There was an opinion that did the rounds a few years ago, that any restaurant critic needs to have spent at least some time in a professional kitchen or front of house to be able to pass judgement on anywhere charging the public for dinner. Personally, I think that’s rubbish, but then I would say that given I’ve never spent any time in a professional kitchen and am pretty sure if ever given front of house duties I’d end up accidentally setting something on fire.
In fact, if anything, I think it works the other way – having little to no clue what magic happens behind the scenes before my food arrives I’m that much in awe of anyone who can do it at all. I will never know how Quality Chop House gets its whipped cod’s roe so fluffy and smooth, how Sola manages to great its impossibly dainty little gougère to explode with flavour in the mouth, how the Parkers Arms do… well pretty much any of it. And I don’t really want to know – just let me enjoy my time in your restaurant without fretting over how early in the morning someone had to get up to start prepping those crab.
All I do know is that good food takes skill, effort and very often many hands on deck to produce, and that the smaller the kitchen team the more wondrous it is to a pleb like me that they can produce world-class food. Consider, then, the kitchen “team” at the Square Peg in Tunbridge Wells, which consists of head chef Rob Marshall and… that’s it. It would be a minor miracle to produce anything edible for a room full of hungry Kentish diners with a kitchen head count of one, so the fact the food here is so accomplished is a genuinely impressive achievement.
House sourdough is – of course – baked on site every day, and boasts a winning combination of satisfyingly crunchy crust and a soft, squishy, almost cakey interior. I don’t know whether Rob has a background in baking or whether he’s just stumbled upon this recipe, but this is a sourdough that stands out from the crowd, even with the seemingly ubiquitous nature of decent sourdough these days. Three different whipped butters (salted, onion and another I’ve forgotten, sorry) were the icing on the cakey sourdough.
Oysters were cutely presented in a “Korma, wild rice and mango chutney” dressing, a flavour bomb of curry, citrus and umami notes that satisfied immediately and completely. If I’m to be brutally critical, the relatively gentle flavour of the oyster itself was slightly overwhelmed by the curry mixture, but when it tasted as good as this it was difficult to find anything to moan about for too long.
Underneath a gently poached egg sat some cubes of celeriac and pancetta, an intelligent combination by itself but lifted by some chunks of smoked haddock. This was another incredibly satisfying dish, skilfull without being tricksy, intelligent while still very easily enjoyed.
Next, a neat fillet of meaty hake, topped with a layer of ribbons of buttered leeks, then a crown of salty puffed fish skin. But the highlight of this dish was the dense, sweet crab bisque underneath, the kind of thing that illustrates my earlier point perfectly – I don’t know what tortuous procedure went into the making of this bisque, how long it took to make or how difficult the technique was to perfect. All I know is that I absolutely loved it, from the first incredulous sip to the final sweep of the fingers (sorry).
There’s a teensy bit of me that wishes I hadn’t spotted last week’s menu on the way into Square Peg because I was really still hoping they were serving mallard for the main meat course. There’s nothing wrong with fallow deer – certainly not how it was treated here, with two dainty medallions of loin draped with kale soaked with one of those lovely rich reduced sauces – but I can get venison most places these days. It’s the more unusual bits of game that make a meal that much more special. Still, with a side of pie made out of venison offal, you can hardly say they (or rather he) hadn’t put the effort in here.
First dessert was this beautiful little stack of some kind of clever raspberry biscuit stuffed with raspberry cream, a little shortbread biscuit on top of that, what I think were a couple of cubes of ginger and then finally a blob of smooth ice cream. It was all lovely, of course, but the effort that had gone into every element made my head spin. There was a lot going on for a full pastry section to cope with, never mind one man on his own with five savoury courses behind him.
It is for this reason that I don’t begrudge too much the time it takes to serve it all, which combined with a strict start point of 7:30 meant that by 10pm us Londoners had to skip the final dessert and race across town for the last train home. But I’m reliably informed this is something that they’re working on, and there’s every chance by the time you take your seat at the Square Peg – and I very much recommend that you do – events will be that much more punctual.
Either way, we could hardly call it a wasted evening. Even without the final course (which I later discovered with some dismay was a banana soufflé, one of my favourite desserts in the world) this was clearly a menu worth travelling for, and too good to be reserved for those local to west Kent. Without wanting to labour the point, this kind of food – modern, seasonal, British, technically impressive yet hearty and enjoyable – would be the pride of any kitchen in the country, never mind one with a headcount of one, and supported by a very capable front of staff adds up to a very impressive little operation indeed. I’ll be back. Not least for the soufflé.
I was invited to the Square Peg and didn’t see a bill, but the tasting menu is £79 and matching wines £49. Sorry for grainy photos, it’s dark in there.
#Square #Peg #Tunbridge #Wells