The Abergavenny Arms in Frant has undergone a major refurbishment and complete overhaul of its menu. Eileen Leahy paid a visit to see what is making this traditional tavern a culinary force to be reckoned with
Pacific rock oysters, Cornish mussels, a pint of shell-on prawns – at first glance the tempting menu for the Abergavenny Arms in Frant reads like something you’d find in a gastro seafood restaurant on the coast.
But these delicious delicacies are just a few of the gourmet staples that are being served up courtesy of new chef Katie Burke. Having transferred over from Cau in Tunbridge Wells earlier this year, she is now bringing a range of quality seasonal dishes, including the county’s best seafood and meat, to the recently refurbished country pub’s food menus. And given the happy customers dining at tables adjacent to ours, her culinary approach seems to be working.
For those who are not familiar with the recent history of this delightful 15th-century former coaching inn, located just a few miles outside Tunbridge Wells on the A267 en route to Eastbourne, it was taken over last summer by the former jeweller Richard Burrell, who carried out an extensive overhaul of both the pub’s food and drink offerings as well as its décor.
Thankfully, the Abergavenny’s cosmetic makeover has enhanced rather than eradicated its charming period features, which include a labyrinth of ceiling beams, a deep-set inglenook fireplace, wooden floorboards and wonky walls – all the charming details that make a country pub look and feel like the genuine article.
It’s a beautiful summer’s evening when my husband and I pay it a visit, so we’re very happy that the table we reserved in one of the three dining areas turns out to be by a window which affords calming views of the surrounding countryside and the pub’s pleasant patio.
The only slightly irksome thing is the radio that’s on in the background. Silence or just plain music with no DJ chatting away would suit this relaxing, pastoral setting much better.
After being handed our menus, we’re swiftly asked whether we’d like a drink by our super-friendly waitress Angie, who is part Brazilian, part Portuguese and wholly enthusiastic. Not only is she a mine of information about the restaurant’s local food suppliers, she also offers tips on how to create the best salad dressing – a sprinkling of powdered English mustard is essential – and is happy to wax lyrical about the new cocktail menu that the pub’s manager, Digby Harvey, has just launched.
When he comes over to chat he tells us that one of the first things he did when taking over as manager was to increase the array of Kentish ales and recommends we try a bottle of Curious Brew from Chapeldown in Tenterden (£2.50). This ‘keeping things local’ approach is mirrored in the ingredients used to create both the Abergavenny’s restaurant and bar menus, which boast a mix of classic British fare such as beer-battered cod as well as more European dishes, including Tuscan bean and chorizo salad.
For Steve, choosing a starter is easy, it has to be devilled whitebait (£5), which is one of his favourites. They come delicately dabbed in a light batter and served on a bed of rocket and garlic mayonnaise and are crispy, citrusy and wonderfully fresh in flavour.
After eyeing up the mouthwatering homemade smoked haddock scotch egg (£7.50), and then being torn between the beetroot-cured salmon (£6.95) and pan-seared scallops (priced at an affordable £8.50), I eventually opt for the latter with a glass of Wairau River, an aromatic Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (£6.20).
When the scallops arrive they are beautifully plump and golden in colour and marry very well with the accompanying stack of crushed green peas, swirls of bacon and wild garlic undertones.
While deliberating over our main courses we spot that all of Abergavenny’s steaks are aged for 38 days and hand-cut to order on site. This is one of chef Katie’s ideas. She learned a lot about how to butcher and the importance of provenance while she was at Cau. Being a big steak fan, Steve’s mind is immediately made up: It has to be the rib-eye for him. Then we spot its price, a budget-busting £20.75, and if you want a sauce to go with it – either a blue cheese hollandaise or a classic peppercorn one – then you have to pay an extra pound. It seems a little steep but on tasting the steak it’s clear the butter-soft meat is of superior quality and given the reasonably priced other dishes on the menu – organic rare breed pork belly for £13.50 and Salt Marsh lamb rump for £17.50 – its price tag seems fairly palatable. Though if I were the Manager I wouldn’t charge extra for the sauces.
Minor gripes aside, we are soon enjoying our principal plates. The rib-eye is chargrilled to perfection but the richness of its sautéed chestnut mushrooms and triple-cooked chunky chips defeats my husband a lot earlier than he would have liked.
My dish of pan-roasted sea bream with a sprinkling of crushed potatoes, sweet roasted cherry tomatoes and a piquant salsa verde is delicious-just the right amount of seasoning applied.
Thankfully we’re given a much needed breather to decide whether we want a dessert – and there is certainly plenty to tempt, including banoffee pie and a delicate lemon posset. But feeling comfortably sated we decide not to over-indulge this time.
I do, however, have my arm successfully twisted by Angie into sampling one of their delicious vanilla vodka-based passion fruit cocktails, which comes with a shot of prosecco on the side. It’s refreshing, with a great kick and is a great palate cleanser.
As we drain our glasses, and the candlelight flickers and fades, we decide it’s time to head home. Making our way past a clutch of fellow diners who are having ‘one for the road’ at the bar, I think to myself this is my kind of country pub: It has all the benefits of a laid-back, traditional one but also some fantastic contemporary flourishes.
The people of Frant are very lucky to have this as their local.
As well as their daily restaurant and bar menus, customers at the Abergavenny Arms can choose from a special ﬁ xed weekday lunch (£11.95 for two courses) and Sunday roast menus (prices from £12.50). There are also special themed evenings, including BBQ, burger and moules nights. They have recently launched a new cocktail menu and also have a specialist gin one which features the locally distilled gin, 1606.
Frant Road, Tunbridge Wells TN3 9DB 01892 750233