Sargasso, Margate Harbour Arm, Stone Pier, Margate CT9 1AP (01843 229270). Small plates £7-£11, large plates £9-£19, desserts £6, wines from £25
It is the simplest of dishes: half a dozen fat Calabrian anchovies, the colour of well-varnished teak, lie in a pool of deep green olive oil, dotted with sparkling droplets of what turns out to be lemon juice. On the face of it, very little has happened to get this to our table. Some seriously good anchovies, meaty, salty and powerful specimens with a lingering depth of flavour, have simply been taken from their resting place, dressed and sent on their way. But there is so much more going on here; something that goes to the very heart of the best restaurants. It is an expression of exquisitely good taste. Sargasso, in Margate, is sodden with the stuff.
It will not be everybody’s idea of good taste. Some will look at the squat, old redbrick building it calls home, and roll their eyes. They’ll dismiss as ugly this low-slung bruiser of a block hunkered by the sea wall along the harbour arm as it reaches out into the water. If they are of a rectally challenged demographic and familiar with certain over-the-counter ointments, they may whine about the hard, spindly stools that you are invited to sit upon while you eat at the counter, or at the high window tables. This general eye-rolling could be extended to the monogrammed plates, the restaurant’s name realised in a blood-red font that recalls the late 60s futurism of Joe 90. And let’s not forget the record player and the collection of 70s jazz funk vinyl cuts by the likes of Idris Mohammed and George Duke, which play upon it. The album cover is always displayed behind the bar so you know exactly what you are listening to while you eat.
If all of this does not sound like your plate of Calabrian anchovies, do not come here. You should not take the high-speed train from London’s St Pancras, as I did, for an early supper. Go elsewhere. The rest of you, get in. Sargasso, which is the second restaurant from chef Ed Wilson and the team behind Brawn on London’s Columbia Road, makes the very best things look very simple. The menu, divided between half a dozen small plates and a similar number of larger offerings, manages to reflect perfectly its hard-scrabble coastal setting.
Some of it, like those glorious anchovies, to be eaten with the springiest of hard-crusted sourdoughs, is merely about the ingredients. Don’t forget to mop. There are others that have demanded more thought. Whipped cod’s roe, a wistful fondant-fancy pink, has been piped in buxom whorls across a thick piece of oily toast. Across that is a lawn of well-dressed peppery watercress. It is topped with a boiled egg, allowed to come to room temperature, but still with a sunset of runny yolk that pours out across it when you cut in. It feels like both serious attention to detail and huge care for £8.
From that fishy side of the ledger comes a salad of crab, with finely shredded wild fennel, chives and other green herbs on a thick pond of sauce thickened with brown crab meat. You could, of course, merely stand outside on the harbour arm, and sniff the air here as the tide pulls out; take in the gull-clawed wind, rich with the saline pong of exposed seaweed and old boat diesel. Or you could sit in here, at a high top, staring out at the view and eat a sweet and funky expression of it. The joy, of course, is that by taking the walk to Sargasso you get a combination of the two. Add a bowl of their clams, with thick, soft slices of garlic and handfuls of coriander. Correctly, they bring a spoon so you can finish the ripe, snout-thumping broth like it’s a soup.
There are other great things. Because it is the season, there is asparagus, served warm with a glass dish of lemony melted butter. Friggitelli peppers, Padrón’s longer Italian cousins, are given a little heat to help them wizen and soften, then dressed with flakes of sea salt and chilli. Parmesan fritters are squash-ball-sized béchamel croquettes, with centres of pure molten cheesiness, served hot from the fryer under a micro-planed drift of the best parmesan. It is finger food, designed by someone who believes a plate should be cleared. I get the message. I clear the plate down to that shiny monogram.
Much of the wine list, which is as careful and intriguing a selection as at Brawn, is available by the glass and carafe. Behind the bar is a collection of spirits, including Aperol Spritz and Fernet-Branca; things that you might think are a good idea after a few carafes of the gentler wines. You’re an adult; make your own bloody choices. There are also piles of cookbooks, titles by Nuno Mendes, José Pizarro and, most pleasingly of all, Keith Floyd (on Italy). It’s that good taste thing all over again.
Somewhere in a review of a restaurant in Margate there are meant to be a couple of paragraphs musing on a seaside town with a reputation for scruffiness, now undergoing gentrification. It’s such an obvious point it’s barely worth making beyond saying that yes, the coin arcades are still here on the front, and so is the Turner Contemporary. There are bucket-and-spade shops, and ironic takes on the bucket-and-spade culture. And there’s Sargasso, which in July shifts from opening on a Thursday to opening on a Wednesday. Perhaps across the summer they’ll be able to open throughout the week. I do hope so.
Sometimes, when I tell people I play jazz piano, they tell me they hate jazz, as though it’s a mark of some form of clever, reverse sophistication. They often seem surprised when I tell them that’s fine. I feel absolutely no need to argue the case or convert them. They are the ones who are missing out. Their loss. I really do feel the same way about Sargasso. I can predict the reactions against it from those who flare their nostrils at what they regard as posturing. All that means is that they won’t get to eat those anchovies or that crab salad, in that building with those sounds and that view. At the end, with a final smart nod to the bucket-and-spade culture of Margate, there is soft-serve ice-cream, either with strawberry sauce or chocolate and hazelnuts. It suggests a less than vigorous interest in desserts by the kitchen here, but after such a great meal, they can be forgiven.
Sargasso is about to get a new neighbour. Staple, an independent bakery which launched its first outpost at the former village post office in Broadstairs in 2020 before expanding into Westgate-on-Sea last year, is to open two more next month. One is in Ramsgate and the other is in the building right next to Sargasso on Margate’s Harbour Arm. The menu, overseen by chef and baker Stephen Gadd, includes various sourdough loaves, their own croissant and Danish as well as a range of classic cakes (staplestores.co.uk).
Clay’s Kitchen, the Indian restaurant in Reading which developed a nationwide following during lockdown for its home deliveries, has launched a crowdfunder to raise money for its new home. Sharat and Nandana Syamala have taken on the lease of a former Wetherspoon’s pub in Caversham and, having raised £250,000 themselves, are looking for the same again to finish the job. They are offering a bunch of rewards including vouchers, cooking classes, membership club subscriptions and venue hire. Find out more here.
After 18 years, chef Marc Wilkinson is closing the much-admired Michelin-starred Fraiche in Oxton on Merseyside. Wilkinson, who famously cooks by himself, has said that all existing reservations will be honoured but no more will be released. The last service will be at the end of September. The Fraiche name will then be used for other projects (restaurantfraiche.com).
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