Having had family in Folkestone, I have been a frequent visitor to the Kent coast town. So, recalling what seemed the desolate cultural wasteland that was the Folkestone of my youth, I was excited when Mark Sergeant opened up shop in 2011, with his first solo projects and entry into the industry. His main venture in the town was, and still is, Rocksalt, a modern seafood restaurant with rooms and a picture postcard window overlooking the harbour. It has been a central part of the regeneration plan for the town, drawing Londoners to the once prosperous fishing port and Victorian seaside resort. Rocksalt and the local regeneration have been successful. Not only are there more and more artisan coffee and design shops, and bars with their craft beers opening up, the restaurant has won multiple awards and featured in numerous lists of top dining destinations.
But here’s the thing: having eaten there a number of times since its opening, I’ve never liked it. One bad experience could just be put down to an off day, but to have had a bad experience each time I’ve been there suggests that isn’t the case. Over three visits to Rocksalt I have had bad service each time, while the first time the food was very salty and the second it was under seasoned.
Even ignoring the seasoning issues, the food was nothing more than decent; nothing to be memorable, and certainly not anything to write home about, let alone make it worthy of the rankings amongst UK restaurants it has received; it’s also not cheap. The third time, a few years back, squid with broccoli three different ways was my choice of main. What arrived looked fine, though I only had two forms of broccoli. At the first bite, the tenderstem turned to mush, so I had a mouthful of broccoli baby food. Adding insult to injury, the squid disintegrated into the consistency of toothpaste – was it cooked from frozen? This particular texture was a bizarre first for me – and other diners’ plates were similar afflicted.
Maybe this is a by-product of what Sergeant has been up to since leaving Gordon Ramsey (and being the right hand man without whom Ramsey might well be very different) in 2009. He has been doing myriad things; so many, in fact, that it makes you wonder if this has led him to take his eye off the ball at the places he actually owns and runs?
Enter The Smokehouse. Down in Folkestone recently, I thought I would see if Sergeant’s other venture there was any better, and worthy of the praise it has received – it was voted in The Times’ thirty best fish and chip shops in 2014.
As with a lot of chippies you have two choices: to take away or dine in. As chippy dining spaces go, it certainly can’t be beat. The baby blue double height room with its light wood square block table and chairs and tall vases of flowers is flooded with light from the floor to ceiling window that overlooks the harbour, making for an inviting place to sit. Fancy for a chippy, but purists will be pleased to know that attention has been given to ensure those traditional touches and low quality accoutrements you expect are still there. There’s a specials board, the menu is a paper printout stuck on the table, the cutlery is that cheap stamped out sheet stainless steel stuff you have at school and most diner cafes, and salt and vinegar is on the table along with the humorously kitsch touch of ketchup in one of those giant tomato squeezers, while the food comes in high quality paper takeaway boxes. And of course the front of the kitchen is open with the traditional stainless steel display ranges. What’s not to love?
The same modern, clean style mixed with traditional chippy trappings follows through into the food. There’s the traditional choice of different fishes to have battered or breaded, or ubiquitous alternatives of fish finger butties, fried chicken, Cumberland sausage, and of course the pie. Mushy peas, chip butties, curry sauce, homemade pickled eggs and pickles also feature to ensure traditionalists are well catered to and, if you want something a little different and healthier, there’s a choice of baked fish to be had. There’s a smoked coley burger and a mussel pop dog too, but it’s the starters that are most enticing, not entirely because they are unique or original, but because they aren’t usually found on a chippy’s menu: melting cheese and pork balls; mussel popcorn; garlic butter baked squid; salt and pepper squid; mussel bhaji with cucumber yoghurt.
Bar and table service are both on offer when dining in, and we went for the mussel bhaji and the salt and pepper squid, to be followed by the rock fish and chips, mushy peas, scraps and a serving of their homemade tartar sauce. The bhaji were spot on: light and packed with mussels, the mellow flavour of which paired perfectly with the spices, they were cooled nicely by the cucumber yoghurt. But it was the salt and pepper squid that was the true star of the whole meal. So often salt and pepper squid is just poor calamari in an even worse batter that’s just had extra salt and pepper added to it. Not in this case: here were large chunks of cut up squid, tentacles and all, in a beautifully light and crisp batter that was filled with fresh peppercorns that gave it a beautifully fragrant and Asian kick, reminding you of the dish’s origins.
The rock fish and chips gave away The Smokehouse’s philosophy. Freshly cooked (as all we had was), the fish was moist and piping hot. The batter was light and crisp, not greasy in the slightest but, as a result, lacked something in flavour, and the same can be said for the chips, though they were perfectly good and traditional in being well done chippy-style chips.
Smokehouse has gone for clean, crisp and simple fish and chips over the more “chef-y” options where you add beer to the batter and do twenty-five times cooked chips. This Smokehouse route is a perfectly acceptable way to go if you’re trying to raise the level of fish and chips, though it meant a lack of flavour at times – the tartare sauce was a lovely well made thing showing off the homemade pickles, but lacked that piquancy and any note of tarragon you expect, and that goes so well with fish.
On the other hand, for those who are put off by the overly greasy offerings so prevalent, The Smokehouse’s style of cooking will be welcome. The other big problem – heavy and stodgy batter – is something you needn’t worry about with Smokehouse’s offering.
Undoubtedly better than most chippies, it’s worth a visit even if just to have a few of the starters and one of the incredible ice creams from The Great British Ice Cream Company that they serve for of dessert. Certainly it will be my choice of place to eat in Folkestone – and, importantly, I will pick it over Rocksalt any day.
The Smokehouse 1-2 Back Street Folkestone Kent CT19 6NN 01303 884718
P.S. While you’re on the harbour front, or if you live nearby, head to Folkestone Trawlers Ltd. Fish Shop. The sheer array of fish available is hugely impressive: shellfish, squid, herring roe, skate backs, huss, sole, bream, turbot, bass, haddock, plaice, monkfish, cod and mackerel, just to name a few of the choices available to you. Best of all, it’s always fresh, superb quality and from the shop’s own boats at a fraction of the price of London.
Folkestone Trawlers Ltd. Fish Shop 1 Fish Market Folkestone Kent CT19 6AA