ginger) and vegetable spring rolls with a smear of chutney, we're having a ball.
The sea-bream kedgeree is the best dish of the day. It is creamy, like a good risotto, and sweet with coconut. My daughter has discovered that her naan bread, still shiny with ghee, is big enough for her hand, and she turns it into a glove puppet while we wait for a dense, wet carrot cake – sweet with condensed milk. It is enough to make my daughter put down her naan bread.
The pastry around my chocolate samosas is, all at once, crisp and soft, giving way to a rich, dark chocolate ganache inside. The dish pairs well with the cardamom sauce, but not the sun-dried rose-petal jam. Biswal does have a tendency to crowd his plates, but once he gets the recognition he deserves, maybe he will find the confidence to step back a bit.
These days, the residents of Margate know that they've got more to boast about than their combined bingo and tanning centre. They had donkey rides and deckchairs before anyone else, and their town earnt a unique position in British seaside history. Now they've got the Turner Contemporary – and the Ambrette. Wish you were here? Not just yet. But it won't be long.
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
The Ambrette 44 King Street, Margate, Kent, tel: 01843 231 504 Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Sunday. £47 for two, including drinks and service
Richard Johnson is founder of the British Street Food Awards (britishstreetfood.co.uk)
More from the Kent coast
Crab & Winkle
South Quay, The Harbour, Whitstable, tel: 01227 779 377
Lots of local seafood, served with aplomb, and at reasonable prices, too – the attraction that makes this restaurant above the fish market well worth a trip
Pier Approach, Central Parade, Herne Bay, tel: 01227 361 199
Typically old-fashioned French seafood restaurant, on the prom, complete with ocean views; friendly and cosy... but will perhaps be less so when its expansion programme has concluded
Wheeler's Oyster Bar
8 High Street, Whitstable, Kent, tel: 01227 273 311
Sublime and wonderful seafood at this unlikely, tiny hole in the wall, which never disappoints with its inventive food
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.comReuse content