ROCKSALT:VOYEZ/CES OISEAUX BLANCS/ET CES MAISONS ROUILLÉES
My favourite time of all to visit the seaside is when the promenades are quiet, the skies are grey and rain-flecked and the kiss-me-quick hat shops are shuttered. An English seaside town in the low season has an elegiac quality which appeals so much that I sometimes think I must have some Finnish in my lineage.
Why is it I got the impression that Folkestone is always in an off-season? Maybe it was the seafront – reached using the water-powered Leas Lift - sparsely populated with a few kite flyers, the pebble beach bereft of bathers save for a man looking like he was about to swim the Channel and a few families braving the breeze on a small sandy beach (windbreakers for goalposts).
They’re making an effort here though. The Folkestone Triennial runs until September and there is a little artistic barrio with coffee shops and the like in the centre. As in many of these Kent coastal towns though much of the centre is a bit chavtastic – people worship regularly at the temple of St.Primark – and the good townsfolk have not so much been touched with the ugly stick as beaten firmly around the bonce with it. I fitted in perfectly, of course.
Luckily, they’d picked some of the younger, better-looking and more clued-up examples from the populace to staff chef Mark Sargeant’s first restaurant, Rocksalt and although I had heard about early problems with the service I couldn't quibble: they were terrific and pretty much on the ball during my visit.
Rocksalt itself does look a tad incongruous alongside the small wooden shacks selling whelks and crabsticks and with the newly opened Fish and Chip café 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.
That said once you’re in the restaurant you could actually be anywhere - probably London. There’s a big floor-to-ceiling window that runs the length of the dining room so you can see the sea and everything but the décor is more along smart/urban lines, corporate even.
I had (wrongly) assumed that Rocksalt was all about fish, especially given its location but there seemed to be plenty of meat dishes on the menu and a board of different steaks was duly paraded around the room for diners to admire. To be honest I would have been more interested in seeing the fish.
Shame, too, that apart from Early Bird they couldn't have used some Kent breweries for their selection of beers, nice though the Meantime ones are. I probably would have stuck to them too as the wine list was a bit snooze-inducing.
Some small snacks to go with my beer were ok but a bit inconsequential. A decent tarama, some radishes which lacked pepperiness came with an anchovy dip, some mealy broad beans with salt. Best of the lot were a bowl of slightly gritty cockles served with a little jug of vinegar which whisked me straight back to seaside holidays of yore when all edibles had to come with a fine layer of sand (some weird by-law I think).
Red Herring was a Smoked Mackerel dyed with Beetroot. Served warm it was good: moist and meaty and not too smoky but a poached or soft-boiled egg may have made it more of a dish; much as I admired the Iberian-like simplicity.
My main course was a special of Dover Sole at £20 (the other was Monkfish) which was simply grilled and simply great, as Dover Sole often is although a bit more inventiveness with the sides wouldn't have gone amiss. I wasn’t looking for an El Bulli experience but serving it with Asparagus and boiled spuds was a sign of a rather unambitious kitchen.
For pudding Kentish Gypsy Tart was very good indeed with a light mousse-like caramel filling and crumbly pastry - even the waitress was surprised at how quickly I demolished it (others less so).
Decent coffee was served with some fudge and some Rocksalt Rock. Which was nice.
So the service was excellent and the food good, so why was I less moved by this place than say Eddie Gilbert’s up the coast in Ramsgate or even The Sportsman on the North Kent Coast?
Well, those places have a sense of location and context which adds to the experience. When you visit them you're certainly not in London whereas at Rocksalt I kept having to look out of the window to remind myself where I was. They also feel like one-offs where Rocksalt feels like a nascent chain.
Then I realised that Rocksalt doesn't just exist for the benefit of whiny Londoners made weary of Burgers, Bahn Mi and Burritos (that’ll be me) but also for local people who want a decent place to eat. As if to emphasise that point as I was leaving I overheard a local couple outside who were looking at the menu.
“Looks good doesn’t it?”
“It does - shall we go in?”