Back in September, A gifted me a dinner at Stark, to mark my ever increasing years. He discovered Stark when Ben Crittenden, chef and owner, was awarded the Good Food Guide’s One To Watch award. He waited, impatiently, until midnight when tables were released to book, only for me to realise the chosen date was the day of my step sister’s wedding, not something I wanted to miss. We, finally, find a date when we are both free and a table available, the first weekend in June. Getting a table at Stark is no easy matter but then, when you only have ten covers and your neighbour is acclaimed food writer Marina O’Loughlin who wrote a review chefs must dream of, it makes sense.
We spend the afternoon drinking aperol and basking in the sunshine, reminding each other not to drink too much before dinner. Heaven forbid, having waited eight months, we should be too drunk to appreciate it.
This tiny cubby hole of a restaurant is quite something, including a toilet even smaller than in the original Oystermen and that’s saying something. On the night we visit, Ben’s wife, Sophie, is not running the floor, instead we are served by a young waitress who is almost apologetic in the presentation of the dishes she brings. This is nothing some training and confidence won’t solve. Open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner, I mentally do the maths and wonder how it pays.
The menu is six courses, changing seasonally or as needed, to showcase the best of the produce available locally. This is not for you if you have allergies, dislikes or intolerances and,while I understand genuine allergies, I admire this standpoint, although, I suspect in this tiny kitchen, it’s borne out of necessity rather than anything else, much like the request to keep your cutlery for the duration of the meal until desserts.
We chose a high table, from the two offered, importantly the high seats have backs,
a necessity with my advancing years. We opt into the wine pairing for an additional £30, it’s fine, interesting in places.
Our first dish is mackerel, carrot, yolk. Flavours jostle for attention but in the very best of ways. The mackerel is rich, sweet and smokey. The cured yolk is inspired, adding depth and richness, tiny cubes of pickled carrots sharpen my senses, delicate fronds of dill are there to add further layers of flavour, atop this beautiful mound, squid ink crackers add texture. Hidden underneath them are salty pearls of caviar, not mentioned on the menu or in service. It’s an extremely strong start.
A heavy stone bowl, warm from the oven, brings the next dish. Every dish and plate seems to have been created for the dish it holds. The poussin is so juicy, I suspect it has been sous vided but it turns out it hasn’t and, on reflection, I wonder where a sous vide would fit in this tiny space. Pooled underneath it is the gentlest Korma sauce, creamy with cashew nuts. It sits on a bed of pickled shallots that bring a fresh acidity. Red grapes as thin as petals are sweet, with just a tiny hint of perfume. Toasted cashews finish the dish. It’s subtle, it’s delicate and, yet, it manages to be a riotous explosion of flavours in my mouth.
We both fail to identify a perfect disc of cod and I panic that it’s a huge slice of aubergine, despite the fact aubergine is not listed on the menu.
The cod flakes into giant white curls, sweet plum tomatoes burst into the fragrant sauce, courgette curls are firm and filled with a tumble of tiny, sweet shrimp.
Beef, Mushroom and wild asparagus brings to the table a piece of meat cooked and rested to perfection. This plate of food is a lovely testimony to seasonality, with the tender, sweet asparagus and earthy, nutty morels. Mushrooms, I’d guess chestnut and portabello, are both diced and sliced paper thin beneath a mound of truffle. The beef is so tender, it barely needs a knife.
We move to the sweet stuff and delight that our neighbouring table has left but not before we had learned each intimate detail of every aspect of their respective children’s lives, and I do mean every detail. Perhaps we are just bitter, old childless hags but we vow never to be these people, going as far as to promise, should I become them, he would happily hit me in the face, with friends like these…
Goats curd, strawberry, pistachio is a brilliant dish for those without a sweet tooth. Yes, there are notes of sweet, notably from the macerated strawberries, but the goats’ curd ice cream is rich and earthy, studded with vibrant pistachio cake and a scattering of nuts.
Sadly, we finish on a dish that didn’t really do justice to the rest of the meal. Coconut, cherry, chocolate was, for me, lacking in texture; it was a lot of soft things on a plate, and that is all I am going to say about it because it is not this I will remember.
As we finish our wine, A calls a cab and I think he is winding me up when he say ‘An hour, ok thanks’ and hangs up. It turns out, he is not, in fact, joking and these are things one should factor in when planning meals outside of London and where Uber is not a given. We are the last table (standard) and on hearing this, Ben offers to drive us back to our hotel in Ramsgate, proving that not only is he a bloody brilliant chef but, also, a bloody nice bloke.
Stark is a really unique restaurant. The food is stunning, it’s only and hour and forty minutes from London and who doesn’t like a trip to the seaside?