Restaurant review: Whits of Walmer
PUBLISHED: 11:30 27 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:19 27 March 2018
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
We had Twinkles to start and lingered until midnight - here's why the chef-patron at Whits of Walmer won Chef of the Year in our 2017 Food & Drink Awards
The description ‘homely’ is over-used to the point of cliché, but sometimes you come across a place that just is “simple but cosy and comfortable, as in one’s own home.” And that suits Whits of Walmer to a T.
You can’t miss the blue-painted building on The Strand en route to Deal and once through the front door, you’re met by the sight of a cosy bar warmed by a cheery fire in a brick-built fireplace surrounded by well-worn armchairs, cook books on shelves and pics of mine host with other famous faces.
There is also a clutch of framed Kent Life awards, including the most recent from 2017 when Steve Whitney won the title Chef of the Year against very tough competition.
And it’s that accolade that has brought My Glamorous Friend and I cross-county to find out just why our readers nominated this very happy chap in Walmer in their droves.
Steve and his wife Eva, who run Whits as a team, first met 19 years ago at Anton Mosimann’s private dining club in Belgravia, where Eva was General Manager and Steve was Executive Chef.
They had their own restaurant together in London then two years ago decided to go back to Steve’s roots (he was born in Ramsgate and studied at Thanet College) and move to a coastal spot in Kent, acquiring this former 15th-century smugglers’ pub in Walmer.
It’s a partnership that works seamlessly and it is Eva who greets us warmly, ushers us to our corner seat in the small dining room (26 covers with eight at a squeeze in the snug and 22 in the garden in warmer weather) and suggests we start with ‘Twinkles.’ And who indeed could resist vodka, elderflower cordial and prosecco in one glorious cocktail?
The group next to us introduce themselves, explaining that they’re celebrating a 70th birthday and ‘might get a bit loud’. We’re cool with that and actually can’t wait to see a bit of dancing on tables as the night progresses.
They also tell us how much they love Whits and, despite it being still such a relative newcomer to the Kent restaurant scene, the impression is that everyone does know everyone – and the lovely Eva certainly does. The ‘happy vibe’ here stems from her: charming, funny, knowledgeable, the service she leads is effortlessly superb.
Steve, now 60 and not chasing stars anymore (though he’s chuffed to bits about his Kent Life awards: local is what he’s all about these days) has worked in some of London’s finest five-star hotel kitchens and cooked for celebrities and royalty, including Princes Charles, Edward, William and Harry and the Duke of Edinburgh. And now us!
As we nibble darkly delicious treacle bread made by a master baker based in Sandwich, Eva talks us through the daily changing blackboard specials (usually two or three starters and three main-courses) and the nicely concise à la carte.
Two dishes immediately stand out for me and I plump for the local lobster ravioli with spinach and lobster sauce to begin, which Eva suggests I accompany with a glass of Sancerre, Domaine Berthier, 2016 (perfect). The flavour of both the lobster claw and pasta filling is intense and true and enhanced by a rich sauce that is saved from being too sweet by that brilliant addition of spinach.
Across the table MGF opts for a salad of three generously sized, pan-fried scallops with caramelised parsnip purée and a classic French sauce vierge. She loves the intriguing hot and cold mix and the intense ‘hit’ of the slightly spicy salsa verde, which really brings the dish to life.
My main course is another favourite of mine and turns out to be Steve’s too – roast fillet of local hake served with braised fennel, chorizo, red pepper pearls, octopus and mussel broth.
The powerful Basquaise flavours really complement the wonderfully fresh local hake and I reckon this could convert the staunchest non-fish eater: it’s robust, colourful and packed with gutsy flavour – so much so that only a juicy red will do, this time a 2016 Romanian Pinot Noir, Three Realms.
MGF went minimalist with her délice of local turbot served with slightly citrusy crushed new potatoes, broccoli and Hollandaise sauce.
I learn that ‘délice’ refers to a folded fillet of fish and I am reliably informed how equally ‘delicious’ it is – as Eva says, there’s nowhere to hid with a dish as deceptively simple as this and each element was executed impeccably.
We’d enquired before ordering as to whether we needed to add side dishes and were relieved we’d listened to Eva: this is not one of those places where mains need ‘padding out’ with extras; portions are generous to a fault.
And so it was after a very long requested break that we thoroughly enjoyed our desserts – mine a favourite hot and cold chocolate fondant with white chocolate ice cream and a glass of Maury, 2013 (perfect with chocolate).
MGF’s beautifully showcased combination of caramelised pineapple with coconut panacotta and mango ice cream is “like a variation on a tropical fruit salad, but the slightly naughtier version,” she purrs.
Our celebratory neighbours possibly enjoyed their puds even more, if that’s possible, and I was solemnly asked to note their verdict on hot banana soufflé, banana ice cream and banana and honeycomb Eton Mess: “This dessert outclasses our 40th wedding anniversary dinner at The Savoy.”
You can’t say fairer than that and Steve chuckles with pleasure when I relay the tale later over coffee in the snug. In fact we’re chatting so much we fail to notice the midnight hour has struck and we’re more than an hour from home.
“Don’t you dare fall asleep,” warns MGF, who is designated driver as she finally gets me into the car. But I was too busy rhapsodising over the evening all the way home to let her down. Just a word of warning – book ahead, as it’s only open three evenings, and skip lunch that day. You’ll thank me for it.
The twinkliest of twinkling evenings.
Meet the chef
Name: Steve Whitney
Job title: Chef patron Whits of Walmer
Tell us a bit about you
I’m 60 years old and still learning new techniques and being inspired by new ideas even after working in many top hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants
What set you apart as our Chef of the Year in the 2017 Awards?
Having a few extra years in the trade than the other finalists - and a little luck
Your main suppliers?
Fruits de Mer in Broadstairs for amazing local fish and shellfish, the Black Pig Butcher in Deal and Bartlett and White in Deal for fruit and vegetables, as well as local farm shops the White Mill at Sandwich and Rose Farm Shop on Old Haine Road in Thanet
Your signature dish?
Roast fillet of local hake, braised fennel, chorizo, red pepper pearls, octopus and mussel broth. I like this dish because the powerful Basquaise flavours showcase the fabulous local fish
Top cookery tip?
Don’t add ingredients for the sake of it
Anton Mosimann and Paul Gayler
Stainless-steel surgical kitchen tongs - and my tastebuds
Tommy Cooper, for a kitchen full of laughs
Breakfast this morning?
American pancakes, maple syrup and crispy bacon.
Where: Whits of Walmer, 61 The Strand, Walmer, nr Deal CT14 7DP
What: Small, friendly mainly fish restaurant with classical French influences
When: Thur, Fri and Sat from 6.30pm, last reservations at 9pm, Sun lunch from 12.30, last reservation at 3.30pm
How much: lobster ravioli £10.95, turbot with new potatoes and broccoli hollandaise £26.50