Review By Jay Rayner – The Observer
If you were merely to sit at a table in the upstairs restaurant at Eddie Gilbert’s one lunchtime and attempt to understand what it was about from the food being sent out, you would easily get the wrong end of the stick.
Here come plates the size of small sailing skiffs, bronzed planks of fried fish sticking off both ends and hemmed in by heaps of dripping-fried chips. Downstairs is a classy wet fish shop. Upstairs in the bare-brick and beamed dining room, the air is thick with the smell of rendered cow. We are therefore in a classy re-engineering of the working-class cafe: the simple things done well. Study one side of the menu and there is little to disabuse you of the notion. There are lists of fish to be grilled or fried (in vegetable oil, if you are too much of a wuss for dripping, or a GP). There are fishcakes and bowls of shell-on-prawns by the half pint, whitebait and, for those feeling truly adventurous, mussels with white wine and garlic.
You have to turn that menu over to discover that there is something much more ambitious going on here. Take my starter, which fed both the heart and soul. I see no appeal in infantilism. I have never wanted to dress up as a baby and shout for Nursey (not least because I don’t think I could make the look work, what with the beard). But there are certain food combinations which cannot but thrust you back to childhood in a lovely, uncloying manner, and a boiled egg and soldiers is one of them.
Here, though, it is a duck egg, served soft, the top expertly sliced, the visible circle of sunflower-yellow yolk dusted with seasoning. Alongside it is a cone filled with strips of smoked eel that have been breaded and deep fried. Dip. Crunch. Dip, scoop, crunch and repeat. Oh my. The salt of the eel, the lusciousness of the egg. I could write fragmented sentences about this one dish all day. It speaks of smarts in the kitchen which are obvious elsewhere: in a plate of vodka and beetroot-cured smoked salmon its fringes the colour of a tart’s knickers, with a cooling and coolly understated horseradish and potato mousse; or another of seared squid in a ripe pond of buttery chilli, spring onions and ginger.
They get extra points for not describing an assembly of sautéed pieces of monkfish with gem lettuce, parmesan and croutons as a caesar salad, despite the dressing. It is nothing of the sort, but it does work. By contrast their fritto misto – salmon, scallops, mullet and so on – isn’t really anything of the sort. It is just a grown-up fish and chips, but none the worse for that. Tablets of expertly fried fish come on a bright, sparky, tomato ragu with a bowl of chips and a dish of aioli to dip them in. Starters are around £6 and mains at £15 on this menu, which is not cheap but as it should be for quality fish. (The standard fish and chips is around half that.)
Desserts are especially impressive, mostly because of their homemade ices. I liked my raspberry mousse sandwiched between sheaths of puff pastry with griottine cherries for company. But it was the chocolate sorbet that knocked me back. Gosh. Similarly, while a chocolate fondant was an exemplar of its kind, with a fleshy wobble even before its virtue was taken, the knobbly rum and raisin ice cream with it was something very special indeed. All this, and cheerful service from a waiter who didn’t even flinch when, for reasons neither of us could fathom, my companion threw the contents of her wine glass – a nice bright rosé from a list, 85% of which is priced at less than £25 – at the wall.
It would be regarded as peevish of me to compare Eddie Gilbert’s with another fish restaurant in the same town. That’s not going to stop me doing so. Last year I gave a mediocre review to Harvey’s, a new venture with the rancid John Burton Race as exec chef. Still, I held out the hope that it could improve. I was too kind, and as my job is to hand out recommendations, I’m going to do just that. Leave Harvey’s in peace. If you want intriguing fish cookery in Ramsgate with lots of flair but no fannying around, go to Eddie Gilbert’s. Simple as that.