Beautiful, neglected Ramsgate (East Kent). Left-leaning rags have been banging on about this 'on the up' corner of our isles for years, but no-one's been listening. City folk venture as far south east as Whitstable, shuck the odd oyster, and turn back the way they came. Shame on them. Particularly now the journey time from the capital has been slashed to 1½ hours, thanks to the new high speed rail link from the impressively renovated St. Pancras station.
Age & Sons (the building was previously home to wine merchant 'Page & Sons', but when the Leigh family acquired it in 2007 the 'P' had fallen off the facade, and it was left that way) is situated in a small courtyard just behind the regal and handsome harbour. The family name should ring a bell: Toby Leigh, head chef and proprietor, is renowned chef Rowley Leigh's nephew. Toby has rung up quite a few of his own calls of duty in London's best kitchens over the years, Kensington Place and Anchor & Hope, and his accomplishments shine through.
We were booked in for Sunday lunch, and they decided over the phone to put us downstairs in the café, citing a rule that no children under the age of 8 can eat upstairs in the smart restaurant-proper. No skin off our nose, but when we arrived and found the upstairs empty, save for a family with 3 children, I did wonder whether it was just that they'd seen us coming...
Anyway, the place was empty. Yes, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime.
With the sun streaming through the window, and glasses of rich treacly Whitstable Oyster Bay Stout softening the January chill, we perused the simple A4 menu. Well composed and impressive was my first impression, particularly for a restaurant bent on serving seasonal local produce in the depths of winter. Onions, rhubarb, jerusalem artichoke, beetroot, apples, and kale all featured, not in their usual guises, but in inventive combinations: slow roast onion stuffed with sweetbreads, beetroot and cheese pie, herring milts with rhubarb. We had to try the milts. Apparently, milts is just another word for 'roe', but the waiter delighted in telling us it was 'fish sperm'.
It received a mixed reaction, mostly due to the unusual silky texture of the milt, but the braised cucumber - a new one for me - was a revelation. The rhubarb's acidity slightly overwhelmed the milt, but intensified the cucumber with its sharp kick.
The main dishes were universally well received. Sea bass with samphire (apparently it's in season year-round in Sandwich, Kent) persalane, curly kale, and Granville sauce was beautifully presented and Margaret ended the meal by booking a table for the following week, so it must have been good. I'm ashamed to say we rejected the adventurous Pig's face with roast vegetables in favour of classic Roast beef with all the trimmings.
Wonderful beef, perfectly cooked, and generously cut for £12.50.
A few glowing reviews in 2008 and 2009 were tainted by shoddy service, so they listened, and learnt. It was exemplary on our visit. With a 6-year-old, a pregnant me, and near-constant quizzing about milt, samphire, and earl grey tea ice cream, our lovely waiter managed to remain both serene and chirpy. He even presented a special dish of ice cream samples to Alex, in egg cups (a little chap with a sophisticated palate: his favourite was the earl grey).
The adult serving of Chestnut soufflé with chocolate sorbet was soft and subtle, to the point of tasting of too little. The Tarte tatin (devoured before I could point and shoot) was a success.
Why this relaxed café, restaurant, and bar isn't more popular mystifies me. Age & Sons has just been awarded Bib Gourmand status by the masters at Michelin, for “good food at moderate prices”, which I hope marks 2010 out as a year for further recognition, and most importantly - bums on seats.