salt marsh

MUCH has been reported on the rise of the ‘supper club’ scene in London. It is not a new phenomenon. And some predict that it may now be on its way out. Prices for these ‘at home’ dining experiences rarely dip below £25, and at times nudge their way towards and in excess of £100 if an esteemed chef is to be in residence.

Of course these prices may be justifiedan intimate yet relaxed dining experience alongside great – and at times exquisite – cooking is a pleasure. One may even say it is a coveted experience when ‘hot spot’ restaurants are popping up incessantly, with ‘no booking’ policies leaving queues of customers outside peering in, and large prices for small portions (or ‘tapas’ as is the term du jour).

So, what is it that the diner in search of good food with a personal touch is to do? If it’s true that the supper club is on its way out, then where may it – or we – be headed?? I have a suggestion. Perhaps ‘out’ is code for ‘out of London’, and perhaps ‘out of London’ means further out than Zone 2. And maybe that even Zones 3, 4, 5 or (whisper it) 6 may need to be traversed…?
I think this may be the case. And I am proposing first stop Whitstable. Yes, as in Kent. A characterful seaside town from which I have been commuting to London for the past week. (This commute, by the way, was a delight in comparison to the daily slog I usually take part in.)
Whitstable is famed for its colourful beach huts and native oysters. It’s a hodge podge of higgledy piggledy houses nestled amongst narrow passages, with a healthy selection of restaurants, boutiques, galleries and charity shops for a centre so small. It is definitely a foodie destination in addition a beach escape. And despite a sufficiently large list of delicious options recommended to me for delectation during my stay, my bank balance by no means allowed for me to indulge to my hearts content.
However. At the end of my road there stood an unassuming establishment, curiously not mentioned on said list. It’s name was Salt Marsh. Name, address, and telephone number were all that adorned its facade. And on the late Sunday afternoon of my arrival to my temporary new home it was emitting a warm glow and bustling with business.
According to what I could garner from limited information on the internet, this was a little hub of fresh, hearty and homely fare, cooked by a guy called Tony, to the accompaniment of a record player spinning the sounds of days gone by. There were no menus, and no specific opening times. The portions awaiting us were reported to be large. The prices small. So far, so tempting. Oh, and ‘daddy’ Salt Marsh – Windy Corner Stores – resided at the other end of my street.
On the evening of my visit, due to a variety of train induced calamities, it meant that M and I did not cross Salt Marsh’s threshold until gone 9pm. Anywhere else in Whitstable this would have spelt disaster for our grumbling stomachs, as early closing of kitchens in Whitstable does not seem to accomodate for late night dining (frustrating for a city girl like me, I must admit). But this welcoming mix of eclectic wooden furniture, old fashioned radios and vintage posters, lit by large candles dripping wax directly onto the tables, was thankfully still happy to embrace us as Tony agreed to stay a little longer and cook.
We sat at one of the few empty tables (though there weren’t many to begin with) and were soon brought a giant earthenware jug of tap water that would have lasted the two us above and beyond the evening. The charming waitress’ relaxed manner meant that the evening’s menu was recited to us elbows on table. Descriptions were enthusiastic but by no means pretentious, with options given on how the menu may be adapted to suit.
Contrary to a couple of reviews I had read bemoaning the lack of a written menu, and therefore prices, it seems that this isn’t a ploy to unwittingly impart a range of hidden costs that will render the bill astronomical. Instead, the waitress was more than happy to explain the extremely simple pricing system. And at the end of our meal there were no nasty surprises.
We opted to eat tapas style, picking 4 starters/sides to share. In addition to our order we were served up a side salad of gigantic proportions, with glistening slow roasted rosemary tomatoes adorning its top, and not an iceberg lettuce leaf in sight. Tony’s enjoyment in the kitchen also became clear when we received an asparagus starter  – not actually ordered – that he had accidentally gotten carried away and made. Both of these pleasant surprises were on the house.
It was these touches that made our meal memorable. And what leads people to liken dining at Salt Marsh as similar to popping over to a friend’s house for supper.
We did also receive what we ordered: pan-fried sardines, wild mushrooms on pumpkin toast, lamb koftas, and Mediterranean style potatoes with roasted vegetables and chorizo. All were generous in both portion and flavour. But as always there were stars of the show that succeeded in stealing the limelight.
The Mediterranean potato dish was full of gusto. The paprika notes of the rich sauce   combined smoothly with the spice from the chorizo, and were complemented by the sweetness of the melting vegetables.
The ‘mushrooms on toast’ – if you dare call something so sophisticated in palate so basic in terms –  was divine. M and I were literally stunned from our first bite. The meaty wild mushrooms were enveloped in a creamy yet not too heavy sauce, which seemed infused with the taste of aniseed, and hinted at the addition of paprika. This was served on hunks of springy pumpkin bread dotted with seeds, giving it a nutty bite which complemented the mushrooms perfectly. A real showstopper. And a dish that I will try – and no doubt miserably fail – to re-create at home.
We had no room for pudding, not even space to finish our ‘starters’. So the arrival of a brown paper doggy-bag was a welcome sight – we didn’t dare waste a morsel of our scrumptious meal. They were clearly prepared for meals to end in this manner, testament to the provision of consistently large portions.
A quick trip to the loo revealed an outdoor courtyard space in-the-making full of bric-a-brac furniture, sure to be a success in the coming summer months. And upon departure we dipped our arms into a giant glass jar by the door, filled with Tunnocks Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers and lollipops.
This may not have been a ‘supper club’ in strict terms; but the combination of intimate surroundings, warm reception, honest prices and simple yet well cooked food lent it that effect. If I was to be proprietor of a restaurant, then this would be my template. I have never felt more at ease at a restaurant. It truly felt as though Tony was cooking for the mere enjoyment of it – serving to satisfy enthusiastic diners – and not charging a bomb for it.    

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