Shane Hughes is enjoying a move away from tradition and embracing new techniques, Neil Gerrard discovers
"It's good to do something like this, especially at my age," says chef Shane Hughes of the small plate lunch menu that offers diners at the Salutation in Sandwich, Kent, a series of mini culinary adventures.
It's quite the departure for a chef who was a self-proclaimed "three-course guy" steeped in French cuisine traditions, who held Michelin stars at Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth, Powys, and at Thackeray's in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
Hughes had been considering the change after observing the trend of simplified lunch menus at some of his favourite restaurants, like Lyle's and Barrafina. What he has created at the 17-bedroom Salutation, which John and Dorothy Fothergill took over from Channel 4 Gogglebox stars Dom and Steph Parker in December 2016, is something akin to tapas, with 27 dishes in total, of which six are desserts.
Tapas doesn't quite do it justice. While some of the dishes have Spanish influence, most dishes have roots in modern European cuisine with classical undertones. Everything is made from scratch at the restaurant, from the white crab and fennel sausage with tomato stew (£12) to the "dumpling" of braised shoulder of venison with pearl barley, oats and sage (£12). Cheaper options include a broth of Winterdale Cheddar, bacon and onions (£3.50), or marinated heritage beetroots, apple and sherry reduction with goats' curd and chicory (£3.50).
"It's no small thing that I have changed my style of menu at the age of 40, but it has been really well received," says Hughes.
He has not completely abandoned his heritage as a Michelin-starred chef, with an à la carte menu (four starters, mains and desserts, plus a cheese option and "snacks" to start), as well as a tasting menu which on paper is eight courses but in reality is closer to 11.
Everything on the menu is a completely new creation. "I wanted to make a point to my team and to my sous chef, Freddie Innes, who followed me down here from Thackeray's, that we were doing something new," he explains.
He's keen for Innes to get praise for the new approach. "He has worked with me for three years and knows what direction we want the restaurant to go in. He's a creative young guy and I think a lot of him, so I hope he does really well," Hughes says.
One of Innes' experiments is with fermentation, another departure for Hughes and one driven by Innes. "I had mentally built up a bit of a wall against it," he says. "But then I dined with Gareth [Ward] at Ynyshir and I love what he does and fermentation is one of his passions. I chatted with a couple of other chefs and we have started off small but built our way up. Now we have our own Japanese-style preserved lemons, kimchi and our own sauerkraut."
The restaurant also offers its own kombucha as an interlude between dishes, made with tea leaves picked from flowers in the Salutation's renowned gardens.
On the à la carte menu is a main of roast diver-caught scallops, heritage beetroot, Parmesan bon bons, smoked haddock and potato espuma (£15), and a starter of quail and bacon sausage, black truffle, creamed potatoes, fennel and carrot confit (£14). Hughes wanted to make a sausage that wasn't ballotined, so he and his team developed their own forcemeat of quail that is minced at a local butcher before the chefs pipe it into natural sausage skins.
Innes' favourite dish is a lightly smoked duck breast, butter-poached lobster, asparagus tortellini, carrot and ginger purée, and veal orange glaze (£27), which he says is "really vibrant and looks beautiful".
When it comes to desserts, the Malakoff's (£11) intriguing name has proven to be a good draw. "Malakoff is a Russian dessert that is typically a compression and something that you would serve as a petit four. I decided I wanted to break it down, deconstruct it, and turn it into a dessert," Hughes explains.
You can tell Hughes is enjoying himself, and given the setting, it's not surprising. The freshly refurbished hotel has a beautiful open kitchen and three dining rooms that can accommodate 65 covers in total. It's still early days and trade is reliant on hotel guests at the moment. Hughes and his brigade of seven chefs aim to build up the Salutation's reputation as a dining destination.
"This is a departure for me but it has been a lot of fun. If we have got 30-40 covers in the restaurant and they are all pleased with it, I feel like it is a bit of a triumph, really," he concludes.
From the menu
From the small plate lunch menu
Chargrilled English onion with cheese fondue and potato skin crumble £3.50 Partridge roasted in bacon, Brussels sprout leaves, chips and thyme jus £14.50 Whitstable oysters served with a piquant dressing £2 each
Sponge pudding with salted toffee sauce and vanilla custard £5
From the à la carte menu
Seared Scottish langoustine, smoked bisque, tomato and celeriac lasagne £18
Breast of wood pigeon, chestnut gnocchi, squash, black lentils and sherry £11
Cornish turbot with sweetcorn and watercress, gherkin, potato galette, chicken and butter glaze £30
70% Valrhona cocoa bean and yuzu delice, salted toffee ice-cream, goji berries £10
Roasted pineapple and star anise in pastry, miso caramel, milk and rum sorbet £7
The Salutation, Knightrider Street, Sandwich CT13 9EW