The Secret Garden at Mersham-le-Hatch in the spotlight

With a new head chef at the helm, passionate about local and seasonal produce, The Secret Garden looks set for even greater things in 2013

Secrets shared

With a new head chef at the helm, passionate about local and seasonal produce, The Secret Garden looks set for even greater things in 2013

Even on a bitterly cold winter’s night The Secret Garden carries a hint of summer with it. Set in an old coach house, it overlooks lovingly restored gardens on one side and, through a glass wall, the pretty cobbled courtyard it shares with several little independent shops and its own cookery school on the other.

Decorated in warm deep red, with an old wooden floor and oriental-style screens breaking up its length, the restaurant is immediately inviting and cleverly set out so that it can perform many roles.

There’s a big bar and comfy leather sofas and armchairs at one end where My Work Colleague and I relaxed over a sparkling elderflower each while studying the menu. Had we been there during the day we could have been enjoying a coffee, light lunch or a delicious afternoon tea after a spot of shopping. It’s that kind of place.

We nibbled on rustic bread with dipping oil and marinated olives as we made our choices from a menu that, although short (five starters, six mains) was so tempting selection genuinely wasn’t easy.

Most Read

New-ish chef Stephen Piddock, who joined the team in October 2012, came to our rescue and we discovered his passion for not only seasonal local produce (largely from the restaurant’s own estate and gardens or a six to seven-mile radius), but also for smoking many of his fine ingredients.

As well as meat and fish over oak chips, he is also experimenting with smoked oil (it takes on a charcoal flavour, apparently) and even smoked sea salt: think there might be a touch of Heston here …

Suitably inspired, I went for the hot smoked salmon to start – a tough choice as my favourite Rye Bay scallops were beckoning me over. I wasn’t disappointed, though surprised to find the fish was cold and that the hot smoking referred to the method; it was delicately flavoured and perfectly set off by apple jelly, pickled fennel and cr�me fraiche. Tasted even better with a glass of dry white (Le Grand Duc Blanc).

Great presentation also marked MWC’s subtle creamed goat’s cheese with little squares of vivid green watercress pannacotta and the pleasingly crunchy contrast of chestnut crumble: definitely one to try at home on veggie nights.

For our mains MWC didn’t surprise me by opting for her favourite beef – a meltingly tender cut of braised blade served with smoked potato (I nicked some – reminded me of eating around a bonfire, in a very good way!) and red onion pur�e.

I went seasonal with my ballotine of confit pheasant leg, shot on the Mersham estate, which provides the restaurant with all its game, and it was exceptionally tasty (try it with a full-bodied Malbec from local wine supplier K & L).

I particularly enjoyed the accompanying confit potato and crunchy white bean cassoulet – and we also added braised red cabbage and buttered broccoli from the vegetable sides for colour and taste.

We could have opted for slow-cooked pork belly, vegetable tempura or perhaps roasted loin of monkfish on the bone with spatzelli (my choice next time!).

Desserts also showcase Stephen’s flair for imaginative pairings of flavours and textures – MWC was delighted to find fresh orange came with her chocolate mousse, as well as orange sorbet and crunchie-bar gorgeous honeycomb.

And my trio of mulled cider jelly, poached pear and chestnut cake was (almost) too pretty to eat – delicate, shimmering and a really refreshing finale.

Back on the comfy sofa, we chatted over coffee served in pretty mismatched china with front of house manager Mas, who was a delight all evening.

He even tempted us away from the warmth to see the gardens by moonlight and the Glass House, a delightful private dining area seating a maximum of 26 guests and used for everything from afternoon tea parties to small weddings and corporate events.

Ands we walked round to the front car park under a freezing sky and full moon, I was already dreaming of a Spring return ….

Take 3

Multi-tasking restaurants in your area

The Marquis at Alkham

Alkham Valley Road, Alkham, Dover CT15 7DF

01304 873410 or ben@themarquisatalkham.co.uk

Open: Mon-Fri 7.30-9.30am and 8-10am weekends and BH, Tue-Sat 12-2.30pm, Sun 12-3pm, afternoon tea 12-5pm, � la carte and tasting menus Mon-Sat 6.30-9.30pm, Sun 7-8.30pm

Offering everything from breakfast for residents and non-residents alike to afternoon cream teas, lunches (including Sunday roast) and evening menus in its critically acclaimed five-star restaurant, this delightful boutique hotel with rooms really does cover all your needs. It’s also perfectly positioned for exploring Dover castle and the White cliffs, and an ideal pit stop if you are using Dover port or Eurotunnel to visit the continent.

Kits Coty Brasserie

15 Old Chatham Road, Bluebell Hill, Aylesford ME20 7EZ

01634 684445 or info@kitscoty.co.uk

Open: 12-2.30 pm and 7-9.30pm, closed all day Mon, Sat lunch and Sun dinner

This family owned restaurant on Bluebell Hill has great views over the Weald, which you can enjoy from the glass-fronted dining area in winter. Its menus feature traditional classics such as slow-roasted lamb with Rosemary as well as popular modern European and Asian dishes and a good vegetarian selection. There’s a private dining room with marquee terrace, ideal for special celebrations, and Kits Coty is licensed to hold wedding ceremonies.

The Swan

35 Swan Street, West Malling ME19 6JU

01732 521910 or info@loveswan.co.uk

Open: Mon-Fri 10am-12pm, Sat and Sun 10am-12pm, Mon-Sat 12-5.30pm, Sun12- 7pm, Mon-Sat 5.30pm-10pm

Once a 15th-century coaching inn, The Swan opened as a bar and restaurant in 2000 following a radical conversion. You can enjoy breakfast, a light lunch, afternoon coffee, evening dinner or sip a cocktail here. On the ground floor is a relaxed bar and restaurant, while upstairs there's a private lounge, bar, library and two other private dining rooms. The menus reflect a signature British style with seasonal produce grown and reared by local farmers; oysters, ribs of beef and local pork are all firm favourites. You can also try sister restaurant The Swan English Restaurant at Chapel Down Winery in Tenterden TN30 7NG, 01580 761616 or bookings@loveswan.co.uk

MEET THE CHEF

Stephen Piddock, head Chef at The Secret Garden Restaurant, Mersham le Hatch

Tell us a bit about you

I’m 36, married and we live in Folkestone, but I grew up on Romney Marsh before beginning my training in London. I worked in Australia before returning to Kent and working at Chilston Park, The Bell at Sandwich and the Hythe Imperial.

What’s your signature dish?

Tea-smoked wood pigeon with pear jelly, cobnut praline and hazelnut oil

Your plans for 2013?

To increase production in the restaurant’s own one-acre walled garden from 30 per cent to around 80 per cent of the fresh produce used by the kitchen. I will also be getting very involved with our Kent Cookery School, with regular demo and dine evenings and courses for those looking to gain more advanced skills.

Your top cookery tip?

Focus on your main ingredient and balance flavours around it

Who has influenced you most?

Some of my own inspiration has been gained from working alongside really great chefs such as the Michelin-starred chef Ron Maxfield at Clivedon and Michael Wignall, the two-Michelin starred chef at Penny Hill Park

Your must-have kitchen gadget?

My Kenwood kMix liquidiser

Who would you like to cook for?

Thomas Keller of the French Laundry

THE ESSENTIALS

Where: The Secret Garden Restaurant

Mersham-le-Hatch Business Village

Hythe Road, Ashford TN25 6NH

01233 501586 or info@secretgardenkent.co.uk

What: relaxed, versatile setting for food and drink throughout the day

What’s the damage: �15-�30 price range

When: Mon and Sun 10-4pm, Tue-Sat 10am-5pm and dinner 6.30pm onwards

Comments powered by Disqus