Food and travel writer George Shaw arrives at the Royal Harbour Hotel amid an election expenses scandal and votes the Empire Room a clear winner by a landslide.
It was with some reluctance that my first wife and I were able drag our friends, Steve and M’Julie, down to Ramsgate for the weekend. Thanet’s recent revival in fortunes had totally passed them by and they had a vague expectation for the town to be Kent’s answer to Grimsby. Not they had ever visited the Lincolnshire seaport either.
Their spirits were revived, however, to discover our destination, the Royal Harbour Hotel, to be at the centre of an election expenses scandal. The venue was prominently featured on the main BBC TV evening news immediately before our arrival and made for interesting reading in the morning’s papers over breakfast. Excellent kippers with a poached egg, actually.
If it was good enough for Tories on expenses– it should be good enough for them. Steve is something in the City, whilst M’Julie works like a Trojan one day a week, to fund more holidays a year than Sir Philip Green can muster.
It transpired that a small army of Conservative Party activists had camped here for the best part of a month during the general election campaign, in their ultimately successful bid to prevent the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage taking the Thanet North constituency – but somehow misfiled the receipt under ‘national, rather than ‘local’, expenses.
Three of us drove down and Steve found us early Friday evening enjoying the fruits of the honesty bar, having caught the high speed HS1 loco from London.
Formerly Shirley’s B&B, the hotel itself was acquired by current owner, James Thomas, after he put into the harbour on a sailing trip to France in 1991, to shelter from bad weather. James switched careers for London hotel management, having left the merchant navy aged 19, after flunking his master mariner exams. James was enthralled by the sea vistas from Nelson Crescent.
Restoring the somewhat faded Georgian terrace building, James gambled on the low property prices following the demise of Sally Line ferries, adding of two neighbouring buildings to expand capacity to 27 rooms, each with its own individual identity.
Those with restricted mobility, or just plain lazy, are advised to check what floor their room is on when booking. There are a lot of stairs between those on the top floor and the basement restaurant.
This child and dog-friendly establishment, has a real homely charm and its several real fires afford more warmth.
Naturally, there are many nautical touches to the decor and there are interesting finds in numerous nooks and crannies. Not the least of which is a turntable and hundreds of vinyl disks for guests to spin.
Apart from its sea-faring history, the area is known for unusually high number of authors who lived and wrote here. Nineteenth century novelist and playwright Wilkie Collins, creator of the modern detective novel, actually resided in the building.
Bookshelves are littered throughout. My one disappointment was not staying long enough to finish the dog-eared copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace during my two-night visit.
Excellent though this rambling, quirky hotel is, with magnificent sea views over the pretty regal harbour; it was its Empire Room restaurant that was the main pull for our visit. I first enjoyed chef Craig Mather’s cooking at the town’s excellent Eddie Gilbert’s gourmet seafood restaurant some years before.
Michelin-trained, Craig is something of a local hero; widely acclaimed for championing the area’s abundant seasonal produce. His culinary style is quite simplistic, where the food’s flavours are the star without many of the tweezered pretentiousness of kitchen artistes. But the boy can really cook. The food is truly exceptional. And service, in the cosy, gentlemen’s-club like setting, is friendly and equally uncomplicated. Great value too.
I opted for the Warm Chorizo Scotch Egg, with pickled vegetable salad and watercress to begin, where the delicate flavour combinations were a fitting prelude for what followed. My first wife opted for the Smoked Fish combo of salmon, halibut, prawn cocktail, with charred cucumber & pickled fennel, was an equally good call.
My Marinated Fillet of South Coast Hake, with spiced potatoes and spinach, with cauliflower pakora in a light coconut curry sauce, would impress the better chefs at London’s fine dining Indian establishments. And I say that as a long-standing judge in the national Asian Curry Awards. The delicate fish tasted so fresh and light, it may well have been hauled aboard by local trawlerman that very day.
Steve’s Roasted fillet of Ramsgate cod, choucroute with chorizo bacon, new potatoes, chicken and herb sauce was equal to anything to be found in the Square Mile.
M’Julie went for a melt-in-the-mouth-tender Braised shoulder of Kentish lamb, crispy confit lamb breast, 'boulangere' potato, goats curd, tomato and anchovy gravy.
To conclude, we demolished a Tasting Dessert Sharing Plate of dark chocolate, salted caramel delice, with coffee ice cream, lemon curd pavlova with yoghurt sorbet, toasted almonds and English rhubarb, white chocolate cheesecake, rhubarb sorbet and ginger brittle. It was certainly sinful and very probably a crime.
Adjourning once again to the honesty bar, for a post dinner night cap, we forewent the complementary cheeseboard put out for peckish residents’ late night supper. And despite our best efforts, failed miserably to ramp up our mess bill to anything resembling that of the Tories’ impressive £15,641.
Empire Room Restaurant @ The Royal Harbour Hotel
10-11 Nelson Crescent, Ramsgate, Kent CT11 9JF