Monday, 9 March 2009


A: 23 Stone Street, Cranbrook, Kent, England TN17 3HE
M: Google Map
T: (01580) 714666

On the main street running through Cranbrook this intimate restaurant is a prime destination, attracting faithful regulars through its high standards, professionalism and warmth. Tim Johnson showcases fine raw materials, many of them local, on his short, set-priced menus and a high degree of technical competence suffuses everything.

Roast scallops (in a smoked-bacon brochette) are timed to a nicety, their juicy sweetness pointed by the bacon and a slick of light vanilla cream, while a main course brill with roasted artichokes, garlic, tomatoes and white onion purée is ‘really meaty and devastatingly fresh’, the timing and technique effortlessly passing muster. Robustness characterises other dishes: a starter of ‘three lovely lamb faggots’ with pea purée and tomato jus, or a main course of ‘perfect, tender’ roast squab pigeon on Puy lentils with pommes mousseline and a little jug of foie gras sauce.

Similarly, desserts are not afraid to mobilise challenging juxtapositions, as in a well thought-out roasted banana and liquorice caramel pannacotta with a ‘stunning’ lavender granita, or three ways with apple – the sweetness of the Tatin and cider cream anchored by a sharp-tasting green apple sorbet. A carefully considered wine list offers good value. Prices start at £17.
A simple modern makeover has freshened up this unassuming, timber-clad, shop-fronted restaurant, which now mixes charming old beams & floorboards with fashionable high-backed dining chairs & white-clothed tables. Booking is essential, but one of the joys of this small-scale operation is its telling mix of unstuffy, friendliness & highly accomplished food. Tim Johnson has worked with the likes of Nico Ladenis & Andrew McLeish (Chapter One, Locksbottom) & his cooking adheres to a classic French blueprint.

Simplicity is the key to his refined, unfussy style, with tip-top local & seasonal produce defining his credit crunch-friendly, fixed-price menus – witness dishes such as roast John Dory fillet partnered by Nicola potatoes, oven-roast tomatoes & baby spinach, or classic tarte tatin accompanied by a green apple sorbet & cider cream.
Its founder, Tim Johnson, was personal chef to Paul Getty Jr, so knows about the appetites of rich men. His nosh house has gained quite a reputation and, in January, its first Michelin star. Entering, you are struck by its size: tiny, with only nine tables. Even if he hired the entire restaurant, there wouldn't be room for the giant Monty Python character that explodes after indulging in a final "wafer-thin mint". With plain walls, minimalist furniture and industrial RSJs holding the place upright, it hardly looks like a sensual haven for gourmets.

Oh, but the food. Dear reader, you must dine here. Not that Apicius would recognise much of the tuck. The engaging front of house, who doubles as Mrs Johnson, has one of the earliest surviving editions of the Apicius cook book and informs us that it is full of such Roman delicacies as "stuffed field mouse". Johnson's locally sourced food, by contrast, should be the model for country restaurants. The better ones are often overly fussy, while the rest talk about "mains" and "a white wine" and even dare call "dinner" something that arrives pre-cooked in a van.

Not Apicius. Diana tucks into deep-fried sweetbreads with lambs lettuce and the best celeriac mash either of us have tried. My roast scallops and smoked bacon brochette with linguini is nearly as good, if let down a smidgeon by a bland vanilla cream sauce. If anything, the entrées are better. Diana's steamed fillet of black bass, confit pink fir apples, braised fennel and basil cream sauce has crispy skin, yet the fish is succulent. I crack on with slow roast shoulder of pork and creamed potato, the caramelised apple sitting atop Savoy cabbage. The pork is so tender that it falls from the fork. In a comic touch, more pork is disguised in what looks like a fish finger dive-bombing the mash. These spuds, like the celeriac, are so good I'm about to lick the plate, until Diana gives me the kind of kick that has put Arsenal's Eduardo out of action for the rest of the football season and beyond.

And so to pud. Another custom in some of the classier country restaurants is to sprinkle icing sugar, chuck on a sprig of mint and serve something with chocolate on a huge plate, as if this were a dish worthy of the Ivy. Johnson's experience toiling for Gary Rhodes and Nico Ladenis means there are no such calumnies here. Each pudding is an art work, while tasting like a work of modern gastronomy. The apple tatin with cider cream comes with a sorbet that could have been made from Kentish apples picked that morning. Everything is slipping down so swimmingly that we are even diverted by a fabulous cheese menu, highlighted by a groundbreaking soft British Tunworth.

What really impresses about Apicius is that Johnson conjures these masterworks without help. He even does the washing up. And Mrs J jollies along with just one waitress. Unlike the girth of the original Apicius, this Apicius is slimline: the perfect riposte to rustic restaurateurs who claim they don't have the staff to serve scoff that might be mildly edible.

The other wonder is price: two-course lunches for £20, three-course dinners for £29.50. Hence you must book six weeks in advance for weekends. True, bills rise thanks to the brief but finely judged wine list: we sample exquisite half bottles of Pouilly Fumé and a 2006 Montrachet. Two criticisms: with food to sigh for, you would expect a room less clinical. Oh, and to attack the pastry in the apple tatin you don't need a fork, but a pneumatic drill. That apart, even Apicius would be proud to have this restaurant bear his weighty name.

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