Seen as a major coup in the regeneration plans for the town, there are high hopes that Rocksalt and Mark Sargeant's other outlet, the ‘posh’ fish'n chip restaurant ‘The Smokehouse’, will herald a fresh start for the neglected town. Having watched the building go up in what appeared to be record time, we were keen to book a table at the earliest opportunity, as good restaurants are few and far between in Folkestone. Others clearly had the same idea, and in the end we had to wait three weeks before we could get a slot.
First impressions are extremely good. I reserved a table for three people on Saturday 25th June at lunchtime. We were among the first to arrive at 12.30pm, but the curved, wooden restaurant with its huge picture windows and simple wooden furniture soon filled up. Everything felt new and shiny and exciting and the staff were friendly, keen to explain the menu and attentive – in complete contrast to Lisa Markwell's allegedly bad service experience, published in the Independent on Sunday. Perhaps they took note, or she was in a bad mood that day.
The food was … fabulous. We intended to eat only mains; in the end we each had three courses. The fish was fresh and expertly cooked; I opted for the Asparagus and Hollandaise starter and the Lemon Sole Fingers with Mushy Peas and Tartare as a main (well, it is the seaside), but will be more adventurous next time, as there is a wonderful range of fish on offer. As it is not exclusively a seafood restaurant, the waitress brought a large tray of uncooked meat to the table to explain the different cuts and prices (not sure how a vegetarian would react to that demonstration…). We didn't succumb, but it looked impressive. My companions raved about the Heritage Tomatoes and Kelly of Canterbury Goats Cheese, and the Turbot “Catch of the Day” was apparently exquisitely prepared. The puddings were a triumph. I had the superb Cold Chocolate and Sea-buckthorn Fondant, which explodes with orange flavour, while my friends plumped for Kentish Gypsy Tart and Summer Berry Pavlova. No complaints from them either, with one – a veritable foodie – declaring the lunch “faultless”.
The view over the harbour wasn't great that afternoon, as the tide was out and the boats lay slumped in the mud; but when the harbour fills up, the boats are bobbing in the sunshine and Mr de Haan does something pretty with the ramshackle buildings opposite, the view will be pleasing. The upstairs bar was full when we visited and the outside terrace with its little sofa booths are sure to be popular.
My only quibble was the open door policy in operation, which allowed people to walk in off the street and have a look around or wander through the restaurant to use the toilets. Noisy crowds of daytrippers ascending and descending the stairs to the bar were also an issue. Having waited three weeks for a table, I found it distracting and off-putting. Hopefully, this is a passing phase and will stop when the novelty wears off and the place settles down, but it is the reason I have marked Rocksalt down for ambience on this occasion. I wasn't too keen on the shirtless crowd sitting outside on the restaurant steps eating fish'n chips either, but perhaps I'm just being a spoilsport!
In summary: fantastic food, pleasant restaurant, attentive and friendly staff, just needs a little judicial crowd control to make dining a more pleasant experience. I'll definitely be back to see how it matures.