September, and we’re back here again. Back for another year. Another birthday. Although truth be told, I stopped counting long ago; probably around the age when my family stopped buying me presents.
The last truly good birthday was when I was ten, and went to see Grease the musical, followed by burgers at Planet Hollywood with Arnie and Sly. Actually, my thirtieth was pretty good: Sri Lanka with my ex, followed by a long hog lunch back in London with friends and family at St. John, the midday meal merging into dinner. Most birthdays, though, have been without applause. But one thing I look forward to is having dinner with my mum.
We decided a few years back to cease with the gifting and to celebrate my natal day by exploring the culinary landscape of Kent, fixing on a new restaurant each year. So far, we have marked off The Spice Hut in Maidstone, The Fordwich Arms in Canterbury and The Small Holding in Cranbrook. And more than a few Wetherspoons mixed grills.
This year, we were heading to the seaside and the sleepy, slumbering heaven’s waiting room of Broadstairs. There’s a bit of posh to Broadstairs, with its clapboard sheds and seafront houses – a bit of the nose-up gittishness flowing through the lanes. You can’t blame them. It is rather nice. The animator and creator of The Clangers, Oliver Postgate, lived here and Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100 metres Gold medal winner, stayed at the Carlton Hotel on his way to the Paris Olympic Games. Plaques have been erected to commemorate both. Postgate’s is the more interesting of the two.
You could split Kent into two parts: the gentry, gin and tonic-drinking posh folk, and the chavs. It’s a bit like that saying: are you a Man of Kent or a Kentish Man, the county seemingly wanting to divide and split social classes, like some binary quip. Why else would they build Rochester next to Chatham or create Tonbridge and then Royal Tunbridge Wells? There are the likes of Canterbury, Faversham and Sevenoaks, all charmingly Kentish and endearing, but then Gillingham, Ashford and Gravesend.
I grew up in the shadow of the Medway Towns, a shabby cluster of Dickensian conurbations where Greggs is rife and gangs of vaping North Face-tracksuit-wearing teenagers could have been lifted from Fagin’s set of grubby wastrels. Broadstairs, meanwhile, falls under the unenviable remit of Thanet, known to locals as “Fannit” and to outsiders as Planet Fannit. It’s only a fart away from Whitstable, famous for its pebble beach and oysters, but only a flicker of that seaside swank seems to have rubbed off here. Whitstable is very much its own thing.
So, to Broadstairs and Stark restaurant. This teeny-tiny operation is shack-like, more grandad’s shed than a sturdy restaurant structure, but there’s a charm in that. Well, until the roof falls in, ruining dinner and killing the couple at table three. Thankfully, it withstood while we were there; the framework holding out past pudding. You enter by knocking on the door, something that is becoming a bit of a gimmick across restaurants. Either that, or they want you to ring a doorbell for what I expect is their idea of chic exclusivity. Actually, it is just annoying.
Stepping in, we’re straight into the action and the hurly-burly of service, my elbows brushing with seated guests. “You’re at this table, behind the door”, we were told by the front-of-house lady. There is just one member of floor staff, a solo server in black lycra shorts and a Stark t-shirt. She looks as though she’s just cycled in and hasn’t yet had an opportunity to change.
In the back corner, you can see the small open kitchen and two chefs at work, including the head chef and owner, Ben Crittenden. I recognise him from Instagram and his colourful sleeve tattoos, which is the other restaurant gimmick; and a requirement for every young kitchen griller these days. He’s worked at The Marquis of Granby in Dover, Rhodes W1 in London and The West House in Biddenden. The walls of the restaurant are also a splatter of colour, with cartoons and depictions of Marvel superheroes. Above, a section of the ceiling is pasted with a multitude of assorted cartoon stickers. It’s all very cartoony. Reevaluating, that shed-shack assembly comparison is more teenage boy’s bedroom than 85 quid a head restaurant.
Before moving to this location, the previous site was a mere hop and a skip away, just up the street at number one Oscar Road. The building was likewise ludicrously small, with a box-size kitchen and a single communal loo. This is something they’ve kept here; a corner nook with a solo bog and the entire floor covered in 2p coins. Having uprooted to new dwellings, the floor space appears to be almost the same in size, which makes me wonder, what have they gained from such a low-kilometre move?
And so to the birthday meal. But first things first, let’s quench a thirst. A trio of American beers on the menu and a gin and vodka from Pleasant Land Distillery in Aldington, about 35 miles from here, is great to see. The rest of the wine list is embarrassingly brief and not very good. And it’s an extra 45 quid for the pairing. I expected more, especially for a small business like this. They keep the staff costs low but ingredient costs must be high, and rents, too, so present a decent wine list to punters and make some money. I’m no accountant, but surely that is obvious. A few doors up the street is No. 1 Oscar Road, a trendy new wine bar on the site of the former Stark restaurant, and they are stocking some excellent wines, including English fizz and a few surprising orange wines. Speak to them. I’m sure they’d be happy and willing to help.
The six-course offering opens with a duck liver parfait, with cubed beetroot blobs and hazelnuts. It’s fine; a bit too Frenchy and tame for my liking. It’s autumn in Kent and I would like to have seen a more regional banger of an opener. Serving a quenelle of parfait is not very testing for a chef or reflective of the quality of the kitchen. Then there’s trout with fennel and kohlrabi, which is like a peppery version of a broccoli stem. It’s much better, trout so often an under-represented fish. Given the seaside location, I think it must be sea trout and wild, although I know they can be farmed in seawater. Here it had been poached or sous vide, maybe. A technique that produced a firm and tender fish.
With a Michelin star and a narrative that promotes and leans on locality, I expected so much more
There is also a serving of hake with potato and pea that’s small but comforting; and with a few scant shavings of black truffle. The truffle had already been applied before the bowl arrived, losing some of the freshness in the process. It’s a missed opportunity and should have been grated table-side for that sense of luxe and to allow guests the heady autumnal nose-tingle of terrific truffle aroma.
The protein course is two disrespected slithers of Wagyu. Oh, why? Why Wagyu? Why, when Kent has so much to offer? To punish me further, it comes drowned in a dark, garlicky-barbecue-type sauce. Any Japanese diner presented with this would have a mental breakdown at the table or feel the overwhelming urge to commit seppuku with a butter knife. And I wouldn’t blame them.
Two desserts were served, thankfully. At this stage of dinner, I was still ravenous. The first was a raspberry, goat curd and almond medley, the curd made into ice cream and the raspberry frozen and crumbled over to create sweet-cold mini bites. Then a denser dessert and a chocolate sponge, bomb-like thing with coffee and mascarpone and a dried milk crisp. But more interesting was the bowl in which it arrived; the deep ceramic crock covered in scratched slogans: TIME TO CHANGE and MAYBE I SHOULD JUST GIVE UP. “It’s the chef’s design”, I’m enthusiastically told, “the bowl made by Fáilte (a ceramics studio in Maidstone).” It’s all rather depressing, the despondent cries scratched into the bowl like some end-of-meal plea for help. Is the chef okay? Should I call the Samaritans or his sponsor? What’s happening? I don’t understand.
To service, which wasn’t individually bad; but uneven on a Saturday night when the solo member of staff, bless her, was juggling tables, turnovers and customer demands. Plates arrived and disappeared as they should, but there was little interest or engagement and we felt more like an irritation than paying customers. There were no petit fours to close and no after-dinner treats, no cute add-ons or anything to leave us smiling and send us off merrily into the night.
When I got home, I looked at the restaurant’s Instagram account and some online reviews. From what I saw, a lot of the plates looked the same today as two or three years ago, maybe with one interchangeable component, but otherwise, with little innovation or adaptation. And that is fine. My meal was good, and the quality of the ingredients clear. However, with a Michelin star and a narrative that promotes and leans on locality, I expected so much more.
This first abundant week of September is the most interesting time for British produce. Many summer crops are still highly productive and autumn crops are already expected to be harvested. The crossover of tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers, for instance, with pears, figs and squash is at its optimum. Courses here of potato, garlic and fennel, speak to out-of-season sourcing. And why, if you plan only to feature one meaty protein course, would you land on Wagyu over, say, British beef, venison or duck? Or any of this island’s abundance of quacking September-ready fowl. It’s a missed opportunity.
One of the best things about this mother-son birthday schlep across the county is the warming reassurance of Kent as The Garden of England; paying witness to the rural approach of its many farmers and suppliers, their deft application to harvest and their promotion of an array of Kentish things. From apples and pears to the country’s bounty of strawberries and the blobby fish, crabs and oysters at markets in Whitstable, Dungeness, Folkestone, Margate, Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells. Show us that. Drop the parfait and the Wagyu. Shape your menus around your habitat. Or don’t. As I say, that is fine, just don’t charge for an empty promise and a standard of cooking you can’t deliver. And not on my birthday. C
Stark, 15 Oscar Road, Broadstairs, Kent CT10 1QJ, UK