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Restaurant review: The Hythe Imperial

PUBLISHED: 09:33 03 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:33 03 July 2018

Beef with apricot jus (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Beef with apricot jus (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Back at the very top of its game, the Hythe Imperial effortlessly blends the best of both modern and traditional

Can you guess where I am? From my regal roll-top bath I’m gazing out at kite surfers zipping along a lively seafront.

I get an even better view when I pad over in complimentary robe and slippers to my private lounge and peer at their prowess through an old-fashioned, floor-standing brass telescope.

I’m literally in the best room in the house, the sumptuous Belcourt Suite, in one of my favourite hotels in Kent – but it’s a Hythe Imperial I’ve only seen hinted at one previous visits I’ve made over the years.

The attractive, colonial-style Coast Restaurant (photo: Manu Palomeque)The attractive, colonial-style Coast Restaurant (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The grand old lady by the sea has emerged from a massive transformation that has cost several million but is money superbly well spent. Back in 2016, when I was last here, it was all very much work in progress – the fabulous Moët & Chandon Bar was on the verge of opening, the bedrooms hadn’t been upgraded, public spaces looked a bit tatty and the exuberantly colourful Holy Pundit Indian fusion restaurant in the basement was an empty space and a dream.

There was no jaw-droppingly spectacular crystal chandelier, hand crafted by Kent’s very own specialist Wilkinson, extending the length of the entire stairwell.

And there was also no Nick Gauntlett, the executive director who has driven the change and is already seeing results.

Pan-fried scallops with Serrano ham (photo: Manu Palomeque)Pan-fried scallops with Serrano ham (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The Hythe Imperial is justifiably delighted by its improved AA grading and the retention of the coveted AA Rosette for its Coast restaurant following a recent inspection.

Admittedly, I am being spoilt rotten with the Belcourt Suite, which not only has 180-degree uninterrupted sea views, but is also set back from the other rooms on a mezzanine level off the third floor and boasts its own entrance lobby, living room and lounge, vast bedroom and even electric blackout blinds, for heaven’s sake.

But even the so-called ‘standard’ rooms are bigger than any superior room I’ve stayed in (Nick has actually had the number of rooms reduced to gain more space), and all have now been given a beautiful new look that includes some notably funky wallpaper that I love.

Executive director Nick Gauntlett (centre) with some of his team at the welcoming hotel entrance (photo: Manu Palomeque)Executive director Nick Gauntlett (centre) with some of his team at the welcoming hotel entrance (photo: Manu Palomeque)

With 92 bedrooms and no two the same, ranging from intimate and cosy to spacious and decadent, sea view or garden view – even cottage-style suites and family rooms with bunk beds – there’s something for all generations here.

The vast corridors are now gleaming in their silvery grey and white decor, with atmospheric black and white framed photos of local scenes on the walls.

Wallow in the tub complete, I drag myself away from my private haven and descend to the ground floor. Young Daniel, who had greeted me on arrival with a beaming smile and polish that belied this being only his second day on conceirge duty, miraculously popped up again at the lift as I exited and ushered me into the spacious, airy Coast Restaurant.

The sumptuous Belcourt Suite (photo: Manu Palomeque)The sumptuous Belcourt Suite (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Here head waiter Sergio Morretti was waiting to welcome me and I commented on how smart he looks, as do all the staff.

Service at the Hythe, by the way is impeccable, from Daniel’s first greeting to the efficient yet always warm welcome at reception and the restaurant staff, who deliver dishes in a calm, smoothly effortless manner that is deferential but entirely charming.

Food, I’ll be honest, hasn’t been the Imperial’s strongest side in the past but head chef John Bingley has changed that and it’s now on an entirely different level.

The Hythe Imperial enjoys a commanding seafront position (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Hythe Imperial enjoys a commanding seafront position (photo: Manu Palomeque)

In its most recent report, the AA awarded the Hythe Imperial a rating of 82 per cent, two per cent up from last year’s report and close to the top of the band for four-star hotels (which goes up to 84 per cent). The restaurant has retained its AA rosette and I’m about to find out why.

After delicious, warm beetroot bread with sea salt butter, first up is my pretty starter of juicy pan-fried scallops with peas, Serrano ham and black pudding nestling beneath a lacy Parmesan crisp, which tastes even better than it looks (see left). My notes even say ‘faultless,’ although one small caveat: I could have chosen a Sauvignon Blanc for my first course and a Malbec for my main all on my own, but it would have been rather nice to have been offered some more imaginative food and wine pairings.

Could the main course live up to my ‘faultless’ accolade? Boy oh boy, it could. Darkly delicious beef that cut like butter and packed a massive flavour punch complemented by the sweetness of an apricot jus was finished off with a soft herb sauce and perky whole carrots on top.

Pudding was a full-on, very more-ish feast of chocolate and salted caramel mousse with beurre noisette ice cream and a candied hazlenut crumb, a delightful sweet/sharp balance and again so pretty on the plate.

Coffee and a snifter of vintage Port in the Martello Bar was all I could manage after a really well-balanced and executed meal.

I’d advise hotel guests and non-residents to patronise Coast as often as they can – there are some really positive changes here in the Imperial kitchens and it was good to see the place buzzing on a mid-week night.

So it was up to my extremely grand quarters, where I enjoyed a great night’s sleep in my luxury Seventh Heaven superking-sized bed, those blackout blinds ensuring nothing woke me until a clear, bright morning.

I took breakfast at the buffet rather than ordering from the menu – just to check, you understand: all was hot, tasty and perfectly cooked, even notoriously difficult scrambled eggs in bulk. Good coffee, too.

It was time to bid a fond farewell to staff – who now felt like close friends – and give a quick resumé to Nick, who was endearingly relieved by my very positive comments.

He shared with me some exciting changes still to come – including a brasserie at the front to maximise those glorious sea views – so I’m going to have to come back again (sigh).

If you need an escape from the ‘real’ world, head to this coastal haven and lose yourself in its great mix of old-school charm and 21st-century facilities.

The essentials

What: Elegant Victorian hotel on the seafront

Where: Hythe Imperial, Princes Parade, Hythe CT21 6AE. 01303 267441, reception@hytheimperialhotel.com

When: Open daily for breakfast and dinner, plus a traditional roast lunch every Sunday

How much: pan-fried scallops with Serrano ham £12, rolled pork belly, crackling scraps, apple purée, fennel, tenderstem broccoli and pork sauce £19, beetroot and chocolate cake, raspberry sorbet, chocolate crumb £4

Meet the chef

John Bingley

Tell us a bit about you

I’ve been a chef for 18 years, first with P&O ferries then at the Hythe Imperial, where I’ve been head chef for more than two years now. What I enjoy about the role most is that I’m able to write all my own menus, from banqueting to fine dining. My sous chefs Andy Holden and Andy Mintram and I started with no experience in fine dining until two years ago and through being self taught we were able to achieve an AA rosette award within the first five months of being here and have maintained that standard. That’s what I am most proud of.

Your main suppliers?

For our meat we use T&L Coopers from Ashford. For our dry goods and fine foods we use Albion Fine Foods. For our fish we use Chapmans out of Rye Bay. For our fruit and vegetables we use Hillards

Your favourite dish on the menu?

Our take on a lamb tagine. Last summer we were at the Hythe Food Festival and I made a dish that was a lot more rustic which had great feedback. I workd out how to refine it so we could put it in the restaurant and here it is on the menu.

Top cookery tip?

Good seasoning and understanding how to extract and enhance the natural flavour as much as possible.

Key influences?

People I follow on social media like Nathan Outlaw, Gareth Ward, Graham Garrett, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay

Breakfast this morning?

Two slices of brown toast, three eggs scrambled and a big cup of coffee.

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