I sometimes suspect there are many restaurants who like to talk about local sourcing and sustainability, but few who really ‘live it’.
But it’s not a criticism I could level at young chef Matt Sworder, who’s not only passionate about his local food economy – he’s even gone as far as locally sourcing himself…. well, in a manner of speaking.
Having served time at several leading London restaurants, including a Gordon Ramsay one, he did briefly consider starting his own venture close to the capital. But instead, he headed home to Kent – to open a restaurant in the very building where he was born. You can’t really get more locally-sourced than that.
His terroir is the very pleasant village of Minster, close to Ramsgate on the east Kent coast, and The Corner House lies in a lovely spot just opposite the village’s walled abbey, which is home to a group of Benedictine nuns.
From the outside, the restaurant looks like a cute, olde English tea shop (in fact, it once was), festooned with flower baskets, which just beckons you to step in. Once inside you’ll find a pleasant mix of modern and traditional – Farrow and Ball-style dove grey paint finishes meet rustic red brick floors – and a menu that’s unpretentious, seasonal, and bursting with local produce.
Arriving as we did on a sunny September afternoon – just a couple of months after its launch – there’s a warm, friendly buzz about the place. While it looks pretty and petite from the outside, the restaurant is Tardis-like on the inside (it was originally three linked 17th century workers’ cottages). There’s a more formal dining space in the front, with a low, beamed ceiling and dark wood fireplaces, and a lighter, brighter back dining area and bar, which leads out onto a sunny outdoor terrace.
Linking these two spaces is the working kitchen, which Matt has rather boldly left completely open to one side, so diners get an unexpected close-up of the culinary action as they walk from bar to restaurant. As we sat at a sunny table anticipating lunch, it was actually rather comforting to hear the nearby sounds and sizzles of the kitchen as Matt and his sous-chef rustled up our order.
And so to the food – which is all cooked from scratch and sourced as much as possible from the bounty of quality Kent producers on Matt’s doorstep. The bread is baked fresh every morning, the pasta is homemade, so is the ketchup, and so is the ice cream – including a secret family recipe for brown bread ice cream. Of course, we felt duty-bound to try it.
Parfait to die for
The weekday set lunch menu is extremely good value at just £13. Matt is always experimenting with new combinations and flavours, and dishes change according to the season, and the best produce that’s available.
For starters my husband and I went for a chicken liver parfait, and a char-grilled ox tongue with salsa verde, sharing both between the two of us. The parfait, served in a simple glass tumbler with crisp white toast on the side, was smooth and unctuous and utterly moreish. It didn’t quite beat my all-time favourite chicken liver parfait experience at La Trompette in Chiswick, but it came a very close second.
The ox tongue was an interesting taste and texture, slightly chewy like squid (luckily I love squid)– and while we liked the taste of the fresh salsa verde on the side – we both agreed the tongue might have been better paired with either a berry or a mustard-based sauce. Maybe we were being a tad too traditional.
My generous portion of grilled plaice arrived like a big, sunny smile on a plate. Lightly drizzled with capers, oil and herbs, and served simply with new potatoes, celeriac remoulade and a roasted tomato. Matt sources all his fish from local fishmongers Fruits de Mer in nearby Broadstairs, so he’s certain of the freshness and quality. Great fish like this needs very little dressing up, and Matt served it just so.
My husband had the lamb rump served on a bed of deeply-flavoured aubergines, peppers and lentils. The lamb was pink where it should be and melt-in-the-mouth tender. The best lamb we’d tasted in a very long time.
Dessert was now calling and we tried the aforementioned Sworder family favourite of brown bread ice cream, served in a retro-style Kilner jar. It was rich, creamy and full of sweet, chewy chunks of ‘brown bread’ praline. We also shared a classic Eton mess, with soft crunchy meringue, fresh Kent strawberries and sweet cream.
All in all, a beautifully balanced meal, full of high quality ingredients that stood out on the plate, good portion sizes – at a great price. Service, by our friendly waitress Imogen, was unobtrusive and efficient.
Chatting to Matt afterwards, it’s clear that, at just 28, he’s full of ambition (he trained at Gordon Ramsay’s La Noisette, Anthony Demetre’s Les Deux Salons and Adam Byatt’s Bistro Union). But he’s not out to create an elitist, Michelin-starred restaurant, rather a contemporary British dining experience, where people can drop in for breakfast and read the papers, have a convivial lunch, or a candle-lit dinner.
In between, visitors might partake of coffee and homemade cake, and Matt’s currently developing a bar menu for the back dining space. He’s also planning to offer specialist cookery courses, such as pasta or breadmaking, with the chance to spend time in his professional kitchen and eat lunch as a group after.
“We really don’t want The Corner House to be the type of place you only visit for a special occasion. It’s a place for all occasions, and people are welcome from early morning into the evening.
“We offer simple cooking, done well, and are really passionate about supporting the local economy, and our great local producers,” says Matt.
To foster The Corner House’s sense of caring and sharing, the a la carte menu has some delectable communal offerings, such as a roast chicken for two with triple cooked chips, pigs in blankets, sun dried tomatoes, bread sauce and watercress salad (£14pp) – that most definitely calls for a return visit!
There’s also a slow cooked lamb shoulder (for two or four people) with dauphinoise potatoes, greens and lamb jus (£16pp).
Corner House history
Back in the 1960s, Matt tells me, The Corner House was a bustling, friendly village meeting place where diners would come to sample teas, ice creams and other latest fashions in refreshments. Since then, it’s gone through several incarnations, always as some kind of eaterie. Matt’s dad Dave ran it as a family restaurant called Morton’s Fork from 1984 to 2000, before selling on the lease to a restaurant tenant.
Now The Corner House is back in the family fold, reverting to its original 1960s name, with dad Dave running the front of house and Matt getting creative in the kitchen. The young chef has a short commute to work – living as he does ‘above the shop’ – and admits that when he falls into bed of a night after a busy service, he can’t resist dipping into his obsessive collection of cookery books, dreaming up his next menu well into the wee small hours.
For visitors to east Kent (the nearby Minster station has fast links to London) the Corner House also offers two bright and sunny en-suite rooms, all crisply refurbished and very reasonably priced at £70 a night, with breakfast downstairs as an optional extra.
What could be better? A great dinner cooked with passion, a short stumble to a comfy bed, fresh baked bread in the morning and a village stroll, before moving on to explore the breezy Kent coast. It all makes a weekend at The Corner House sound very appealing.
Once upon a time, Matt thought he’d escape the family restaurant business, and headed off to do a marketing degree before landing work at a City insurance firm. He confesses that job was short-lived, as he found himself irresistibly drawn to the buzz of the professional kitchen.
Now he’s escaped again, back home to the peace of rural Kent life – but there’s nothing sleepy about The Corner House. It’s a little place with big plans – and I’m sure it won’t be long before its reputation draws diners from far and wide.
Location: The Corner House, 42 Station Road, Minster, Kent CT12 4BZ
Tel: 01843 823000