Culinary excellence

A year after accomplished chef Gary Jarvis took over the kitchen at The Bottle House in Penshurst, Grace Corcoran went along to try out its seasonal menu that keeps diners coming back for more…

It’s Friday October 13 – unlucky for some – when my friend Natalie and I head out to Penshurst to make a first-time visit to The Bottle House Inn.

The end of the extended summer period certainly makes itself known as we drive through lashing rain to reach the inn, which is located on Cold Harbour Road. But the torrid weather makes it all the more cosy as we step inside the 15th-century pub.

The Bottle House team welcome us with a smile and sit us down with a great view of the establishment – staff at the bar creating concoctions with the on-site infused spirits using foraged produce from the kitchen garden, wine bottles suspended between exposed beams, and a mix of open and snug spaces that add real charm to the building.

Pub manager, Paul Hammond, who has been with The Bottle House for over 30 years, warmly greets us and recommends drinks. A Chilean Pinot Noir he suggests is exactly to Natalie’s tastes and I try a homemade dandelion-infused Aperol Spritz cocktail.

The change in season feels especially fitting for a visit to this establishment, which prides itself on creating menus based on seasonal produce. Before going, Natalie and I studied the new autumnal menu online, exchanging texts of what we might go for.

Staying safe and going with pub classics such as Beer Battered Fish and Chips (£16.50) or a Homemade Shortcrust Steak Pie (£18.00), would usually be my go-to.

The Classic Steak Tartare (£11.00) and Mussels with Garlic, Pancetta & Peas (£10.00) starters also sound delicious, and there are plenty of options for vegetarians, too including the Carrot & Coriander Soup (£9.00) and Apple and Chicory Tart (£16.00).

But then Paul throws us a curveball, with a grin asking: “Would you like to go with the chef’s recommendations?” It’s an easy farewell to our pre-curated WhatsApp menu, and a hello to the chef’s proposal, as we put our culinary experience in the safe hands of head chef Gary Jarvis, who has been at the pub for a year now and boasts impressive credits as former head chef at The Curlew in Bodiam and The Lyle in Tunbridge Wells.

While we wait for our starters, Paul tells us that we have come on a ‘Friday Night Live’ which means that every Friday evening, The Bottle House hosts a musician to play for diners. This week we’re treated to the chilled acoustic music of Steve Spall, from The Violet Jive, whose guitar set feeds into the easygoing ambience.

An elegant plate of Tricolour Beetroot (£9.50) soon arrives for Natalie, along with the Cured Chalk Stream Trout (£10.50) for myself. The deep fuscia colours of the beetroot and the coral-orange trout cohere with the autumnal season, and both deliver on taste.

Next, we are treated to a pre-main course snack: Mushrooms on Toast (£9.50). Like a hug protecting us from the showers outside, it’s the ultimate comfort food. We had to ask Gary what the secret ingredients to that creamy sauce were – and he kindly obliged.

“It’s simple really”, he said, listing off brandy, cream, shallots and tarragon oil, which is poured over home-made brioche toast piled high with sweet mushrooms and red peppers and garnished with tarragon. Gary is being modest – ‘simple’ certainly plays down the number of complimentary flavours making up this delicious plate of food.

As we await our main course – the Roast Pork Belly (£21.50) and Fillet of Stone Bass (£20.00), a glance around the inn and it seems everyone is genuinely having a lovely time. There are a mix of diners – a group of older men catch-up over a pint, a couple are engrossed in chatter behind us, and a family of four tuck into another stunning-looking portion of food.

“The standard here has always been high”, Paul tells us, “but since Gary joined, he has taken it to that next level.” From waking up in the early hours to prepare bread for starters, to making an array of homemade ice creams for desserts, the entire menu is thoughtfully crafted by Gary and there is a level of care and detail in the preparation of the food that sings when it comes off the pass.

Now, for the main. My plate might look gentle – muted colours of sand and toffee-browns surround a delicate fillet of fish, but the food is packed with flavour and contrasting textures. 

A perfectly cooked soft stone bass rests in a pool of a deep-flavoured mussel and champagne sauce, which the lemon in the gnocchi cuts through, while the cauliflower adds that nutty crunch. Nestled among the mussels, waiting to be fished out for that strong salty-sweet hit. In short – it’s a considered dish and tastes really great.

As Natalie and I let our main course settle, we comment on how at ease we feel here. The Bottle House has a comfortable, chilled feel with a subtle buzz – you can enjoy food you might be served in somewhere a little more formal, but without the uptight setting.

“Desserts?”, Paul asks, suggesting the Chocolate Delice (£9.50) and Plum Bavarois (£9). We don’t need much tempting. He brings out a glass of Black Muscat dessert wine for the Delice, which is the perfect pairing for the rich finale.

With a year at the helm, it’s evident that Gary is delivering thoughtful, elegant and unquestionably tasty food for The Bottle House’s regulars and newbies alike. We are excited to see what they deliver when we return this Christmas!

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