Restaurant review: The George and Dragon, Sandwich

Food at The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Food at The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Now under new ownership, The George and Dragon in Sandwich is already standing out as a future star, with passion, drive and talent in abundance in the kitchen

The light-filled, inviting restaurant overlooks a sunny walled garden (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The light-filled, inviting restaurant overlooks a sunny walled garden (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Sandwich is full of surprises, its narrow lanes packed with beautifully preserved medieval buildings that hint at secrets and stories. One such is tiny 15th-century pub The George and Dragon on Fisher Street, where My Work Colleague and I rocked up for lunch on the hottest day of the year.

Expecting something decidedly traditional from the name alone, the rather old-fashioned website and its town-centre location, what greeted us behind the immaculate green and white frontage was quite the surprise.

For beyond the welcoming, dog-friendly front bar lies a bright and airy dining space where light floods down from massive skylights and there are tantalising glimpses out to a sunny walled beer garden.

Every bit of space here has been maximised and by opening it up (even the kitchen is on view), there’s a sense of TARDIS-like discovery as you move through the pub, the only one in the UK that’s never been closed for a single day, as it’s been in continuous ownership since 1446.

Exterior of The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Exterior of The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

We sit at a simple wooden table adorned with fresh flowers and chat with new owner Steve Wren and his head chef Aaron Costen. It’s clear that this is very much a joint effort with everyone mucking in right from the start when Steve took the keys in 2017.

The walls back then were a dark red and the skylights had blinds, cutting out both sun and stars, while curtains blocked the garden from view. Steve, Aaron and his ‘brothers in arms’ sous chef Marc Ackland and junior sous Dan Buckle, got stuck into sanding down floorboards, repainting the walls a summery very pale blue, tackling carpentry and plumbing.

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Steve, who relocated to Sandwich for the golf when he took early retirement, couldn’t resist buying his local when it came up for sale. He transformed the garden, ripping down ivy and revealing mellow brick walls, planting bulbs and generally discovering his inner garden designer. He’s played golf just once since opening in September.

The ambition from the whole team is palpable: “We want to be the best pub in the UK,” Aaron tells me. Peer into the kitchen and you’ll see a range of retro Michelin man figures beneath an old Michelin wall plaque. They’re not just there for fun but a reminder of the stars these guys aspire to.

Tempting desserts (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Tempting desserts (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Even on their ‘quiet’ afternoons between service the lads will challenge their skills with ‘cook offs’ and experiments that often lead to new dishes on the ever-changing menus, which are so tantalising choice is difficult.

Gin-cured salmon on citrus pickled vegetables or perhaps pan-fried pigeon breast on a rhubarb risotto with a savoury meringue to start?

Mains tempt with pan-roasted lamb, honey glazed pork belly and local morel ravioli, but Aaron’s recommendations have already swayed us both. “I like to change people’s perceptions of what a dish can be,” he teases.

And indeed my whitebait is as far removed from the typical breadcrumbed, deep fried version as it could be. Lightly dusted in cumin-laced flour, with lemon, mint, basil and fish stock added just at the end, the fish has all the flavours of the Mediterranean.

Aaron Costen, head chef at The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Aaron Costen, head chef at The George & Dragon (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

MWC opts for the evocative ‘Textures of a Kentish Spring’ and the pretty-as-a-picture selection lives up to the promise of its name, the smooth asparagus mousse contrasting with crisp seasonal vegetables (asparagus, carrot and cucumber), the savoury granola adding texture.

My main is the ‘experimental’ cod, so often just the battered and fried accompaniment to chips. Not here. Lightly grilled, it sits on a bed of flavour-packed rice studded with chorizo, there’s a smoked pepper purée for added ‘oomph’ and then the inspired addition of heritage tomatoes – some freshly sliced, others cooked long and slow under heated lights – that add a delicious sweetness.

Steve is the wine buff and his recommendation of a glass of Viognier is a big enough white to cope with those strong flavours.

Opposite me there’s delight at the pan-fried sea bass topped with plentiful brown shrimp butter layered on a bed of perfectly sautéed potatoes, accompanied by a delicate cauliflower velouté. With spring greens on the side, all is right with the world.

MWC’s pudding of rhubarb three ways steals the show and indeed panna cotta, poached and a mousse with shards of just-chewy meringue is a triumph of how to handle rhubarb well.

I love lavender shortbread and can’t resist it here, accompanying a delicate elderflower crème brûlée. I’d have liked a bit more flavour from both key elements, so for me this was a restrained, rather bland end to a fine meal.

Exciting cooking from three ambitious young chefs who it’s a joy to watch working together as a team in their open kitchen.

The essentials

Where: The George and Dragon, 24 Fisher Street, Sandwich CT13 9EJ

What: Immaculate 15th-century town pub serving restaurant-quality food at competitive prices

When: Pub open Mon-Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 11am-8pm; food service 12pm-2pm then 6pm-9pm Mon-Sat and 12pm-3.30pm Sun.

How much: pigeon, rhubarb risotto, savoury meringue £7, pan-roasted lamb rump with spring greens £19, rhubarb three ways £6.50; set lunch £13, £17 or £21, set dinner £15.50, £21 or £26 (one, two or three courses).

Meet the chef

Aaron Costen, head chef

Tell us a bit about you

I’m 27, from Gravesend and have been a chef for 10 years following my apprenticeship at Thanet College. I’ve been very fortunate to work in places like The Abode in Canterbury and Age and Sons in Ramsgate.

And the job?

I’ve been at The George since its takeover in September. As soon as I met Steve and Sarah I knew I’d love working here as they are as passionate about it as I am. I love seeing my junior staff thrive and progress, challenging themselves to rethink what cooking is all about.

Your main suppliers?

We use Simon at The Fruit Bowl here in Sandwich, Jason at Fruits de Mer in Broadstairs for our fish and O’Brien’s in Dover for meat.

Your favourite dish?

I love our whole menu, it offers amazing food at a very reasonable price! If I did have to choose it would be the pork belly, apple purée, baked pear and potato terrine dish.

Top cookery tip?

My top tip is KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid! If you perfect the basics then when you are competent with that then you can start experimenting. And never be scared to fail, just see it as a learning curve.

Key influences?

My son and girlfriend, as they give me the support and motivation to keep pushing the boundaries. In a professional sense, it would be Jeremy Poole and Wendel Barrs, my first employer and head chef. They took me under their wing and helped me become the chef I am today. I owe those two guys everything.

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