Honesty is the best policy for ambitious restaurateurs these days when even famous chefs are having to close restaurants as diners retrench in search of better value. So, Richard Phillips, chef-proprietor of Thackeray’s restaurant in Tunbridge Wells, is to be applauded for risking all with an “Honesty Menu” which invites diners to pay only what they think the meal is worth.
This once-fusty spa town of Victorian villas and Georgian crescents is a particularly tough nut to crack; restaurants have come and gone, and Thackeray’s remains the only true fine dining option. It too has had its travails, losing a Michelin star awarded to a previous, much more fussy incarnation but retaining a loyal following, thanks to locals who appreciate a bit of food theatre along with the very decent food and a list which includes many of England’s increasingly improving wines.
Not to mention the delights of a tumbledown house once occupied by the author of Vanity Fair, a delightful 18th-century cottage which retains its original floorboards, even though the interior is now crisp, bright and perhaps a touch too minimally modern.
Thackeray’s Honesty menu is a bit risky for the house because of the considerable investment in presentation as well as the preparation of special dishes not on the regular menu. Apparently, the odd diner has left as little as £10 for the six-course feast we enjoyed, although many more have slapped down £100 in delight.
Our menu, which will change with the seasons, started with just what you want when you blow in from the chill and rain on a blustery night – an array of snacks cutely titled Cosy in the Warm. There were two fat fried oysters with seaweed mayo, a dish of spiced nuts, a dab of chicken liver parfait on a barely-there cracker and a glass teapot containing delightfully warming smoked onion and mushroom tea to sup from beakers.
The next course was attractive but slightly strange – a venison slider made with offcuts that might otherwise have gone to waste, topped with a sliver of foie gras and served in a milk bun. This lover of foie gras had no issue with the now-increasingly un-PC goose liver, but it seems risky to put it on a no-choice menu when some might have a moral objection to ingesting it.
The fantastically delicate, Scandi-style starter which followed would, in our opinion, have made a more logical first course following the snacks – scallop ceviche served in a shell, topped with a buttermilk granita under a blanket of cold but rich horseradish velouté. And the main course was nothing short of a triumph – a corn-fed free-range chicken served in a variety of different and equally delicious ways. The breast, cooked sous-vide, was moist and juicy, the thigh meat minced with vegetables to fill tortellini, the drumsticks transformed into the most delightful Scotch eggs as an imaginative accompaniment – yes, the yolks stayed runny. There was a bit of theatre, too – our woodsy table centrepiece unexpectedly touched off to exude dry ice and a scent of the forest from where the mushrooms served with the chicken might have been plucked.
We were full enough to have stopped at this point but enjoyed a tiny handmade crumpet topped with Montgomery cheddar rarebit as a savoury, preceding a dessert which seemed a tad pedestrian compared to preceding courses. Garriguette strawberries are always delicious in season, but mid-February seems to early for fresh berries, though these, served both fresh and dried alongside a slab of ruby chocolate which did not taste very chocolates, did have flavour.
We felt £55 per person was a fair price for what we ate but had misgivings about the £30 drinks pairing supplement. This started promisingly with a superb IPA from a craft brewery in Eridge, just up the road, to complement the slider, but a pinot gris from Essex was a fail with the scallop, whose robust flavours demanded a white wine with much more body – and plenty of these are now produced in southern England, including at nearby Chapel Down, one of the first English wineries to grow Chardonnay. Admittedly, the Gott pinot noir from Willamette, Oregon, was one of the most outstanding red wines tasted this year, but the Muscat dessert wine from California was just too sweet to end such a rich meal.
Note when booking, that preference for the Honesty menu must be stated, as the offer extends to only 20 covers per night.
Tell me more about Thackeray’s Restaurant
Thackeray’s Restaurant 85 London Road Tunbridge Wells TN11EA