Restaurant review: the Warren, Tunbridge Wells
PUBLISHED: 10:51 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:51 20 June 2017
Prepare to step away from the ordinary at this new addition to Tunbridge Wells' fine dining scene, where The Warren's talented chefs literally get the most from each animal
Named after the 650-acre Crowborough Warren Estate where the herds of Sussex cattle, Suffolk sheep, wild boar and fallow deer keep The Warren restaurant so well supplied it can offer a daily changing seasonal menu, there’s something of the warren about this quirky, delightful place.
Which is of course ironic, as you don’t burrow down to get in, you hunt out the almost secretive entrance at the top of Tunbridge Wells’ High Street and climb steep stairs to enter a cosy, womb-like set-up.
A refreshing change from so many neutral contemporary interiors, the former Signor Franco’s Italian restaurant has, under its new owners Chris Fitt and Martin Haynes undergone a complete transformation.
With more than a hint of the hunting lodge about it (taxidermy, you hang your coat on antlers, exposed old wooden floors) combined with Game of Thrones mixed with Versailles-like touches (tapestry backed seats, a couple of chairs as grand as thrones with lion armrests), the three adjoining little dining rooms and bar area can seat around 60 people but it all feels joyously intimate.
We were there on a Friday night and got the dual privilege of a seat by the iconic orangery windows hung with billowy, sunset-coloured drapes and hearing pianist Caroline James play on The Warren’s baby grand.
Watching the world go by from our lofty perch, we were brought back to earth and the culinary delights ahead by manager Magdalena Szczerbova, who combines style, humour and eloquence with formidable knowledge – all delivered in a delicious accent.
If we ordered a glass of Champagne, she explained, we would get a complimentary pickled oyster with tagliatelle cucumber. So we did, and what a perfect beginning, the shellfish divinely fresh and the accompanying soda bread and focaccia served with a choice of butters – a bright green nettle from the Estate and a complex, smoked chorizo paprika one My Dining Companion described as “like eating a log fire, but in a good way.”
A second amuse-bouche of wild garlic soup (also foraged from the Estate) was as vibrant as the butter and just as more-ish. At this rate we’d never eat dinner, just keep on ordering soup, bread and oysters …
But with a menu this tempting and at time surprising, it was time to explore it and with a restaurant where the chef uses literally everything he receives from the Crowborough Estate without any waste (hence the approach of ‘field to fork’ and ‘nose to tail’), there were clearly going to be interesting taste sensations ahead.
So, abandoning my tried-and-tested scallops, sea bass and something with chocolate in it combo, I headed off piste into the world of forgotten cuts of meat and offal.
MDC chose the Sauternes-poached first grade foie gras, which he described as almost dessert-like in its rich texture, cleverly offset by braised radishes (surprisingly tasty). Encouraged by Magdalena, I had what was basically a posh egg sandwich – but how good is a duck egg brioche with duck ham, pea and asparagus! Spring on a plate.
My main course had many challenges in one plateful, but even when Magda explained that ‘crépinette’ meant my wild boar would be wrapped in stomach lining, I bravely tucked in and what a full-flavoured, juicy experience it proved. The meat was a cross between port and beef and the accompanying langoustines, turnip tops, pickled mushrooms and yummy wild garlic creamed mash adding an earthy and piquant contrast.
MDC stick with a Warren classic, roast loin of Estate-reared venison with a herb crumb, more turnip tops, broad beans and the “best-ever” (apparently) Jerusalem artichokes with a caramelised, almost meat-like texture.
Both courses were served very well by flamboyant French sommelier Oliver Theuin’s recommendation of a hefty Reserve du Crouzau Côtes du Rhône (all wines are from Tunbridge Wells-based The Secret Cellar).
We returned to safer ground with our puddings – mine a delicate elderflower cheesecake with almond sponge, apple and blackberry sorbet and MDC’s a refreshing iced lemon parfait with raspberries and raspberry sorbet and buttery shortbread.
So if you want to get out of a foodie rut and challenge all your senses, head for this welcoming, ground-breaking addition to Tunbridge Wells’ dining scene.
Where: The Warren, 5A High St, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1UL
01892 328191 or firstname.lastname@example.org
What: Convivial town-centre restaurant with a humidor and smoking terrace
When: Open 12pm to 11pm Tue-Sat, 12pm to 6pm Sun; closed Mon. High tea Fri and Sat 2.30-5pm
How much: foie gras £12.95, Coronation crab £11.95, roast venison £26.95, slow-cooked hake £22.95, desserts £7.95
Meet the chef
Sam Spratt, head chef
Tell us a bit about you
I started working at The Warren in March 2016 and took the position of head chef that December. I trained at Thanet College and started working at Tanners Restaurant in Plymouth as commis chef before moving to The Curlew, Bodium as chef de partie, then spent three years at Age and Sons in Ramsgate as sous chef. I took the head chef position at The Kentish Hare in Bidborough before starting here. Raul Savi is our sous chef and we both share the same passion for local seasonal produce.
Your principal local suppliers?
Our main supplier is obviously the Crowborough Warren Estate, just bordering Ashdown Forest, and we forage the local flora and fauna at any opportunity. We serve our own goose, duck, quail and turkey eggs along with collecting silver birch sap, wild garlic and stinging nettles.
What is your signature dish?
Pork belly, braised cheek, cauliflower purée, carpaccio, florets, pickled mushrooms, cream potatoes and goats cheese fondue. The textures of the cauliflower all present something different for the palate and complement the naturally fatty pork belly. The sweetness is given by the florets, cooked in butter so only their natural sweetness comes out and the pickling of the mushrooms provides acidity to cut through the richness of the pork. Raul’s is wild boar chou farci with tomato coulis, a process that takes two days.
Your top cookery tip?
Keep it local, simple and seasonal. Support local, independent business in buying their produce and this is a guarantee for freshness and flavour.
When I was at The Curlew, it was a big chunk of my training so head chef Neil and Graham Garrett, consultant chef at the time, have been the most influential.
Dream dinner guests?
For myself Nona Rene Redzepi, for Raul it would be Pierre Koffman, For Chris it would be David Vidal and BJ answered Bear Grylls, so we have a very diverse kitchen!
Breakfast this morning?
Some staff beef curry which we were making, some pan-seared trim of foie gras and a latte.