Rocksalt: The home of hearty seafare or just another fish in the sea?

Updated on 20 September 2011 | 0 Comments

From one ex-Ramsay chef to the next. After Marcus Wareing's spectacular, if costly, brasserie, The Gilbert Scott, our critic jumps on his bike and heads to Folkestone.

It's often a good sign if a restaurateur is in their own restaurant. They can keep an eye on things, keep the staff sharp, and keep the customers coming. Thus Gordon Ramsay's apparent interest in spending more time with the Beckhams than in his restaurants has coincided with the direct fall of the Ramsay Empire.

Mark Sargeant, who has worked under Ramsay since 1998 spending 7 years as head chef at Claridge's, seems to have learned from at least some of his old boss’s mistakes. When Ollie and I arrive at Rocksalt, after a punishing bike ride from London, he is standing on the decking overlooking the harbour, and is omnipresent throughout the evening, despite the fact that he is leaving the actual cooking to head chef Simon Dyer.

First impressions

In a town that is seriously lacking any personality or vim whatsoever, Rocksalt is something of a sore, if welcome, thumb. A swish, modern, imposing building, it teeters on the edge of the harbour looking across to an industrial maritime wasteland.

At the foot of a town that seems to have been forgotten some time in the 60s, it’s no wonder the arrival of a new restaurant – and one run by Gordon Ramsay’s ex-wunderkind – brought such promise.

Early reviews

Initial reports were mixed. Just as we saw the inevitable slating of Marcus Wareing’s Gilbert Scott, so too were early reviewers all too happy to sink their claws into Rocksalt. Dos Hermanos were indifferent, if content with the food, while Gourmet Traveller thought the menu ‘unimaginative’ and left feeling ‘distinctly underwhelmed’.

Nevertheless, there was a buzz about the place, and after a positive review in The Indy by Lisa Markwell, of whom I’m a fan, I arrived feeling excited.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. After the semi-suicidal bike ride I arrived feeling exhausted and, despite the two pints of Guinness I’d swallowed, ravenous. It wasn’t going to be all that hard for Sargeant’s grub to impress, because at that point I would have eaten pretty much anything.

The first bite

We start upstairs in the bar area with a perky bottle of sauvignon blanc and a table groaning with small pre-starters and nibbly bits.

‘Sarge’, as he likes to be called (that’s what Gordon called him), joins us and waxes about locality and provenance while talking us through the menu.

I can see why Gourmet Traveller thought it might be unimaginative but for me it’s spot on – very simple and making use of ingredients plucked from the very waters we are looking at.

Of these little bites, the cockles and the whelks are particularly special. Served with just a little jug of vinegar for company, they are addictively chewy and with an oddly pleasing level of grit.

Other bits are varied but pretty much all t’riffic – a taramasalata that misses on the seasoning but has an excellent texture and a lovely pale colour, delicious grilled prawns with slurpable heads, too-old broad beans with minted salt, and a smoked mackerel pate that is fine without being particularly game-changing.

I’ve yet to have any particularly peppery radishes this year – gardeners could maybe tell me why (too wet?) – and Rocksalt’s are no great improvement, but the anchovy dip that they come with is first class.

If none of these dishes knock off any socks individually, the beatific calm of sitting outside, on the sea front, with gulls cackling and the tide coming through the sea wall, working our way through the generous spread and glugging cold white wine is worth the trip.

Delicious dining?

We move downstairs to continue eating in the dining room – a modern, clean space with big mirrors and a buzzy atmosphere. A smiley waitress produces a board with various handsome lumps of beef, but we have little interest in meat and continue with the fish feast.

Fish soup arrives without croutons and rouille, and I suppose is no worse off for it, but I enjoy a bit of crunch and goo. That said, it falls in line with the studied simplicity of the menu and so works well in that respect. As does the ‘red herring’ – a mackerel smoked and cured in beetroot juice and served as is.

More zhooshed is the dressed crab, which is generous with brown meat and spiked with harissa – I like it very much but prefer the smoked coley brandade, which tastes like smokey bacon crisps, in a good way. Squid with chilli and lime seems to have just been brushed past the Josper grill, and could have done with 30 seconds longer just to catch slightly.

Grilled lobster had been caught outside the harbour wall – “just to the right”, the waitress says – and comes with a slick of aioli and fat chips. Mackerel sits on one of the finest green sauces I’ve ever tasted, pepped up remarkably by watercress and good and rough – half salad, half sauce, you might almost say.

We just about have time to wrestle down a rich, unctuous Kentish gypsy tart, a very, very clever cold chocolate and sea buckthorn fondant that reminds me of herbal sleeping drops, and a whisky, before climbing back on our bikes and wobbling as far as the station for the last train home.

A little unsure

I liked the straightforwardness of Rocksalt and I like what it’s bringing to one of far too many forgotten seaside towns. I like the fact that ‘locality’ isn’t just a buzzword but that you eat looking at the very waters your dinner was, hours before, swimming in.

But I left unsure about where it is going. While Sargeant doesn’t seem as reluctant as his old gaffer to show his face in his restaurants, other Ramsay-esque tics remain – the impulsive, over-defensive references to Michelin (he doesn’t care about stars), the cocksure cheffiness, the insistence on calling you ‘big boy’…though he clearly wishes to forge his own path he seems to remain in thrall to his old mentor.

I just hope the inevitable expansion of the Sargeant Empire is more Stein than Ramsay. With a bit of self-control and modesty, Mark Sargeant could be just the thing for Folkestone. But if his ever-so-slightly brash enthusiasm remains unchecked, Rocksalt might well end up floating in the harbour.

Worth the hype?: Yes. Perfect for a summer day trip and the train ride will be stunning. Don’t cycle.

Cost: Difficult to say. You could do pretty well for £40 a head.

Also worth your attention:

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The Gilbert Scott: simple station brasserie or epic dining experience? 


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