We've just discovered a little gem of a fish restaurant, or rather our old friend, Mr Nicholas Good, did- as we were recently invited there to celebrate his birthday. It's a tiny place in Herne Bay. It's called Le Petit Poisson.
Herne Bay is a windswept, kiss-me-quick seaside resort on the North Kent coast; about an hour and a half's drive down from London. It faces North- looking out over the bit where the English Channel intersects with the Thames Estuary, before it hits the North Sea. The sea is grey, as you can imagine. And cold. And wet.
Whitstable lies just along the coast, and has recently become fashionable, the one-time haunt of the Hammer Horror star Peter Cushing, but now providing weekend entertainment for the likes of Robert Elms and the fashionistas of London's East End.
Herne Bay! Fashionable it ain't. There's a bingo parlour and an amusing entertainment arcade; an Edwardian pavilion and a 1930's tea-rooms and gelateria. The Front boasts a few Regency houses with bow fronts in peeling stucco; any pretensions to genteel grandeur long-gone, and now re-inventing themselves as slightly sinister bed and breakfasts: where back in the early 1950's, one can imagine Wing-Commander Neville Heath entertaining his "lady friends", or where indeed, "Brides-in-the-Bath Smith" took rented accommodation with his "lady wife".
In 1978, the larger part of the original 3,700 foot long pier was swept away during a terrible storm and only the landing stage section remains, now isolated at sea and winking at you spookily through the mist, like a haunted cell from an old Scooby-Doo cartoon. To the front lies "The Pier Pavilion", a brutalist job (known locally as "The Cowshed") and seemingly constructed from brushed stainless steel; reminiscent of a vast agricultural silo and opened by the Rt. Hon. Edward Heath MP in 1976.
Anyway. You will find Le Petit Poisson in a hut just to the side of the Pier Pavilion. It doesn't look that promising from the outside, to be frank. Could be some sort of pizza joint catering for the local old biddies or a rotary club favourite.
Inside, it's a bit better. There's a small room with exposed brick walls, which in turn, leads down an open wooden staircase to a second room with an open view of the orderly looking kitchens: Bristol Fashion. No bad thing, that. When you can see the chefs at work. Proves that a restaurant has nothing to hide.
And right from the start, service was on the nail. The young chap who served us could have put many a pretentious London restaurant to shame. I've currently got a thing about professional service in the French manner- something we don't often see in this country outside the big cities, or in the top restaurants; and it's a difficult thing to get right: the art of being welcoming without becoming irritatingly over-familiar; affecting the right degree of formality without looking stuffy; acting relaxed, yet at the same time avoiding the sloppy; making sure that the knives and forks are placed just so.
And My God! The food was lovely. A simple menu: delicious nutty bread, served with decent olives. A first course of native oysters (£1 each) beautifully presented on ice, with a further choice of oysters deep-fried in tempura batter, and served with lemon mayonnaise (£1.15 each) and Oysters Rockefeller, grilled with garlic, parsley and grated parmesan (£1.25 each) and served piping hot.
The Moules Marinière (cooked with cream) (£9.95 large with frites) looked fine, and was served in the traditional deep pan with lid. My Dover Sole with an Anchovy Butter sauce (£14.25) was simple and utterly excellent, the fish beautifully cooked and falling off the bone, the sauce exactly right with just the right amount of saltiness.
A selection of British cheeses was served on a wooden board, (for a very reasonable £5.75) and came with a thoughtful written sheet on the history and taste of each particular cheese.
The excellent Chapel Down Non Vintage Brut was £25.95 a bottle.
It was a terrific find, and well-worth the drive. I'm assuming that it survives as a destination restaurant, and I wish the managers well. It's still rare in this country to find an excellent local restaurant with a simple menu, beautifully cooked food, superbly presented at very reasonable prices. And enviable service. Lucky old Herne Bay.
Le Petit Poisson, Central Parade, Herne Bay, Kent, CT6 5JN (01227 361199)