‘Why would you go back to the same place twice in one week?’ I hear you cry. Well, that’s because the venue is the Old Fire Station in Tonbridge, & variety is their signature dish. In one week in May, The Old Fire Station was transformed into an art gallery for South East Open Studios, & subsequently charitably hosted ‘Empty Bowls’ in aid of The Bridge Trust & Anglo-Dutch chef Justin Brown’s two night residency.
If the events are the variables, then the venue is the constant: the high ceilings give the room space & those old fire station doors lend some light, supplemented by retro pendants; there are shared, wide, wooden, rustic tables, eight to a table (32 covers in total) and there’s a large bar at one end which is where the chefs plate-up, fascinating to watch – it really is as if you’re at a chef’s table. So you experience fine dining but in a very informal, almost European-family way: you & your fellow diners are sharing bread, whilst being able to chat to the chefs, give them immediate feedback, if you like, & ask questions. This is unique in Tonbridge & around, & that’s what makes the whole evening very different to other nights eating out.
You don’t go to one of TOFS’ events expecting to eat ordinary food thanks to the calibre of chefs they can attract. And on both nights, we were treated to some really special & in some cases, unusual flavours.
The ‘Empty Bowls’ night was inspired by similar fundraising nights in the US: the Tonbridge version involved diners receiving a brown paper bag at their table place, within which was a handmade bowl or hand painted bowl. The bowls were really varied in style & colours &, of course, each one was unique.
Three top chefs had created soups for the event, all of which had a different approach to a traditional recipe. The first soup was placed into my new bowl – I say placed because there wasn’t a traditional soup ladle in sight, such was the architecture that went into it.
Daniel Hatton’s soup was no ordinary pea & ham soup – the chunky pieces of ham hock at the bottom brought depth to the flavour of the bowl as well as a good salty edge – not too much at all; and the freshly shelled, sweet, peas transported me to my Gran’s garden, early 1980s, when we’d shell peas and occasionally/frequently pop one in our mouths. The edible flowers gave the dish vibrancy.
The next soup was Jamie Halsall’s chicken, pearl barley & wild garlic, the latter filling our noses as it came to the table. Jamie’s soup was earthy & satisfying, pearl barley providing texturewhilst Ben Sulston’s Thai-infused butternut squash warmed our taste buds with an exotic heat. The Bakehouse at 124 in Tonbridge had baked the delicious bread we all shared – quite a few of us shed any refinement & used it to mop up the bottom of our bowls.
This was a tough act to follow for Justin Brown, the British chef who resides in Holland – he told me that he loves doing pop-up events & had been looking forward to this one, a five course tasting menu. (The full menu is at the end of the blog.)
It’s worth noting/marvelling that Justin cooked all of his food in the TOFS kitchen which is tiny & according to trusted sources ‘worse than a student kitchen’. He cooked on four hobs, not in an oven at all (other chefs have brought induction hobs & set-up ovens behind the bar).
There were three courses that really made me sit-up.
Cauliflower risotto – This might not sound appealing & it didn’t necessarily look appealing (a fellow diner said it looked like porridge) but it packed a flavour punch. Cauliflower is going through a renaissance at the moment & Justin demonstrated how far it’s come from the Sunday lunch staple of cauliflower cheese – there was no subtlety here. The ‘rice’ was made from cauliflower, blended with a cauliflower puree & stock. The benefit of TOFS was that we could ask Justin what the tangy taste was – parmesan.
The cheese course was delicious: brie with truffle sandwiched in the middle (I love cheese & anything funghi) but the dessert was the piece de resistance. The chocolate mousse was delectable: smooth & not too rich which seemed perfectly pitched after four courses. I wasn’t a fan of the accompanying yoghurt or chocolate drops but the caramelized pineapple made up for that.
We had a great time on both nights, chatting to the chefs, happy to answer our questions; enjoying the bonhomie of the table; quaffing delicious English wine from Hush Heath and eating un-ordinary, exciting food. Going to The Old Fire Station twice in a week really isn’t a hardship.
The next event is Cin Cin on 4 June; Chef Ben Spalding will be in residency 24 & 25 June.
In the groups: both nights 2 ad
Empty Bowls consumption & cost: Pre booked tickets were £20 pp, wine & TOFS beer & cider £3 each
Justin Brown consumption & cost: Tickets were £40 pp, Hush Heath Pinot Noir £23.50
Justin Brown’s full menu:
Confit Salmon: Poached in olive oil, cucumber, horseradish cream, dill & rye
Cauliflower risotto: 100% cauliflower, cauliflower stock, cauliflower puree, parmesan
Steamed bun: Bao bun, crispy chicken, cabbage slaw
Brie & truffle: Dutch Brie stuffed with black truffle, verzet crackers
Chocolate & Yoghurt
Chocolate mousse, frozen yoghurt, pomegranate molasses
More pictures under Gallery