Kent restaurant the Swan has been in the spotlight since Mark Sargeant joined as creative director. But head chef Scott Goss still calls the shots, with a menu based on local, seasonal produce. Neil Gerrard reports.
The arrival of Gordon Ramsay's former right-hand man Mark Sargeant as creative director of the Swan Collection late last year has brought the Swan in West Malling back into the spotlight.
But it is head chef Scott Goss, a former pupil of both Gary Rhodes and Anton Edelmann, who is still very much in charge. The restaurant, set on a quiet side road in the historic Kent market town, has been under the ownership of restaurateur Pete Cornwell for 10 years, the last five of which have seen 27-year-old Goss heading up the kitchen.
Sargeant comes down to the restaurant for one day a week. His main focus is catering for events at the Swan's sister restaurant, the Swan at the Globe in London, rather than making changes at the Kentish venue. That leaves Goss free to continue building the restaurant's offering around local, seasonal produce, which he says is the "main goal" for 2010.
Meat, much of which is already sourced from local farms, is delivered in whole carcasses and butchered on site by Goss and his staff. So it is no shock that the menu currently offers hearty, winter fare. And while the food is generally straightforward and unfussy, Goss produces the occasional surprising twist. A starter of puy lentil soup and quail's egg (£6.50) is delivered with a touch of theatre by the front of house team led by general manager David West. The tiny egg is presented alone at the centre of a large white bowl before the soup is poured over it at the table.
Then there is the unusual combination of Kentish wild sea bass, spinach and ox cheek (£19) - a winter surf and turf.
"Ox cheeks are my absolute favourite. They cost pennies but are probably one of the tastiest cuts of meat I know," Goss enthuses. And of course, the sea bass is landed that morning - he ensures his fish comes in on day boats only.
One of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, which recently won a Michelin Bib Gourmand for the ninth consecutive year, is venison from nearby Chart Farm which is served with parsnip purée, kale and juniper berries (£19). The meat is well balanced by the sweet yet punchy parsnip purée, and a sauce made from the bones of the animal.
The attention to seasonality endures on the dessert menu. The peanut butter and chocolate parfait (£7) is accompanied by a cherry sorbet made from cherries preserved in kirsch at the end of the summer season.
Diners in the main ground floor section of the restaurant can see Goss and his brigade of five chefs, including French pastry chef Marion Marceteau, through a viewing window that looks out on the original walls of the 15th century property and the kitchen behind it. But they won't hear much.
"I like to work in complete silence and just hear the sound of the pans and the knives chopping. I can't handle noise," Goss explains.
Despite its great age, the building's interior wears an almost industrial decor, with a patchwork of muted browns and greys on the walls and chair cushions, and a stainless steel-topped bar. The bar stools are fashioned from old iron Singer sewing stools, while upstairs chunky copper-clad searchlights, liberated from the Suez canal, illuminate the more richly-decorated second bar and three private dining rooms.
Cornwell indicates plans are afoot for a new bakery adjoining the restaurant, which will provide bread not only for the restaurant but also for general sale. Later on, he also hopes to launch a delicatessen.
While that may seem like a lot of related businesses for one small town, West Malling looks as if it can provide the extra trade they will require. The 75-seat eatery, which handles 800 to 1,000 covers a week, is just a stone's throw away from the well-to-do Kings Hill area, apparently popular with Premiership footballers. But it is also within the reach of the less affluent, with a £12 Express Lunch menu.
Goss, who seems more than happy to stay put for the time being, is set to be heavily involved in both new projects. And you wouldn't bet against his name being as renowned one day as Sargeant's is now.
35 Swan Street, West Malling,Kent ME19 6JU
Tel: 01732 521910
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Shallot tart, Tuxford & Tebbutt Stilton, £7
- Colchester rock oysters, lemon and shallot dressing, £2.50 each
- Hot smoked salmon, red cabbage and horseradish, £8.50
- Kentdown mushroom pie, carrots and mashed potatoes, £16
- Sussex pork belly, white cabbage, black pudding and mustard, £17
- Rib of Scottish beef and dauphinoise potatoes for two to share, £26
- Valrhona chocolate assiette, £7.50
- Vanilla crème brûlée with nuts biscotti, £6.50
- Spotted dick, rum and raisin with vanilla custard, £7