A chilli day at the seaside? Yes, please – because I’ve discovered an Indian marvel in deepest... Margate
PUBLISHED: 22:01, 30 May 2015 | UPDATED: 22:01, 30 May 2015
Like most British out-of-season seaside resorts, Margate, in Kent, is a funny place to spend a Monday afternoon. It’s not so much what’s there, as what isn’t.
Melancholy mixes with the just-cured sea breeze, the silence as deafening as fairground screams. Bargain booze shops and bingo halls sit garish and empty, while lonely, locked-up amusement arcades echo with the ghosts of beeps and flashes long past.
The beach is bare, the sea dull and flat under a slate-grey sky. Shuttered seafood stalls puncture the promenade, next year’s whelks and pints of prawns still clinging to wave-bashed rocks and swimming many miles north.
There’s nothing flashy or showy at The Ambrette, just confident, beautifully executed cooking. These would be memorable on some sun-drenched Indian beach. In the backstreets of Margate, they’re a revelation
There’s a whiff of cooking oil, long past its prime, cheap donuts, fried chicken, wet dogs and ennui.
‘On Margate sands. I can connect. Nothing with nothing.’ wrote TS Eliot in The Waste Land.
We pass the shelter, now listed, where the poet penned these lines. And staring out into that ceaseless, relentless grey, I can sure feel his pain.
Yet Margate is an odd mixture of the hip and hip-replacement, a place where the white, sleekly modern lines of the Turner Contemporary gallery vie with Neo-Gothic Jubilee clock towers to draw the eye.
And retro clothes emporiums, over-priced bric-a-brac and Scandinavian cafes are squeezed among purveyors of dentures, fishing tackle and Zimmer frames.
And at lunch today at The Ambrette, the majority of customers are on the gently slippered side of retired – polite, reserved, smiling. And very English indeed.
This modern Indian restaurant is a big cut above the usual ‘five pints and the poppadoms please guv’ sort of place. The lunch menu, as is sensible in quiet, spring seaside towns, is firmly set, three courses for £21
There’s a three-course ‘over 60s’ menu deal for £11.95. No wonder they look so contented. That’s one hell of a deal.
Especially as this modern Indian restaurant is a big cut above the usual ‘five pints and the poppadoms please guv’ sort of place.
The lunch menu, as is sensible in quiet, spring seaside towns, is firmly set, three courses for £21.
But I’ve rung ahead and asked if it was possible to order the soft shell crab from à la carte.
Because I’m greedy. And love crab. It’s crisp, and lovingly fried, still wearing the tang of the sea, and comes with a couple of quenelles of intensely bosky, chilli-spiked brown meat raita.
Plus an equally forthright crab and beetroot cake. The spicing is intense, but balanced, a small pile of sea purslane adding salty, pert bite.
For a dish this inspired, I can even forgive the oblong plate. Kent and Southern India meet.
This kitchen has serious talent, and it’s at its very best when if eschews all that silly plating, and incongruous smears, and strangely shaped plates
And become the firmest of friends. Just as they do with the ‘Kentish sausage,’ a rather splendid home-made, spiced chipolata, with wild garlic and tomato chutney, where the pork oinks of the English farmyard, while the flavours sing of those Far Pavilions.
This is intelligent modern Indian cooking, combining age-old technique with the very best of local ingredients.
Margate on a Monday afternoon is suddenly becoming a whole lot more exciting. But there’s more.
Tip top ‘dosai’ (the plural of dosa?), the crepes thin, burnished and frilly as a flapper’s petticoat. With a neat pile of soft, rich, mustardseed- spiked potatoes plonked on top.
And a trio of chutneys (pea, coconut and pineapple) that are fresh and bracingly vibrant. Once again, the spicing is precise.
There’s nothing flashy or showy, just confident, beautifully executed cooking. These would be memorable on some sun-drenched Indian beach. In the backstreets of Margate, they’re a revelation. Mains are equally assured, if not quite as thrilling.
The Ambrette lamb pie shoves slow-cooked, properly tender adolescent bleater, thick with cinnamon and saffron, under a mash crust.
The Ambrette is that rare thing – a regional (in both senses of the word) Indian restaurant that knows exactly what it is doing. Ingredients, spicing and technique. With blessed confidence too
An Anglo-Indian shepherd’s pie, and very good it is too. Then a chicken biriyani that tries too hard to be glibly modern.
The flavours are sound, but the presentation fiddly and irksome. Why these dishes need to food be deconstructed and over-prettified, I don’t know.
44 King St, Margate, Kent CT9 1QE
01843 231 504, theambrette.co.uk
Perhaps all those telly chefs are to blame. And the less said about a deeply dreary shot of lentil juice, the better.
It manages that most difficult of tasks, namely to taste of absolutely sweet bugger all. It arrives unbidden and departs pretty much untouched.
But deep-fried okra are magnificent, capturing that verdant crunch without the slimy leer. Suddenly, I see their appeal.
And sea spinach, gently ferric, is scattered with tiny shards of soft, sweet garlic. Simple, yet sublime.
So this kitchen has serious talent, and it’s at its very best when if eschews all that silly plating, and incongruous smears, and strangely shaped plates.
They could also cut back on the menu verbiage too. Good cooking has little need for the whims and vagaries of ephemeral – and halfbaked – trends.
Because The Ambrette is that rare thing – a regional (in both senses of the word) Indian restaurant that knows exactly what it is doing. Ingredients, spicing and technique. With blessed confidence too.
We totter out, well fed, a couple of hours later. The sun has fought through the clouds, while the sea glitters and winks.
And for the very briefest of moments, I see the Margate of Turner’s seascapes.
Rather than Eliot’s existential gloom.
Lunch for two, minus drinks: £70