Tallow, Tunbridge Wells, Kent: ‘This is my kind of fine dining’ – restaurant review | Grace Dent on restaurants

Having vowed to check out Donna and Rob Taylor’s new place the moment it opened, I got there eventually. The pair left the excellent, if somewhat outback gastropub The Compasses Inn in Crundale, Kent, at the end of last summer, promising they had bigger plans afoot. And here they are at Tallow: 26 covers and a 10-seat private dining room in Southborough, a leafy town in the civil parish of Tunbridge Wells, yet, I hasten to add, a whole 2.6 miles from the town’s main railway station. Do not, I beg you, say that Southborough is actually just Tunbridge Wells, or its residents will revolt. Well, they will after they’ve finished playing cricket on the common overlooked by the heroically pretty St Peter’s Church. Parking up on a Saturday lunchtime with the cricket in full swing is a bit like guest-starring in a Miss Marple mystery, perhaps even more so when you get to Tallow itself, a tall, narrow building painted a rather gothic dark grey.

Just as it was at the Compasses, Tallow’s food is unquestionably good. More than that, it’s get-in-the-car-and-go good. It’s “How far is Southborough, anyway?” good. Rob Taylor’s cooking seems, on first glance at the menu, reassuringly straightforward – there’s a steak tartare starter and chocolate brownie on the pudding list – yet his work is much more surprising. Take one of the first offerings, a small, freshly baked wild garlic bread that was sticky, fragrant and vividly Kermit-coloured. There was no need for butter, because its innards were moist with some sort of buttery, salty, algae-like concoction. Such touches always show a restaurant that’s going the extra yard. In a similar vein, a pre-lunch snack of crisp lamb croquette with a neat, mint mayo topping was substantial yet delicate at the same time.

Tallow’s starter of hake, ‘sitting in a heavenly puddle of rather elegant curry sauce’.
Tallow’s starter of hake with mussels ‘in a heavenly puddle of rather elegant curry sauce’.

Tallow’s kitchen is on the first floor, which must mean a heavy calf muscle workout for the serving staff every shift, up and down those stairs, but they do it with endless esprit. Donna and her staff have a bright style that leaves you unequivocal about the fact that they really care about that plate of barbecued loin of pork with confit belly and celeriac and horseradish puree, or that they have personally eaten everything on the menu and would quite happily eat it all again right now, if time and work commitments allowed.

I can’t blame them, because there is always time for carbohydrates in the form of Tallow’s warm terrine of potato and Cashel blue: translucent layers of clearly deeply cherished spud mixed with pleasantly pungent blue-veined cheese from Tipperary. (Incidentally, we had Cashel blue delivered by the kilo during lockdown, until my heart valves begged Charles to stop, but I was still overjoyed to see it on a menu again.) Again, at face value, “potato and cheese terrine” doesn’t sound much to write home about, but this one is so much more than the sum of its parts. It was topped with a hedge of microherb salad so high that Donna quipped she’d been late for work because Rob had given her the chore of clipping it all from their home patch.

‘So much more than the sum of its parts’: Tallow’s potato cake with Cashel blue cheese.
‘So much more than the sum of its parts’: Tallow’s potato cake with Cashel blue.

Tallow’s steak tartare is likewise ludicrously pretty, dotted with rich confit egg yolk and the briefest suggestion of pickled shallot. My favourite course may well have been the hake starter, featuring plump, perfectly timed fried white fish in a heavenly puddle of elegant curry sauce, with three of the fattest, meatiest, shelled mussels drinking in the fragrant broth. This is my sort of fine dining: the highest-quality ingredients and intricate plating, but with the coy undertones of walking back tipsily from the chip shop.

For main, we shared a roast thornback ray wing with a delightful green mess of broad beans and sea vegetables, and some smoked haddock bonbons. One day, I’ll write a thesis on the culinary differences between the croquette, the bonbon and the kushikatsu panko-crumbed skewer, but now is not the time. A tart of caramelised garlic and parsley with baby leeks and onion puree was beautifully constructed, but such a funky collaboration of flavours that it’s definitely not one for the allium-phobic. I sought refuge in a side of fresh Kentish asparagus – a huge whopping bundle of the stuff – that negated its one-of-your-five-a-day prowess with a thick dijon mayo and a scattering of crisp onions.

Tallow’s chocolate brownie: ‘a plinth of rich chocolate-and-hazlenut mousse in a glistening pool of salted caramel and miso sauce.’
Tallow’s chocolate brownie: ‘a plinth of rich chocolate-and-hazelnut mousse in a glistening pool of salted caramel and miso sauce.’

As at The Compasses, the desserts at Tallow linger. Yes, there was a very good, light homemade shortbread with whipped vanilla cream cheese and fresh, sweet gariguette strawberries, but the rather dull-sounding “chocolate and hazelnut brownie” was nothing of the sort: instead, this was a plinth of rich chocolate-and-hazelnut mousse in a glistening pool of salted caramel and miso sauce – so much sauce, and so glossy, in fact, I could have styled my hair in the reflection. The whole assembly was topped with a perfect quenelle of coffee ice-cream, and followed by a wobble back to the car. Spring Saturday lunches don’t get much better than this.

  • Tallow 15a Church Road, Southborough, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, info@tallowrestaurant.co.uk (no phone). Open Tues-Sat, noon-2.30pm, 6-10.30pm. From about £50 a head à la carte, six-course tasting menu £79; both plus drinks and service.