Restaurant review: Wallett’s Court
- Credit: Archant
Diners and residents at Wallett’s Court can now not only enjoy the joint talents of Oakley and Fowler, but also learn how to cook at the feet of the two master chefs
Right in the heart of White Cliffs country in the little hamlet of Westcliffe lies the welcoming and gracious Grade II listed manor of Wallett’s Court. In 1270, the house gave board and lodging to Edward I on his way to France, and if you look closely at the carvings and frescos in the hallways and corridors, you’ll discover the remnants of an early 15th-century Wealden Hall house hidden by a Jacobean restoration.
Fast forward to 1975, the manor was near derelict when Chris and Lea Oakley fell in love with it, bought it and restored it over the years, gradually turning Wallett’s into a centre of gastronomy in East Kent. Trained by the Roux Brothers, Chris is still going strong in the kitchen as ‘Grand Master Chef’ but has very recently taken on a resident chef, the very talented Michael Fowler, who grew up in Deal and shares Chris’s passion for the sheer bounty of local ingredients and suppliers around them, while also bringing the panache and inventiveness of the contemporary chef.
Fish are landed in Deal and Folkestone, Aberdeen Angus cattle graze on the White Cliffs as do Kentish sheep in the shadows of Dover Castle. Herbs, fruit and eggs come from Wallett’s own garden; lobster, seaweed and samphire from the beach.
Now keen gourmands can learn at the masters’ feet, as Oakley and Fowler are launching cookery workshops and Grand Masterclasses from this autumn – and Kent Life got to have a trial run. A few tweaks are still needed to timings, but I found the experience fascinating as two guinea pigs and I learnt how to skin and fillet a Dover Sole and remove the fillet from a vast sirloin of aged prime Kentish beef.
The best bit was watching Michael at work in the kitchen as he added his twist to Chris’s signature dish Fillets of Sole Leonara (named after his wife), then eating the results topped by our own individual fish-shaped baked puff pasty creations.
I had to pace myself, however as I still had the delights of a multiple-course dinner at the Chef’s Table to come; in hindsight, I should really have gone for a jog around the lovely landscaped grounds or at least a swim in the indoor pool ….
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In the meantime, time to explore. My Queen Eleanor room was one of three large en suite oak-beamed bedrooms in the manor, all with four-posters and fireplaces.
There are also Stable Block Snugs, Cosy Cowshed Boltholes and Kentish Barn Suites in the converted barns around the house, while tucked further away are Hidden Hideaways and Gorgeous Glamping Places.
An indoor pool, hot tub, sauna and steam room are within the grounds, and you get to stroll across the meadow and into the woods to cosy cabins for body treatments.
Back to the main event, however. Sipping Prosecco, I awaited My Work Colleague in the comfortable, traditional lounge with its solid dark wooden furniture, bar and two fireplaces. We then adjoined to the cosy dining space where I’d skinned a very large fish just a few hours earlier, which was slightly surreal, and prepared to sample Michael’s brand-new tasting menu. Chef not only cooked for us exclusively all night but brought in most courses himself and talked about them, which was a real treat.
All nine courses were on the small side, but it was a lot of food and I think my capacity impressed the kitchen! However, delights such as a fab cucumber sorbet with Gin and Tonic foam (too alcoholic for my teetotal chum, but perfect for this Gin fan) and fresh prawn toast adorned with a radish, fennel and dandelion salad slipped down a treat, especially with a glass of crisp Mansion House Sauvignon Blanc.
Other favourites included slowly braised lamb with Rosemary and garlic and a tangy salsa verde to dip the meat into, and an unusual vegetarian take on steak tartare using smoked tomato with an avocado ice cream decorated with dainty pea shoots.
Michael promises for the future a vegetarian masterclass and tasting menu and, if this feast is anything to go by, he’ll have veggies queuing around the block.
Star of the show, however, was the tender, flavoursome 56-day aged beef fillet served with Parisian gnocchi, wild garlic and asparagus (try it with a bold Malbec).
My joint favourite dish was St Margaret’s Bay lobster ravioli with radish and apple in a rich bisque I’d ‘helped’ prepare earlier.
But do make sure there’s room for Michael’s sublime take on egg and soldiers: white chocolate mousse with a mango sorbet yolk served in a sugar shell with shortbread soldiers. Witty and brilliant.
The next morning, after a lovely breakfast of Eggs Benedict in the airy conservatory, I thanked Michael for his tuition and cooking and said I couldn’t believe I’d eaten all nine courses. “Actually, Sarah, you ate 10,” he said. “You finished off your friend’s lemon curd soufflé …”.
Waste food this good? I think not.
MEET THE CHEFS
Oakley & Fowler
Chris Oakley was trained by the godfathers of Great British Cuisine, the Roux Brothers and then worked at Le Poulbot with Albert Roux in London. He has worked as head chef since buying and restoring Wallett’s in 1975.
Continuing as ‘Grand Master Chef,’ Chris has been joined by Michael Fowler, the new Resident Chef, lately of The Lodge at Prince’s in Sandwich.
Michael grew up in Deal, but trained under Marco-Pierre White at The Criterion in Piccadilly and with Rick Stein in Padstow among other five-star kitchens worldwide.
Where: Wallett’s Court, Westcliffe, St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, Dover CT15 6EW
01304 852 424 or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.wallettscourthotelspa.com
What: Hotel, restaurant, cookery classes, spa, wedding venue, glamping and more
How much: three-course lunch £19.50, Mon to Sat; three-course Sun lunch £23.95, three-course Native Kentish Menu £39.95 or a Tasting Menu (five courses) n