Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The Kentish Hare, Tonbridge

The Kentish countryside, it's not in the least bit controversial to point out, is host to a collection of the most exquisitely beautiful and notable pubs in the country. You've heard me bang on about the Fordwich Arms on these pages before at length, and the Sportsman up on the north coast is an equally important point of foodie pilgrimage, but alongside those big names there are places like the Duck Inn or the Compasses, quietly and confidently brilliant (so I'm reliably told; they're still on my to-do list), each more then worth the rather painful journey from central London.

Because yes, unless you're lucky enough to be a resident of Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells or Faversham, a lot of these destination gastropubs really are that and then some - the Fordwich takes me 2 hours door to door, the Sportsman some fraction less than that but still quite a commitment for a single day - and though I'll happily make the journey (I'd find a way of getting to the Fordwich if it was on an island 200 miles into the North Sea) it is nice occasionally to be picked up at the station by a friend after a very respectable 40 minute train journey, and be driven into the rolling countryside for lunch. And thus I found myself at the Kentish Hare.

At a table in the neat, well-proportioned pub gardens we were given a menu full of things you'd want to eat, at prices that seemed more than reasonable. Of course given my inevitable compulsion to order the most 'extra' items on any given menu, I ended up paying not only a £5 substitute for Devon crab as a starter, but also £10 extra for Alyesbury duck for main. And I have absolutely no regrets at all.

The crab, sweet and fresh, was presented on a bed of densely flavoured salsa verde, the salty vegetal flavours a perfect marriage for the seafood, and with some tastefully chosen sea vegetables, sea purslane I think at least. As an introduction to the way the Kentish Hare go about their business - stylish, intelligent, attractive - you couldn't have asked for more.

Mains kept up similarly high standards. Lamb was fashioned into a kind of single giant faggot, bronzed casing containing moist slow-cooked shoulder meat. Beneath, something I only need to describe as "clotted cream potato" for you to get an idea of how wonderful it was. I think if our lunch had consisted of nothing but a bucket of clotted cream potato each and a spoon, we still would have come away happy. Vibrant broad beans and hispi cabbage, and a dousing of glossy lamb just, completed the picture.

Middlewhite pork came as geometrically exact slabs of belly, flesh bright white and with a delicate, crisp crackling, and a kind of sausage made out of who knows what other parts of the animal. With another glossy jus, and a scattering of morels, it was another almost perfect dish.

Of course, my duck was the best, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? The animal itself had been cooked to pink and yielding, with a delicate thin layer of nicely rendered fat under a golden brown, honey-glazed skin. There was an Asian lean on the vegetable side of things, with some braised pak choi lending a lovely bitter note, and some dense, meaty "maitake" (hen of the woods) mushrooms, always a treat to see in a restaurant. I loved every bit of it.

I honestly can't tell you why we didn't stay for dessert; perhaps the options (sticky toffee pudding, crème brûlée, ice cream and sorbets) weren't particularly inspiring or perhaps we had just eaten our own bodyweight in clotted cream potato (the pork and the duck each came with about half a kilo of the stuff on the side) and thought we'd better quickly remove ourselves to a safe environment before slipping fully into a carb-enduced coma. I'm sure they would have been just as wonderful as the savouries though.

With a bottle of Simpson's sparkling wine (at £36 for a bottle which I'm sure is about £28 retail, so an absolute steal) and a couple of extra bits and pieces (warm chorizo makes a lovely pre-lunch snack) the bill came to just over £50 each with service - service, by the way, which coped incredibly well with the odd operating environment of half-inside half-outside, and deserved every bit of their 12.5%. This is, I'm sure I don't need to point out given the standard of food above, great value for money.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a designated driver picking you up from the station, the 6 minute cab from Tonbridge costs a few quid (in fact you could probably walk it in under an hour if you're that way inclined), and services run direct from London Bridge all day. The point is, there's no excuse not to go to the Kentish Hare at all if you're after a heavenly taste of the Kentish countryside without breaking the bank or spending all day on a train. And if that won't convince you, nothing will.


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