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Thackerays, Tunbridge Wells reviewed

PUBLISHED: 11:20 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 11:20 10 January 2014

Elegant dining room at Thackerays

Elegant dining room at Thackerays

Archant

Kent Life visits its Restaurant of the Year winner

Back in January 2005, in my first month as editor of Kent Life, I called Thackerays in Tunbridge Wells to introduce myself and suggest that I reviewed their rather famous establishment.

My sheer nerve now amazes me (and I seem to recall chef-patron Richard Phillips even answered the phone). However, the friendly reception this new kid on the block received gives some indication why customers voted in their droves to name Thackerays their favourite restaurant in Kent in the very first Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Awards.

Nine years on and several reviews of this august establishment under my belt, I wasn’t quite so nervous crossing the threshold of William Makepeace Thackeray’s former home – and the welcome was not only just as warm but filled with the happy, fuzzy glow of celebration an award brings.

Near the town centre and facing the common, distinctively white-painted, weather-boarded, tile-hung and Grade II listed, inside all is crazy angles, low ceilings and ancient sloping wooden floors shiny with the patina of age and many footsteps.

My Double-Barrelled Friend and I were shown to the window seat in the larger of the two cool, contemporary downstairs dining rooms.

We loved the ‘traditional chic’ style and how an elegant yet boldly papered feature wall, modern artwork and cream Art Deco cruise liner-style chairs blended effortlessly with original beams and a subtle green-grey colour palette.

Upstairs there are two intimate private areas, the Fish Room and the African Room, seating 14 to 16, and in summer you can eat in the lovely Japanese terrace garden.

A glass apiece of Brut and Rosé Champagne set the tone for what was to prove a memorable evening and we were immediately fascinated by the choice of breads - Nigella seed and Rosemary, coffee and caraway or walnut and cranberry – which proved every bit as delicious as their descriptions.

Confusion then briefly descended when we were served what appeared to be the wrong starters – until we realised the very generous platefuls before us were in fact the amuse-bouche. Oops.

But a mere mouthful of organic hot smoked salmon served with Heritage beetroot and horseradish gel would not have been enough – this was a delicious (and very pretty in pink) way to begin our feast. The fish is even smoked to order, which really impressed.

It’s time to introduce the smartly black-clad young staff – who are all utterly professional, of course, but lovely and friendly with it and not remotely intimidating (one asked, tongue in cheek, if I was setting up a rival restaurant as I kept on scribbling notes).

And restaurant manager Gary Beach not only has a wicked sense of humour but also looks as if he’s really enjoying himself while he effortlessly orchestrates the room. MDBF made the mistake of telling him he preferred French wines, so naturally he wasn’t served one all night (ha!) – and Gary was spot on every time.

A typical example: with my starter of roasted saddle of Kentish rabbit, Medjool dates and Gruyère bread sauce – which sounds weird but the dates gave a lovely rich, melting quality to the subtle, gamey meat – Gary paired a glass of Quercus Pinto Bianco from Slovenia. A blissful combination and hare is my new favourite now.

And for MDBF’s “beautifully seared, firm and tasty” pan-fried diver-caught scallops served on a bed of roasted cep mushroom risotto, his ‘punishment’ for stealing my (usual) favourite dish was a Gewurtztraminer from Washington State. Inevitably, it was a great match. The French allegiance was definitely starting to wobble.

Our mains were triumphs, both very different. My Atlantic halibut was pan-fried to perfection, accompanied by roasted langoustines in wonderful dill-enhanced, truffle-infused velouté.

I’d have gone for a white wine, but Gary firmly declared that a meaty fish needs a meaty red and my Brouilly was indeed a suitably spicy and fruity match. Likewise, MDBF’s roast loin of Kentish venison deserved a vigorous, powerful red like the Teroldego Rotaliano from northern Italy (at least we were in Europe now).

“There’s a lot going on with this plateful,” he mused, alighting upon the tiny emerald outer leaves of sprouts filled with deep-fried chestnut.

It’s a typically barmy but beautifully conceived example of attention to detail by this magical restaurant team, which on this night included His Nibs Richard Phillips in the kitchen, no less, alongside the equally brilliant Dan Hatton.

With his very seasonal venison MDBF was also delighted to find how well pear poached in Port brought out the flavours of the meat and its jus, and that small, sweet and tender Piccolo (baby) parsnips are his new fave vegetable.

Timings between courses are perfectly judged, as are palate cleansers like the zingy lemon posset that really woke up our tastebuds before dessert. Mine was a wonderfully rich dark chocolate pavé, while MDBF’s mango and lemon cannelloni with ginger crumb, apricot sorbet and pineapple was simply (and modestly) described as ‘warm spiced pineapple and ginger cake.’

Try a pudding wine – we did, and my Hungarian Tokaji really enhanced the chocolate while a glass of Italian Moscato coped with all those citrus flavours in the ‘deconstructed upside-down cake’ (MDBF getting a bit carried away now).

On a busy Friday night, the restaurant full and the atmosphere buzzing, this still managed to be a relaxing, intimate occasion with the sense of being among friends and with a kitchen team very much not resting on their much-garlanded laurels.

Richly-deserve congratulations to our first Restaurant of the Year!

MEET THE CHEF

Daniel Hatton, head chef

How does it feel to win the Best Restaurant 2013 award?

Winning any award is always a massive honour for the restaurant and for all the people who have worked so hard to achieve the standards that we want to achieve at Thackerays. But winning the Kent Life Best Restaurant Award 2013 is just fantastic as it’s from the customers and general public, which makes it even nicer and the team even more proud. So a big thank you to everyone who voted.

What are you most proud of at Thackerays?

We currently hold some great awards, such as three AA rosettes and a Michelin star, but it’s not why we do it or the most important thing, it’s about the customers and pleasing the diners who come to dine with us.

What drives you to keep on improving?

My drive comes from my passion for food and keeping the customers and my staff excited. The food industry moves at such a speed you have to be able to keep up and get ahead of everyone else

If you were stranded on a desert island, what five ingredients and gadgets would you want so you could keep on cooking?

OK - in order:

1 My chef’s knife

2 Eggs, as they are so versatile

3 A heavy based pot for cooking and making salt

4 A fishing rod

5 A lighter, I can’t be rubbing those sticks

What’s your favourite dish at home?

My fiancée and I love Thai food and a favourite of ours is roast salmon with lemongrass, ginger, chilli, rice noodles and coriander and a soy broth. It’s healthy, fragrant and delicious

THE ESSENTIALS

Where: Thackeray’s Restaurant, 85 London Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1EA
01892 511921, info@thackerays-restaurant.co.uk
www.thackerays-restaurant.co.uk

What: modern French cuisine in an historic central setting

When: closed Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri and Sun 12-2:30 pm, 6:30–10:30 pm, Sat 12-2pm, 6:30-10:30 pm

How much: chef’s tasting menu £75 per person; from the à la carte: roasted saddle of Kentish rabbit £10.25, 28-day hung Herefordshire beef fillet £27.95, desserts £120.95 each; lunch deals: two courses £16.95, three courses £18.95; Market Menu (available Tue-Fri, 6.30-10.30): £24.50 for two courses or £28.50 for three

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