As we set off on the nine mile journey from Ashford International train station to The West House in Biddenden, Kent, the scene which unfolded before us was fairly typical, according to my friend who has lived around here for the past 25 years.
It was raining. The scenery, once we deserted the main roads, was stunning, still deserving in many instances of the countys epithet as the garden of England. Biddenden is no more than three miles from the splendours of the house and gardens at Sissinghurst, for example. But despite this and the fact that Kent still boasts considerable farms, orchards and several wineries, there are surprisingly few good restaurants to choose from.
My friend went on to explain the challenge facing any enterprising chef wanting to set up here. Its the proximity of France that makes life so difficult for them. Most people who live round here and who want to go out for a good lunch can drive down to the coast, cross the Channel and be in any of the French seaside restaurants in time for lunch. And theres the added bonus of bringing back a few cases of inexpensive wine in the boot, a past-time I know that this friend indulges in frequently.
This Anglo/French divide is particularly obvious again should you decide to enter The West House via its front door or from the car park at the rear.
From the front, the restaurant could not look more English. The High Street contains a number of Tudor half-timbered buildings the restaurant itself dates back to the 15th century and by the front door is a touching plaque to the Biddenden Maids, 12th century twins Elisabeth and Mary Chullkhurst joined at the hip, who when they died aged 34 bequeathed their estate to the parish thereby generating funds to feed the poor.
From the car park, however, the restaurant could not look more French. Immediately inside the wooden gate there is a large pile of neatly chopped wooden logs as well as a pet rabbit nibbling away at a piece of sweetcorn. The kitchen seems not that much bigger than most domestic kitchens and the overall impression is that you are about to enter someones home. Only the aroma of monosodium glutamate that emanates from The Golden Kitchen, the Chinese take-away next door, breaks this homely spell.
Once inside, it is quite obvious that Graham and Jackie Garrett who have made The West House their home and work since deserting London four years ago, have used tact and common sense rather than the cheque book to preserve the inherited charms of their restaurant. There is a large fireplace with another pile of logs; a series of timbered pillars through the room, and all the tables are of warmly polished wood with linen place mats and napkins. The room exudes warmth and history, a combination that made me think of Charles Dickens and Victorian coaching inns.
This sentiment was enhanced with Jackies entrance. A mother of two teenage children (hence the pet rabbit) with no previous restaurant experience, she now runs the restaurant to support her husbands dream, a role she fulfils with considerable charm and a charming touch of nerves. In such a small restaurant so close to its kitchen there simply is no place to hide: here its possible to hear the knives being sharpened, and to hear the chef ask his wife whether the guests enjoyed their first course (Yes, delicious, was the reply), and to hear each order being called away.
Graham Garrett uses the rigorous professional training he received at the hands of Nico Ladenis and Richard Corrigan to compile a style of menu that encompasses a series of dishes that everyone would want to eat, dishes that exude freshness, seasonality and balance, with a simplicity that mirrors the restaurants setting and his wifes friendly approach.
Although we had both decided on two very different first courses a nettle and sprouting broccoli broth with poached egg and pancetta and a fillet of line-caught mackerel with olive oil, poached tomatoes and a pea and mint vinaigrette – we were both intrigued by another first course described as a foie gras crème caramel which we decided to share before our first courses.
What arrived was precisely as described, a slightly wobbly mould of foie gras whose richness had been lightened by a touch of cream that was then given the appropriate acidity and bite by some aged vinegar and plump raisins. This dish had me reaching for the toasted brioche to wipe the plate clean.
What followed was just as good: gurnard with braised saffron and a lobster bisque; sea bass with spring greens and a wild garlic butter; and, most exemplary of all, a small copper pan full of Jersey royals, expertly peeled and sautéed in just the right amount of butter and chopped chives. Finally, a warm slice of gingerbread topped with rhubarb and clotted cream seemed to embody the modest, traditional but well executed charms of this distinguished restaurant.
The West House, 28 High Street, Biddenden, Kent N27 8AH, 01580-291341
Lunch £24 three courses; dinner
Closed : Saturday lunch, Sunday dinner and Monday.