Whitstable is famous for a lot of things, but I didn’t know Chinese tourists were among them. Like my wife and I, they’re in Whitstable for the oyster festival. The promenade is a crush, five people deep along a pebbled beach, and with water that looks none too welcoming. The only thing for it is to eat, and by far the most accessible option, in terms of space at least, is the Whitstable Oyster Company.
This cavernous building encompasses a bar area with counters boasting fresh fish on ice; a big first room; a massive second room at the back; and a terrace area on some decking which catches both the sun and an annoying drip from the pipes overhead. It’s here that we’re seated, in a very hungry mood.
Half-a-dozen Whitstable Bay oysters turn up, and they go down with a salty, squidgy slap; but at £16 they are far too expensive to justify six mouthfuls. The deep-fried squid with mayonnaise (£10.50) are thrice at fault: again, too few to justify the price; far too soggy a batter; and mayonnaise that’s been under-seasoned and lacks flavour. Better to do a light, crisp batter and serve it with aioli. Finally among the starters, we go for chargrilled razor clams with garlic butter. These are better, but ludicrously overpriced at £12.50 (you see a theme emerging here), and the butter needing much more in the way of fresh herbs, particularly parsley.
Just as a korma can be the test of a good curry house, so cod and chips is very often the best test of seaside restaurants, small or large. You want it served with moreish mushy peas that taste of childhoods past, and tartare sauce with a proper bite of gherkin. The fish should come apart in thick chunks that just about cling to a light batter. The dish in front of me, which at £16.50 is a tenner more than in my local chippy in Highbury in north London – and that’s Highbury! – meets some of these criteria, but not all. The cod is excellent, with a rich, fresh flavour, but the beer batter is again much too oily. The tartare sauce has a lovely kick and makes a happy adornment for some thick-cut chips. But the mushy peas are terrible; a damp, charisma-free stodge.
My wife Charlie’s half large local lobster with herb potato salad (“served cold”) comes in at £26, roughly double the price that would have rendered it good value. We were recently on the north Cornish coast, where you can buy an absolutely prime half lobster for £7.50 tops that smacks this Whitstable relation out of the park. It’s not that the Kentish version before me is awful. It has a strong, muscular texture and does taste sea-fresh, but there isn’t much of it and at the price of a bargain flight to Bordeaux, I wish we’d gone for something else. And the potato salad it’s served with has completed two-thirds of the journey to mash. Which is to say, the potato has been cooked a third too much. For an example of the perfect potato salad, I suggest Russ & Daughters in Manhattan, where among other strokes of genius they keep the skin on and slice the potato with a mandolin. And the best lobster in the world, by the way, is to be had on Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, where they transfer it from the Caribbean to an ocean of butter and garlic right in front of you, and charge £3 for the privilege. Whitstable was never going to match that, was it?
What has been a disappointing meal does have the advantage of good sides: a cucumber and radish salad has all the flavour, wetness and crunch we had hoped for; and sliced vine tomato comes with onion and basil. Both of these, at £3.50, mark an outbreak of good value.
Of the desserts, I naturally go for the salted caramel chocolate pot with Jersey cream on the side. This is magnificent, even if I do conspire to ruin it by pouring the entire, generous serving of cream over it. At £7.50 and probably 7,500 calories, this would be an (unhealthy) meal all by itself. The other very good dessert is a white chocolate cheesecake with raspberry coulis. It’s not easy to get coulis right: you have to have just the right amount of sweetness and acidic twang, and it has to be served cold. This one is spot-on: a technical triumph.
There are OK but expensive cocktails and an OK but expensive wine list, in keeping with an OK but expensive restaurant set up for tourists in search of “traditional” English cuisine. the irony being, of course, that those who know about traditional English seafood would never be seen eating in the company of touristsI rather wish we had visited one of the beach-front shacks instead; but, in fairness, the Chinese diners around us seemed very happy indeed.
Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1BU Tel: 01227 276 856, £110 for two, with wine
Four more Cornish treats
From the Port Gaverne Inn, and too darn good. Made with soft granary bread.
Waxed, softer than cheddar and with a stronger aftertaste, this is a great English cheese.
Steak and stilton pasty
From the Pengenna store in Tintagel. Simply the greatest pasty in the world.
A delicious local biscuit which goes beautifully with a cup of Earl Grey tea.Reuse content