This seaside restaurant is wonderful… if you can put up with the smell
The first time I visited Margate, I truly thought I had arrived in hell on Earth. It was a 30-degree-plus long weekend in August, and I hopped off the train to what I can only explain as a mishmash of every piece of perplexing British culture.
Being the antipodean that I am, I’m an enormous beach snob – and I will never apologise for that. The beaches at Margate were… less than pleasing, and I spent most of the weekend sweaty and desperate to swim somewhere that didn’t look (and smell) like it might have a direct link with the sewer.
Thankfully, Margate was awash with great places to eat and drink and we ended up having a marvellously hilarious weekend. That’s the thing about Margate: the strong social dichotomy will inevitably reel you in.
You have kitschy Dreamland sitting alongside one of the country’s coolest restaurants; wine bars beside stores that sell things exclusively in shades of neon. If you can throw yourself into that contrast, it ends up being a joyous place.
Margate earned itself the cringe-inducing moniker of “Shoreditch-on-sea”, a loosely veiled reference to its influx of seaside-seeking Hackneyites (forget about it guys, this is a two-bit interpretation of the ocean), and subsequent rapid opening of numerous restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in E8.
Questionable as the nickname may be, Margate’s newest opening may have just firmly solidified it. Sargasso has been purchased and revamped by the team behind Columbia Road’s Brawn – one of the city’s best restaurants.
They’ve brought the same Italian-accented dining ethos and great wine list to the Kent town, adapting it slightly to fit the new locale. This presents itself in a menu that is a little lighter; it features a bit more fish, a touch less meat – fitting fare for long lunches under the sun.
My second visit to Margate – lured back down by Sargasso’s opening – already started infinitely better than the first. The weather was a comfortable 20 degrees; the sun was out; it wasn’t a long weekend.
The town was lively but laid back, and I finally began to understand what all the fuss was about (although, the seaweed still smells like an open drain at low tide).
Sidling up to Sargasso – AKA Brawn-on-Sea – parked up at a table in the sun, it was like being momentarily on holiday (if you kind of squinted slightly and didn’t look too closely at the colour of the water).
I’ve always seen this food as kind of loosely, undefinably European, sort of like Moira’s accent in Schitt’s Creek – you can’t quite put your finger on its origins; it pulls in a range of influences, but it’s ultimately familiar.
Terrine makes way for cod’s roe. There’s a whole section purely dedicated to pasta but main courses seem to draw on French flavour profiles. It doesn’t really matter, nor does it need defining – when food is this good, it can comfortably sit in its own category.
The parmesan fritters have already gained cult status on social media since the restaurant’s August opening, and I can see why. The golden, lip-smacking fried exterior makes way for a molten cheese interior full of the salty fattiness of parmesan. You may find yourself fighting off your dining companions for every last bite.
Pigs head terrine is chunky, gelatinous, a little gristly in parts but ultimately harmonious – especially when paired with the cutting bite of the mustard and bracing brininess of the cornichons. Friggitelli peppers were a little like playing Russian roulette in the spice stakes – shrivelled up like the skin of a European man with an affinity for nude beaches, some were sweetly spice-free, while others left you gulping back the remnants of your water glass.
My primary tip would be to order extra bread and butter: you’re going to want it to scrape up every last whisper of food on your plates. Especially for the cod’s roe. This is one of the best things I’ve eaten in recent memory.
The roe itself was whipped until thickened, rife with the deeply salty fishy flavour you would want. It arrived topped with braised beetroot, golden breadcrumbs, peppery radishes and a soft-boiled egg. It is perfection. I could have eaten at least two plates of it. I’m still thinking about it four days later. Cod’s roe is having a moment and I have eaten a lot of it recently – this is certainly the best of a good bunch.
The leading dish for me, however, had to be the tomato tonnato. Traditionally served with thinly shaved slices of veal and topped with a tuna infused sauce, at Sargasso you get slightly sweet slices of tomato topped with a tonnato sauce that appears to get its fishiness from anchovies rather than tuna.
This gives a far more subtle, but no less delicious, plate. Much like the cod’s roe, I’m still craving it almost a week later, and I’m going to make it my mission to perfect the recipe for that sauce. It is the epitome of proper holiday fare, and makes for momentary gastronomic bliss when washed down with a crisp glass of white wine (might I recommend the Zibibbo, or the skin contact Bianchetto).
The menu changes regularly, but please try to scoot there quickly before the tonnato is inevitably taken off the menu when tomato season ends.
You can rest easy knowing whatever they move onto as the winter months close in, it will be glorious. Just make sure you visit at high tide – that seaweed takes on an olfactory life of its own when the water is out, and it might just put you off your lunch.