My bid to wax lyrical about The Compasses Inn in Crundale, Kent, comes with unfortunate timing. I’ve wanted to shout about this award-winning gastropub ever since I stopped by a month or so ago, curious as to why food folk speak about it in hallowed tones. The Compasses, it transpires, is tucked away in a sort of bucolic dreamworld about eight miles outside Ashford, where the A28 suddenly veers into twisty, squeakishly narrow lanes bedecked with overgrown hedges, hay bales, rugged barns, ivy trails and other things commonly found in hobbit stronghold the Shire.
The Compasses also has a large beer garden, although it feels churlish to call it that, because it’s more like a neatly cropped meadow with a picture-perfect child’s swing hanging from an ancient tree. I sat in the garden in August, eating affogato with a delicate long spoon. This is one of my very favourite desserts, joyful in its simplicity, and also so much bang for your buck: just a scoop of very good vanilla ice-cream in a short glass with a shot of espresso and another shot of a liqueur of your choice; I chose Tia Maria because, well, classy is as classy does.
We’d eaten our starters and mains inside the handsome, old-fashioned pub, but pudding was delivered on a tray to a spot on the lawn where we’d been escorted for our final course. Our transfer hither and thither was efficiently managed – nobody forgot us during the changeover, and no balls were dropped between the front of house and kitchen as to what we needed next. This is not as common as you might think. Competent, flowing, magical service is a skill, and the biggest coup is making the trick seem as if it’s not even happening; that this loveliness is just life. That is hospitality.
I wonder, considering the ongoing nationwide restaurant staffing crisis, how many have jumped ship after feeling unappreciated for so long, or because the sleight of hand required to make diners feel special is still not considered “a proper job”, or at least not in the UK. So, with all that in mind, I’m telling you about Rob and Donna Taylor at The Compasses despite the fact that – gasp! – after today, they’re leaving Crundale for pastures new. Yes, they’re off – to Tunbridge Wells, in fact, where they’ll weave their magic all over again at a new site due to open at the start of November.
This is music to my ears, because I’ve recently spent a fair amount of time in Tunbridge Wells and excellent dinner is not always readily available. So, yes, please, to some Compasses-style magic coming to town. Such as their thick, glossy wodges of home-baked seeded warm focaccia with glorious Marmite cream cheese to nibble on while you have a shufti at their wines by the glass, including a Puglian organic Zensa Fiano at just £3.90 a pop.
For starters, Charles and I shared some deep-fried Winnies Wheel – like a camembert, but from Canterbury. These gooey-centred, crisp bullets came laced with petals of pickled grelot onion, parsley root and walnut ketchup. Another starter of Stour Valley quail featured the breasts and wings on a bed of plump, slightly softened Kentish cherries with pieces of rich black pudding. This is faffy, risk-taking cooking that would still appeal to a fussy eater so long as they didn’t read the menu descriptions too closely. Soused mackerel, for example, comes with pretty pink fir potatoes, shaved fennel and a chilled tomato liqueur. It’s fish, spuds and tomato sauce, but pulled off with aplomb.
It would be a hard heart that didn’t love the Compasses’ roast roll of chicken with rosemary dumplings, which are more accurately wobbly, delicious, herby gnocchi, each one browned golden, then arranged on the plate with soft baby leek, truffle shavings and more truffle in the sauce. Charles’ treacle-cured beef and glazed ox cheek came with a braised baby gem leaf and English mustard clotted cream, a fabulously clever and decadent take on horseradish. I tried to steer us away from sides, but we also had dripping chips with truffle mayo and a heritage tomato salad with elderflower dressing. For vegetarians, a goat’s cheese roulade came with a smoked aubergine cream sauce and purple sprouting broccoli.
This is one of those menus that makes you feel temporarily that everything is right with the world, and in that shady corner of the pub, at least, some sanity was restored to 2021. And that was before I even got stuck into the Tia Maria. I also noted with delight that Kahlúa, Amaretto and Frangelico were also on offer, because I adore any fancy menu that lists drinks more commonly found in the bottom of a school bag being transported skulduggerously from a parent’s drinks cabinet to a school disco, often with dire results. Wherever this team goes, I will follow. And if they keep making that Marmite cream cheese and serving roquefort with fresh brown butter financiers, I’ll be there with bells on.