Sunday, 7 October 2012

Rocksalt & Smokehouse, Folkestone

'It was the coastal town that they forgot to close down...' Waking up to the grey skies and the leaden English Channel stretching out in front of me from the bedroom window, it was hard not to have strains of Morrissey running through my mind. There is something bleak, and a little bit romantic about an English seaside town in the last throes of the summer season, and Folkestone holds a special place in my heart, being one of the destinations of our regular Sunday jaunts when I was at university in Canterbury.

Folkestone is also famed for it whelks, and, indeed it's the first place I'd ever tried them. As I was feeling slightly ropey from a night at the sticky-floored student nightclub night before, I can't say it was a great success. In fact it took several years before I felt brave enough to try them again. Following several further attempts to ingest the slithery buggers, I've been lead to the conclusion that they're just pretty grim, hungover or not.

Rubbery molluscs aside, like many seaside towns who find their last vestiges of glamour have well and truly faded like awnings in the sun, Folkestone is back on the up. While it can hardly be described as a looker there is an nice little Art Quarter, full of independent shops and cafes; The lovely Leas Cliff Hall; The Cliff Lift, a water balanced funicular; and two lovely beaches; giving you the heady choice of both sand or shingle.

It also has the presence of Kentish Man, Mark Sargeant, formally head chef at Ramsay's Claridge's, who has chosen Folkestone's working harbour as the rather incongruous location for his latest ventures; Rocksalt, a trendy Cocktail bar and restaurant; and Smokehouse, a rather more casual chippy and takeaway situated just across the slipway.

As Dos Hermanos say in their take on the former: '...with the newly opened Fish and Chip cafĂ© Smokehouse a lobster net’s cast away from the mothership this is beginning to look like a sort of proto-Padstein. Sarge-ville if you will'.

Rocksalt is split level, with downstairs being the more formal restaurant and upstairs offering a range of drinks, weekend brunch and a menu of bar snacks. We decided to start with a visit the bar for a soothing bloody mary to help see off the cobwebs of the night before.
Upstairs is bright and breezy, with stalls around a zinc bar, tables overlooking the harbour and a large outside terrace, perfect for sunny, early autumn days such as on our visit. Newspapers and soundtrack of Hot Chip made this the perfect place to stretch out and relax on a Sunday morning, and came as a huge contrast to the greasy fry up we had enjoyed in the faded glamour of our hotel breakfast room a few hours earlier.

We both chose a Rocksalt Mary, available with a choice of pickled samphire, horseradish or garlic vodkas. The Ewing's samphire was a tangy mix of sweet and salty, while my horseradish incarnation packed a serious assault on the nasal passages. Perfect for perking up a jaded palette.

Despite looking more than a little grim and grizzled the broad beans turned out to be perfectly tender, with nicely mealy insides. They worked well with the flavour of the fresh mint salt, but having  already been boiled in heavily salted water, the whole effect was a little too brackish, even for my tastes.

The tarasamalata was a fluffy pink cloud of fishy loveliness. The Kentish sourdough (one slice studded with black olives) was nice, but I rather craved something crispy or crunchy to dip into it.

While it would have been more than possible to stay basking in the sun, sampling some of the items on a brunch menu that included harissa-spiked crab, tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches and poached egg and kippers, you can't come to the seaside without fish and chips. Luckily Seargant's chipper is just across the road, so we headed across for the next round of food.

Despite the name there is, sadly, nothing smoked on the menu. Instead it's simple chip shop fare; a few of small bites to start, followed by a simple choice of battered, breadcrumbed or grilled fish and seafood, and for those who prefer their dinner to be land-based, the intriguing-sounding Folkestone fried chicken.

To drink a pint of the glorious, burnished brew that is Shepherd Neame's Spitfire Ale, and the obligatory cup of tannic builder's tea that goes so well with fried food.
We kicked off with mussel popcorn that was so blisteringly hot that each piece had managed to melt holes in the polystyrene pot, as well as burn the eager Ewing's fingers and tongue.
These were a great idea, but suffered from an overload of coating, rendering them more like the bloated balls of batter you find in a cheap sweet and sour from the local Chinese, instead of crispy, crunchy little morsels of mollusc I wanted them to be.
Everything was redeemed by the main event. Cod and chips for me, Folkestone Flounder for the Ewing (two pieces as they were deemed a little 'small').

I'm not sure I've ever had a better cooked piece of battered fish; underneath it's crispy carapace the tranche of cod was perfectly steamed, breaking apart into moist and milky flakes. The brief cooking time had perfectly bronzed the outside, while leaving the inside still a little bit soft and soggy, just the way I like it.

The Ewing loved her flounder, the fillets were a little thinner, and the texture far softer, making a great contrast with the crunchy outside. Chips were very good, although I struggled to eat more than a fistful of the great mound that my fish sat upon.

And so we strolled out, sated and satisfied with our afternoon's eating adventures and vowing not to consume anything else for some considerable time. Until we came to a stall at the top of the harbour that was offering Herbert's homemade Kentish Gypsy Tart ice cream. Well, it would have been rude not to....

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