The Bottle House Inn has been a favourite place to eat for generations of West Kent folk. But where once it was renowned for its generous portions and country pub charm, it has now transformed itself into a destination restaurant, more gourmet than gourmand. It’s a fascinating place.
The building is said to have been built in 1492, while the traditional Kentish white weatherboarding is 18th century and it has been a licensed premises since 1808.
The structure features a succession of little rooms poking out, which were once a mini parade of shops that serve a micro-community. The bakery next door was a going concern into the 1980s.
Yet time moves on. And the arrival of head chef Mark Harkins at the Penshurst establishment last year has led to an overhaul of the menu, as he wants to make The Bottle House stand out among the plethora of stunning pubs in the area.
The process of change actually began ten years ago when the pub was taken over and refurbished. These days the lighting is muted and intimate, the furniture and decor all done in tasteful rural chic, there is a calm assurance about the level of service.
But not everything has changed. The Cubby and Nook are still there where the old shops once were, the magnificent pitted copper bar remains intact, and Paul Hammond stands behind it to welcome you as he has done for 34 years. And the plates are still very full.
I begin with an apricot and nut encrusted baby camembert with carrot chutney. (£7.50). The fruit and nut combination gives body to the gooey cheese, offering up multiple layers of texture and flavour. The chutney is so light and uplifting, there’s no chance of those layers feeling too heavy.
My guest opts for the chicken liver parfait with another chutney, this time apple, fig and chilli (£6.50) – which is another winner in the preserve department. The parfait is a classic slow burner, starting gently and then filling the mouth with rich, deep sensations. The zingy jam is lively, dancing across the palate, with the chilli a superbly subtle booster.
The main event
I couldn’t wait to get stuck into my roast lamb rump with salsify, wild mushroom, spinach and peas (£18.50) and it was even better than I could ever have imagined.
The thick slabs of meat were ravishingly pink and succulent, and they melted away in the mouth – including the delectable crispy skin. The salty salsify and nutty fungi were perfectly complementary and they too melded into each other, making the whole experience somewhat akin to a swoon of surfeit pleasure.
Paul tells me that the chef wants the salsify to give a hint of salt marsh lamb, widely appreciated for its special flavour, alongside its pasture-based brethren. Next month, he adds, there will be a wild garlic note to the dish.
Then there’s the five-hour slow roast pork belly with creamed hispi cabbage and bacon, Dauphinoise potatoes and apple and cider jus. And here is a surprise. Rather than the customary slab of crackling that’s either blissful or teeth-wrecking – depending upon your luck – the chef has decorated the square of belly with a thin twist of the crispy skin.
Controversial? Absolutely. But here’s another twist: Chef Harkins is moving on from the old style, focusing instead on the fat beneath the crackling, which is usually the poor relation. He slices off the fat as well as the skin, then cooks the former separately to reduce it before replacing.
The result is stunning, and the all-consuming richness feels almost guilty. Beats wrestling with chewy crackling, that’s for sure. I should add that the other saucy, creamy elements of the dish are fabulous and add to the sense of decadent abandon. And the cider and apple harmony simply sings.
The sweet spot
After all that fine food and refined feeling, we are not going to miss out on pudding – but we are going to have to share. Custard cream cheesecake with biscuit crunch and vanilla ice cream (£6.50) sounds suitably lighthearted.
And sure enough it’s a delightful confection, lavishly sweet but not at all cloying. Far from being a rather laborious duty after such a mighty dinner, it’s gone before we can draw breath. I’m tempted to order another.
The Bottle House may have moved on but in essence it’s still a pub. It has two beers on the pump when we visit, both from Larkins’ Chiddingstone brewery just down the road. Their Traditional is a popular pint in these parts with its low alcohol helping people go out into the sticks and get back without needing pricey taxis. It’s refreshing and characterful.
But there’s also the Larkins Best, which is indeed a rare and special treat. You just don’t see it all that often these days – and it is as good a pint of bitter as you will ever try. It’s complex, overwhelming, unassuming until you catch yourself jabbering away about all sorts. Get someone else to drive, is my advice.
There’s an impressive array of wines by the glass. For the lamb I went for a glass (or two) of Barbera del Piemonte Ottove I San Silvestro (£4.50 for 125cl). It’s a smoky, soulful Italian red full of sultry passion that reverberates around the mouth like a lingering kiss.
Key ingredients to success
Paul says: “Mark has brought more breadth to our food. He wanted to come to a small independent trader to put his stamp on the menu. He wants it to be different to the pub classics on offer in five or six other places in the area.
“If you don’t want to upset your existing clientele then you’d never change anything. Sometime you’ve got to take risks. Mark really wants to raise his game.”
What’s new on the menu
Game is just one of the successes of The Bottle House’s new Friday evening specials. As well as their full menu, they are suggesting a further half-dozen variations on a theme. When we were there it was grill night, there has been a steak event and a celebration of national pie week.
Another innovation, and yet another feather in the cap of this venerable but ever evolving venue. Incidentally, the game is basically shot not far from the back door. It doesn’t get more locally sourced than that.