With a chef who's passionate about local produce and a newly-awarded rising star from Michelin, the Marquis at Alkham, set in a picturesque Kent village, is a restaurant to watch, says Rosie Birkett.
Amid the splendour of the sloping Alkham Valley in Kent sits the Marquis restaurant with rooms. Built in 1810, the gleaming white building looks out on to the valley and its surrounding copse, and is the sort of place where you might expect to find antique furniture, dusty taxidermy and men in tweed.
The reality is somewhat fresher. Formerly a fish restaurant and then a pub, the Marquis was refurbished and reopened in September 2008, with Yorkshire-born chef Charles Lakin behind the stove, serving "comforting modern British food" which gained him a rising star in this year's Michelin guide.
Inside, the 60-seat Marquis is every bit the sleek contemporary restaurant. Exposed brickwork, polished wooden floors and chic furnishings create a comfortable and elegant arena for Lakin's food, which is both hearty and sophisticated.
Set menus are the modus operandi (though single courses can be requested), with the table d'hote lunch menu priced at £19.50 for three courses; table d'hote dinner menu £24.95 for three courses, evening menu £39.50 for three courses, and tasting menu £50 for seven courses.
"My type of cooking was very different and new for this area," says Lakin. "There were no other people around here doing things like pigs' trotters and using the less expensive cuts, but it's gone down well.
"I like to cook traditional British fare with a rural feel and modern twists, and as time has gone on it has progressed and become more refined."
The chef cites former mentor Andrew Pern, the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffmann and Anthony Demetre among his influences, and his best-selling signature starter of crispy pig's trotters and quail's eggs (£8.95) epitomises his style of cooking. It's a robust-sounding dish, but one that has taken some serious culinary flair to produce. He debones and braises the trotters in red wine and stock for four hours, then flattens them before lining them with chicken mousseline and ham hock. Then they're rolled, sliced into disks and pan fried before being served with fried quail's eggs, dressed leaves and cauliflower piccalilli. Lakin calls it his take on the traditional British dish of ham and eggs and it's these imaginative reinventions of nostalgic classics that define his cooking style.
"I use flavours that traditionally work well, but I like to look at them from a different angle," he explains.
"Everyone has their own idea of rhubarb and custard, so I do a dish with Yorkshire rhubarb and a mousse made with Bird's custard. I like some of the dishes to strike a chord with people."
Following on from this, the use of local and British produce is crucial to Lakin's food, and he describes his location in rural Kent as a "home from home" in terms of its rich bounty.
"Working at the Marquis gave me an opportunity to source these fantastic local suppliers," he says.
"Dexter beef is one of the best you can use, and we get it from Diane Smith, who is just a mile away."
The trio of Dexter beef (£27.95) is another best-seller, while fish comes from a small family fishmonger, Jenkins and Sons, in the seaside town of Deal. Dishes like roast fillet of local cod with new potato terrine, celeriac and a ragoût of sea astor, cockles and pancetta (£12.95) and tortellini of lobster with lemongrass lobster bisque (available on the £50 tasting menu) make the most of the surrounding coast's offerings.
British cheese gets its own menu (£7.95 for two) featuring cheeses from Ashford, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset, and Ashmore cheese from Canterbury.
"There's a wealth of produce and ingredients in this area, and I try to support the local, small independent suppliers," Lakin says.
"Kent has some great farms and great fisheries - and I base my menu around that."
With his sophisticated take on British classics, Lakin and the Marquis are definitely ones to watch.
The Marquis at Alkham
Alkham Valley Road, Alkham, Dover, Kent CT15 7DF
Tel: 01304 873410www.themarquisatalkham.co.uk
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Lightly curried carrot panna cotta, onion bhaji, pineapple pickle, £5.50
- Seared king scallops, sea beet, pancetta and sweetcorn foam, £13.95
- Rillette of pork, truffle mayonnaise and caramelised apple dressing, £5.50
- Breast of duck, pan roasted with duck faggots, bubble and squeak hash, and sauce Poivrade, £21.95
- Skate wing with mussel and baby onion broth with champ potato, £11.95
- Loin of Godmersham rabbit with black pudding stuffing, air-dried ham, celeriac and vintage cider sauce, £22
- Rhubarb soufflé with ginger parkin ice-cream, £4.95
- Banana soufflé with toffee sauce and tonka bean ice-cream, £7.95
- Trio of comfort desserts, £7.95