I have, perhaps not surprisingly for someone who has been at home recovering from surgery, been dreaming about restaurants a great deal over the past three months. Not specific restaurants, and not Platonic ideals of great food and wine, but places that are bustling, sociable, human.
And while in the past, I have occasionally gone to sleep thinking about my last restaurant meal, latterly I have woken up thinking about the restaurants, too. Was this, I wondered, because the only craving I developed in hospital was to start the day with a bowl of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, a cereal I had not even tried before?
Whatever the psychological explanation, my dreaming led me to decide that to mark my return to this column, I should go somewhere where the breakfast would be as satisfying as the dinner. And so I promptly made a booking at Read’s in Faversham, on the north Kent coast between Sittingbourne and Margate.
David and Rona Pitchford, who have run Read’s for the past 12 years, still arrive early to cook and serve the first meal of the day. As David explained, breaking into his gentle smile, “This is a shift the young chefs don’t seem to like, but we do.” David has been cooking for some 37 years, while Rona oversees a young, enthusiastic waiting team.
The couple run Read’s as a restaurant with six bedrooms from what was formerly Macknade Manor, described in an old sales document as a “Georgian mansion with stabling”. The building lends itself effortlessly to its new identity: a curved driveway leads to the front door; a large, mature garden (with a walled kitchen garden) surrounds the house, and magnificently senior trees provide a natural sound barrier to the noisy road outside. This is a house that immediately announces itself as a place in which to eat and drink well. The hefty front door opens into a hallway that carries the cooking aromas straight from the kitchen – and also wafts them up to the bedrooms.
As this manor house has grown into its new identity, so the Pitchfords’ roles have developed, too. His classic French culinary training is still the bedrock of the menu and is manifest in dishes that look both elegant and effortless: a chicken liver parfait; terrines of duck confit and foie gras and chicken confit wrapped in cabbage, the latter served with excellent piccalilli; hollandaise that came in a miniature pan alongside steamed, sweetly tender broccoli, just the foil for a slow-cooked pork belly with local apples. And two stunning desserts: a rhubarb soufflé and a plate of four outstanding sorbets.
But the Michelin star that Read’s has held for 20 consecutive years has always attracted young, talented chefs and as a result, Pitchford told me, his role today is not just to pass on all he has learnt, but also to incorporate their ideas and enthusiasm. One of these newer main courses, a peanut-crusted breast of duck with a samosa and a Balinese consommé, worked intriguingly well and showed the fruits of this partnership.
With the arrival a year ago of Bradley Gent, born locally but employed in larger restaurants for the past decade, as front of house manager, Rona’s role is now more co-operative. She confessed, “We’ve been at this so long now that I have come to the conclusion that we will only hire people we like. I reckon that by now, I can teach them all they need to know.”
Another consequence of this partnership is that the wine list, always an attraction, now offers an even more generous selection. There is an unusually excellent range of Bordeaux, while we drank a 2004 Crawford River Riesling from Australia (£26) and a Ridge Cabernet 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains (£65) with relish.
Read’s is firmly old-fashioned (sheets, not duvets, on the beds) but there is also a sense of timelessness. If the Pitchfords were more commercial, the wine prices would be higher and there would be pots of their piccalilli and creamy lemon curd, served with breakfast, for sale by the front door.
And they would certainly be making more of the fact that alongside the charms of nearby Canterbury, and the oyster beds of Whitstable, The Sportsman at Seasalter – about which I wrote so enthusiastically in January – is only an hour-and-a-half’s stroll away. Those who live nearby already seem to take full advantage.
Macknade Manor Canterbury Road Faversham, Kent , 01795 535344 , www.reads.com
The Sportsman Faversham Road Seasalter, Kent, 01227 273370; www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk