This test kitchen near Tunbridge Wells provides a boundary-pushing alternative for local foodies. Neil Gerrard reports
At least half of the several mirrors that adorn the walls of the Twenty Six test kitchen declare: "I owe it all to you".
You'll find the same message printed on the menu. The idea behind it, according to head chef Scott Goss, is that it is a way of thanking the customers as they check out their reflection or prepare to order.
This small Kent restaurant in South- borough near Tunbridge Wells represents a unique opportunity for Goss, formerly head chef of the Swan in nearby West Malling, and he probably owes a little to Pete Cornwell, the owner of the I'll Be Mother group, too.
As executive chef for the group, Goss offers his advice and experience, but Cornwell has allowed him to devote the greater part of his energy to the Twenty Six. Here, Goss has the freedom to unleash the creative flair that earned him a Michelin Bib Gourmand at the Swan.
He has changed since then, and not just because he now sports an enormous beard. "I guess, as the years go on, you mature," he says. "I look back and think, Jesus Christ, did I really put that much food on the plate?
"I haven't suddenly started going down a different path to what I was doing 10 years ago, but there is more attention to detail."
Halibut, smoked clam ratatouille and sea herb crust
The 5-5-5 menu reflects what Goss can manageably change on a daily basis, working in the confines of a reasonably small upstairs kitchen. "I want to get five main courses out excellently," he explains.
As a result, Goss has found himself stepping out of back of house and bringing out the plate to talk customers through it. He now enjoys this part of the job, and regards it as an important part of the experience.
"At first, I was like, 'Who the hell wants to see a guy with a big beard and tattoos walking through the restaurant?' But people are genuinely interested in chefs and what we do on a daily basis, and they ask fantastic questions."
Buttermilk panna cotta, poached rhubarb and macadamia granola
Certainly, there is a looser, cooler feel to the restaurant than you might expect from a chef who spent years cutting his teeth in fine- dining with the likes of Gary Rhodes. The wooden tables are dressed with mismatched cutlery and there isn't a sommelier in sight.
"If you want that more traditional sort of service, there are Michelin-starred restaurants in the area that will give it to you," he says. "We are trying to push boundaries."
One of the most striking dishes on the menu is the breast of veal, garlic, salsify and artichoke. Previously a fan of ox cheeks, Goss tired of them after they became ubiquitous and, after a conversation with his meat supplier, he ended up with a 17kg breast of veal. "We nailed it," he says of the dish. "It takes a lot of work, good butchery skills, good cookery - no waterbathing, just good, old-school braising for 24 hours. Then it is rolled and portioned and pan-fried."
Meanwhile, red wine is infused with garlic and set with agar to make a gel. "It's a lovely way to introduce garlic onto a plate," Goss says.
Devon crab, baby leek vinaigrette, watercress and trout
Sometimes, serendipity plays a part in the creative process, too. "Last year, one of the chefs was braising faggots when the crépinette broke from the outside," Goss says. "But then we took the crépinette off and 'broken faggots' were born." They proved so popular that Goss and his team now serve a starter of breaded oxtail and broken faggots. "It goes down an absolute storm. It is delicious and my favourite of the starters at the moment," he says.
Another hit, perhaps surprisingly, has been the simple side dish of hispi cabbage (£3). "For all the effort we put into everything, you wouldn't believe how many people ask how we do the cabbage," he says. "We just cut it straight in half with the root cut out, and then we char it on the solid top to release those natural sugars. It just wakes it up and all the leaves come apart. It comes off the solid top and straight to the customer with a bit of Maldon sea salt."
Six months ago (and around six months after opening), the Twenty Six earned two AA rosettes and Goss is very keen to see that rise to three. "All the years I have been with Peter, he has never let me cook just for the AA or Michelin, though. We are all about having a busy, happy dining room."
They 'owe it all' to them, after all.
From the menu
- Smoked haddock rarebit
- Fillet of mackerel, potato and parsley risotto
- Bream, celeriac milk, grilled leeks and tarragon
- Gnocchi, creamed Kent Down mushrooms and rainbow chard
- Duck breast, braised red cabbage and bourguignon garnish
- Glazed apricot rice pudding
- The 26 Black Forest gÁ¢teau
- Two courses, £21.50; three courses, £29.50
The Twenty Six
15a Church Road, Southborough, Tunbridge Wells TN4 0RX
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