I have not always been that fond of Kent. I’m not sure if the proximity to Dover gives rise to some sort of UKIP sensibility, or if it’s the reputation as a retirement home for London villains who haven’t needed to go all the way to Spain, but I’ve seen some fairly distasteful gigs down there over the years. All you need to say to comics over a certain age is “Maidstone Up The Creek” and eyes begin rolling and heads start shaking – as a friend of mine once put it, “At least Essex knows it’s shit.”
It is of course wrong to tarnish an entire county with a reputation based on a few random comedy gigs, simply for the sake of a weak punchline at the end of an opening paragraph, not that that’s not going to stop me. I’m sure the vast majority of Kentish comedy nights are as good as any in the country, and speaking from personal experience, a great many of them seem to happen around the Tunbridge Wells area. The Trinity Theatre and the Therapy Room have always been very enjoyable places to play, and I even remember doing a successful Edinburgh preview at The Forum, a music venue that is also a converted public toilet. You’d be amazed at how many unconverted ones there are.
On this occasion, however, I was not here for work, but visiting a friend with my other half, and on the way we passed through Tunbridge Wells on the lookout for lunch. There was something reassuring about The Black Pig from the outside. You’ve got to be pretty confident in what you’re doing to paint your building black and then emblazon it with four big white pigs and a hand-painted sign. We soon discovered this design ethic extended to the car park at the rear, as our curiosity and growling stomachs got the better of us.
The dining room was another handsome beast – big chunky wooden tables and an appropriately robust feeling to the whole place. We didn’t venture into the bar at the front as our attention was caught by a slightly haphazard chopping board strewn with homemade focaccia, which is always an encouraging sight, and we were quickly shown to a table in the corner of a relatively busy but not overrun Saturday lunchtime. Looking at my notes, the menu is a lot less piggy than I remembered, but then that’s probably something to do with the number of dishes that contained the words ‘Black Pig’ – from chips to gravadlax, game terrine to, er…gin. Branding is obviously pretty important to these people, but at the same time, it felt in keeping with a DIY aesthetic related to the food rather than an attempt to influence your children’s worldview.
I have been known to be quite porcine myself, and while I realised the spring minestrone with courgette and cannellini beans was what I should have had, the tempura soft shelled crab was what I wanted, so we had both as I have a very patient girlfriend. And quite a squeamish one too apparently, as I had to take delivery of two crabs in a light crispy batter because they ‘looked too much like crabs’. They tasted much like crabs too, nicely complimented by a carrot and coriander salad, if not quite as gutsy and, well…down and dirty as the very best examples of this dish can be. The soup was excellent – fresh vegetables and delightful colours but with a couple of olive oil croutons and a generous sprinkling of parmesan to prevent an actual halo forming around it.
For main course, we had venison, Harveys and stilton pie from the Black Pig Classics section of the menu, which it very nearly was – the pie was very commendable but unfortunately the cheese was somewhat absent. The red cabbage was lovely, but the carrot and parsnip mash received the thumbs down from my companion, although in fairness, she is yet to meet a parsnip she hasn’t been rude about – she and her friend Jodie call them ‘the devil’s penis’, and I can’t really blame the restaurant for that. My sea bass on a bed of papardelle with a cockle and mussel sauce, on the other hand, looked hugely inviting, but sadly tasted incredibly bland, which seems a shame for such lovely ingredients.
We decided that three courses at lunch time might be a step too far even for me, so settled back with a couple of very nice coffees and a bill of £60 including service which seemed fair, if not cheap for an alcohol free lunch. It’s always nice to chance upon somewhere doing all the good things well – just a few tweaks here and there and I would be giving it an unreserved recommendation. I just hope they don’t try and put on any comedy. It may be in Tunbridge Wells, but it’s still Kent, after all.