south east 1820


Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Any lunch requiring a train journey is fraught with risk at the moment; since the strike chaos began, there’s been a rebuttable presumption of disruption. Inevitably, this has knock-on effects: with train timetables out of kilter even on non-strike days, as well as engineering works thrown into the mix, disgruntled passengers are likely to change their dining plans (thus impacting the restaurants too). But, it’s a test of character for diner and restaurateur alike; nothing should get in the way of a good lunch.

Tallow in Southborough (near Tunbridge Wells) deserves its many national accolades but in the relatively short time since it opened in 2021 not a lot has been said about its excellent service. The best restaurants know that good service starts before you even enter, and extends to the ‘after-sales support’ post-meal. The ultimate test is when uncontrollable delays throw a spanner in the works.

A meal at Tallow should be on your provincial to-do list

Having heard glowing things about Tallow, I was determined to go but a couple of false starts at Charing Cross were equally determined to stop me. The train eventually coughed into life but the journey continued at a glacial pace. Stuck just outside Sevenoaks, I started to wonder what a hangry Keith Floyd would do in this situation. Perhaps he would heroically hitchhike his way to lunch in a clapped-out Citroën, sweating out his breakfast Sancerre beneath his bow tie, knocking back Beaujolais en route for refreshment, and reassuring his compadres, “well, chaps, such rotten luck, this. But nil desperandum: we may miss the amuses bouches but we can make up for it with the matching wines when we get there.”

A simpler solution beckoned: calling the restaurant ahead to push back the reservation by an hour, which was no problem. Indeed, the sympathetic voice at the other end (I suspect owner Donna) even asked about table preferences (downstairs near the bar or upstairs with a view of lovely Southborough Common). After the meal, the staff called a return taxi for Tunbridge Wells, which arrived faster than you can squeeze a lemon. And during the meal itself there were thoughtful and sensitive touches, such as a server suggesting an unadvertised Syrah with the duck, which was an inspired choice (more on the duck in a moment). It isn’t acknowledged enough that bookending a meal with helpful and understanding service is so important for the whole experience: the aperitif and digestif in the form of friendly human interaction.

The front of house team is led more than capably by owners Rob and Donna Taylor, formerly of The Compasses Inn in Crundale. It may have been an ambitious leap from gastropub to restaurant but they have utterly nailed it, from the spacious seating and gentle ambience to the highly accomplished dishes.

The menu changes every month, which is a clever concept really as it forces you to come back (and you will want to). This lunch can only give a snapshot as the menu will be ancient history by the time anyone reads this but a snapshot that speaks volumes about Tallow’s generosity and flair.

First, bread. I normally wince at the very concept of a bread course (having lived in France I see it as an accompaniment, for sauce moppage and then for cheese). Served as a ‘course’ it’s really the food equivalent of an album filler track. But I dismount my Francophile high horse when it’s served gratis. Even more so when the warm bread roll contains beef brisket. This was the first of several delightful surprises.

Indeed, there’s no shying away from uncompromising flavours and a bit of experimentation, whether this be a stout jus with the roast hake or Yorkshire Blue cheese and tomato tart for dessert (yes, dessert). A starter of cured, oily mackerel was wondrously complemented by a zingy escabeche dressing (£13), while the umami-laden crispy Tunworth cheese was served with barbequed peas, onion, confit egg yolk, garlic and potato mousse (£13) – a lot of technique rolled into one little dish there and an absolute pleasure to devour.

Honey glazed duck breast with confit duck leg and neck spring roll (£34) was an elevated classic, bringing a few muted Asian notes to the dish and a little booze in the soused cherries. Though carbs weren’t really needed, a side of charred Jersey Royals with chermoula couldn’t be resisted.

There’s fun too with the desserts like the delicately presented artic roll and local strawberries (£12), bringing a bit of childhood joy to this corner of Kent.

If I have any constructive criticism (and finding anything to criticise is as hard as finding a workable Sunak policy), a couple of the warm dishes had cooled down a bit before service. Maybe a bigger portion of the artic roll wouldn’t go amiss. They are already doing wonderful things but I hope they have the confidence to crank up their creativity even more. (How the tyre company hasn’t bestowed Tallow with a star or two I’m not sure, but then I gave up second-guessing that guide years ago.)

All of this comes at a reasonable price for the food and overall experience. If you live in Kent you’re very lucky. If you don’t, and the trains are actually running properly, then a meal at Tallow should be on your provincial to-do list.

Food & Drink56
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15A Church Road
Tunbridge Wells

September 2023


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