As I arrive an onslaught of seagulls swoop for pickings at the ossified carcass of a herring. They pick and chew and squawk their dominance. A dinner dispute breaks out between the creatures. If they knew this rumpus was happening outside Rocksalt, they’d make a reservation and have done with it. The restaurant is on the Folkestone harbour and faces out across the English Channel and bracing sea air. If you’re unlucky you can just make out France.
There’s anticipation in the town since Mark Sargeant opened his first restaurant as owner/operator. Curiosity among locals and whispers in pubs. Not since the late-70s, when Kent locations such as Folkestone, Margate and Ramsgate were family holiday destinations, have people considered the food offerings from the county known as The Garden of England. Indeed, there was little reason to back then.
Now, however, as Rod Liddle recently highlighted in a piece for The Times: ‘Kent has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any of the Home Counties south of the Thames.’
Sargeant’s reasons for coming to Folkestone lie a little deeper than the foodie bubblings of the press. He was born in Kent and grew up scrubbing pots in the kitchens of the county before learning his trade at Michelin-starred Reads in Faversham. For Sargeant, returning to Kent was a move home and as he comments: “Folkestone chose me.” The salt water is in his veins.
Eight-years as Head Chef at Claridges and twelve-years with Gordon Ramsay, Folkestone seems about as peaceful and removed from a conurbation as possible. Like much of the Kent coastline, there’s a washed grandeur telling of a richer past.
The menu has an appeal and is largely dependent on local produce. There are a few colourful entries: red herring is quite literally the red herring jewel in the list: a beetroot-coloured mackerel smoked (by Sonny Elliot of Rock-a-Nore fisheries in Hastings) and served whole. There are traditional radishes, presented on a small wooden board, alongside an anchovy dip. Popping broad beans with mint sea salt offer an English charm, and Kentish sourdough is served with a very fine taramasalata and olive oil.
A dressed harrisa crab holds the brown meat – which has more flavour than white – with crunchy toast as a spreadable-base. A sprinkle of coarse sea salt and you’re good to go.
Sargeant’s response to the ingredients is considerate. His opinion of himself isn’t so high as to think that he can come to Folkestone and throw about foams and squiggles with a Michelin-hand. Instead, there’s an ancient marriage between freshly caught fish and its execution (literally and metaphorically) for the plate. In a region where fish is almost currency, respect is exhibited, for both the fish, and the men whose job it is to catch it, trawling it in before light while the town still snores.
I was surprised to see a tail at one end of my pasty. Poking through like a crown. The ‘mackerel pasty’ stuffed with sausage-meat is a backside-to-front stargazy pie-inspired creation, with the tale-fin peeking through and the head removed. Sargeant did the honours and cut down the centre. Jigging with happiness. It’s like cutting into stone: you see the layers and colour-overlaps. The smell of warm pastry rises. It defies classification and is quite possibly the star of the show.
The Rocksalt kitchen is capably led by Head Chef Simon Dyer and is equipped with a wood burning Josper oven to enhance the flavours of food. My ‘local mackerel with green sauce’ was way too large. Butterflied it consumed the plate. But this is no bad thing. The green sauce was a type of sauce verte with extra capers and watercress.
Puddings (they’re not Desserts here), are a nostalgic reference to local classics: a light and delicious Summer Berry Pavlova, Cold Chocolate and Sea-buckthorn Fondant and a Kent Gypsy Tart to thump anything you were ever served at school.
Alongside Rocksalt there is also a separate fish ‘n’ chip shop located in an old smokehouse. Above are four rooms available to provide accommodation for diners wishing to stay overnight. Charmingly, each room is named after a local fisherman. It’s more stylish chippy bolthole than the Rocksalt restaurant, and another reason to get the seagulls fighting.
Rocksalt, 4-5 Fishmarket, CT19 6AA Folkestone, Kent. Tel: 01303 212 070. Website.