Sargassum, Margate Harbor Arm, Stone Pier, Margate CT9 1AP (01843 229270). Small plates £7-£11, large plates £9-£19, desserts £6, wines from £25
It is the simplest of dishes: half a dozen fatty anchovies from Cantabria, the color of well-varnished teak, rest in a pool of dark green olive oil, sprinkled with sparkling droplets of what turns out to be lemon juice. At first glance, very little happened to make it happen at our table. Some really good anchovies, meaty, salty and potent specimens with a lingering depth of flavor, were simply pulled from their resting place, dressed and sent on their way. But there is so much more going on here; something that goes to the very heart of the best restaurants. It is the expression of exquisite taste. The Sargasso in Margate are soaked in this stuff.
It won’t be everyone’s idea of good taste. Some will stare at the old red-brick squat building he calls home and roll their eyes. They will dismiss as ugly this low block murderer crouched by the breakwater along the harbor arm as he lay in the water. If they belong to a demographic with rectal problems and are familiar with certain over-the-counter ointments, they may complain of the hard, spindly stools you are asked to sit on while eating at the counter or high tables in the window. This general eye-roll could be extended to the monogrammed plates, the restaurant’s name done in a blood-red font reminiscent of the late ’60s futurism of Joe 90. And let’s not forget the record player and collection of 70s jazz funk vinyl from Idris Mohammed and George Duke playing on it. The album cover is always displayed behind the bar so you know exactly what you’re listening to while you eat.
If all this doesn’t sound like your plate of Cantabrian anchovies, don’t come here. You shouldn’t take the high-speed train from St Pancras to London, like I did, for an early supper. Go elsewhere. The rest of you, come in. Sargasso, which is the second restaurant of chef Ed Wilson and the team behind Brawn on London’s Columbia Road, makes the best things very simple. The menu, divided between half a dozen small plates and a similar number of larger offerings, manages to perfectly reflect its rugged coastal setting.
Some of them, like these glorious anchovies, to be eaten with the most springy of hard-crust sourdoughs, are all about the ingredients. Don’t forget to mop the floor. There are others that required more thought. Whipped cod roe, a whimsical, melty pink, was arranged in buxom whorls on a thick piece of oily toast. Opposite is a well-dressed peppercress lawn. It’s topped with a soft-boiled egg, left at room temperature, but still with a sunset of runny yolk that pours over it as you cut. It looks like both serious attention to detail and huge care for £8.
From this fishy side of the register comes a crab salad, with finely grated wild fennel, chives and other green herbs over a thick pond of sauce thickened with brown crabmeat. You could, of course, just stand outside on the harbor arm and smell the air here as the tide goes out; Admire the gull-clawed wind, rich with salty pong from exposed seaweed and old boat diesel. Or you can sit up here, stare at the view, and eat a sweet, funky expression of it. The joy, of course, is that by taking the walk to Sargassum you get a combination of both. Add a bowl of their clams, with thick, sweet slices of garlic and handfuls of cilantro. Properly, they bring a spoon so you can finish the broth ripe and growling like it’s soup.
There are other great things. Because it’s the season, there’s the asparagus, served warm with a glass dish of lemon-flavoured melted butter. Friggitelli peppers, Padrón’s longer Italian cousins, are lightly pungent to help soften and soften them, then dressed in sea salt and chili flakes. Parmesan Beignets are squash ball-sized béchamel croquettes, with centers of pure melted cheese, served hot from the deep fryer under a micro-planed drift of the finest Parmesan cheese. It’s an appetizer, designed by someone who believes a plate should be cleaned. I get the message. I clear the plate down to that shiny monogram.
Much of the wine list, which is as curated and intriguing a selection as at Brawn, is available by the glass and decanter. Behind the bar is a collection of spirits, including Aperol Spritz and Fernet-Branca; things you might think are a good idea after a few carafes of sweeter wines. You are an adult; make your own bloody choices. There are also loads of cookbooks, titles by Nuno Mendes, José Pizarro and, most enjoyable of all, Keith Floyd (about Italy). It’s that tasteful stuff again.
Somewhere in a review of a restaurant in Margate, there are supposed to be a few paragraphs referring to a seaside town notorious for its rundown, undergoing gentrification. It’s such an obvious point that it’s hardly worth saying yes, the coin-operated arcades are still there on the front, as is the Turner Contemporary. There are bucket-and-shovel stores, and ironic takes on bucket-and-shovel culture. And there is Sargasso, which in July goes from opening on Thursdays to opening on Wednesdays. Maybe over the summer they can open all week. I hope so.
Sometimes when I tell people I play jazz piano, they tell me they hate jazz, as if that’s the mark of some form of clever reverse sophistication. They often seem surprised when I tell them it’s okay. I feel absolutely no need to argue the case or convert them. They are the ones who are missing. Their loss. I really feel the same way about Sargassum. I can predict the reactions to it from those who puff out their nostrils at what they consider a posture. All it means is they won’t be able to eat those anchovies or that crab salad, in that building with those sounds and sights. At the end, with a final clever nod to Margate’s bucket-and-shovel culture, there’s soft serve ice cream, either with strawberry sauce or chocolate and hazelnuts. This suggests a less than vigorous interest in the kitchen’s desserts here, but after such a good meal, they can be forgiven.
Sargasso is about to have a new neighbor. Staple, an independent bakery which launched its first outpost in the old post office in the village of Broadstairs in 2020 before expanding to Westgate-on-Sea last year, is due to open two more next month . One is in Ramsgate and the other is in the building just off Sargasso on the Harbor Arm in Margate. The menu, overseen by chef and baker Stephen Gadd, includes various sourdough breads, their own croissant and Danish as well as a range of classic cakes (basicstores.co.uk).
Clay’s Kitchen, the Indian restaurant in Reading that has developed a nationwide following during lockdown for its home deliveries, has launched a crowdfunding to raise money for its new home. Sharat and Nandana Syamala have taken up the lease of a former Wetherspoon pub in Caversham and, having raised £250,000 themselves, are looking for the same again to complete the job. They offer a bunch of rewards including vouchers, cooking classes, membership club memberships, and room rentals. Learn more here.
After 18 years, chef Marc Wilkinson is closing the much-admired Michelin-starred Fraiche in Oxton in Merseyside. Wilkinson, who famously cooks himself, said all existing reservations will be honored but no others will be released. The last service will take place at the end of September. The name Fraiche will then be used for other projects (restaurantfraiche.com).
This article was last modified on June 26, 2022. An earlier version referred to anchovies “from Calabria”, rather than from Cantabria.