The quintessentially English village of Matfield in Kent, complete with an idyllic cricket green and duck pond, could not provide a greater contrast to the muddy horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele.
Yet celebrated World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon was ripped from this picture postcard village into the trenches, from where he wrote of the hell of war. When he dreamed of England’s green and pleasant land, it was probably Matfield that he was thinking of.
Sassoon is the reason why the village’s well-known gastropub is called The Poet, which has steadily built up a reputation over the last few years to the point where it now appears in the Michelin guide. But that reputation, talking to local people, hasn’t always necessarily been edifying. In the past, it had a reputation for cuisine that if not exactly nouvelle, was certainly petite. Nicely executed, for sure, but not the hearty portions that country folk might be expecting after a hard day’s work.
So that’s why we headed there with some degree of trepidation and the number of the local pizza delivery firm if needed. The owners have used the pandemic period to refurbish the place and it shows, with an individual approach to the décor that manages to combine elements of traditional and modern.
Seated comfortably after studying the intriguing menu, the amuse-bouche arrived in an espresso cup, courtesy of the chef. Dinner got off to an excellent start with that velouté of blue cheese and broccoli, which left us wishing that it had been served in a mug rather than a tiny cup. Yet this was the first indication that a supplementary pizza might not be needed after all.
Next up was the starter: a hen’s egg with St Michael’s blue cheese and shiitake mushrooms, swimming in a wild garlic velouté. This was the highlight of the evening, but it definitely helps to like blue cheese and velouté here.
While the dish sounds simple enough, its exquisiteness is hard to put into words: the egg was perfectly poached; the yolk a molten eruption of creamy excellence. The sauce poured onto it was no doubt a close relation of the amuse-bouche, but there was nothing wrong with that.
Or was there? Because, beautiful as it was, this starter was an artful confection of smoke and mirrors: just an egg, with a reworked version of an existing dish that you’ve just had…
Then there was the tuna tataki with pear and wasabi mayo, another starter. This was nice enough too, but a nod back to the nouvelle days.
All of us chose the leek and blue cheese pithivier as main course, which comes with asparagus, peas, spinach and the ubiquitous jug of sauce (a different one this time) to pour on top. A pithivier, for those unaware if it, is a round parcel of puff pastry that encloses a filling, which originated in the town of Pithiviers in France. Or alternatively, according to one friend who later saw a photo, a “pie”. Which, he went on to add, could also have been improved with the addition of a poached egg on top. Now there’s an idea. Because The Poet does poached eggs exceptionally well.
Yet this pithivier was more than just filling; it was almost a struggle to get to the end of it (delicious as it was). Without a doubt the nicest cheese slice I have ever had. And certainly the most expensive.
Washing it all down was Hush Heath Bacchus: a (very) fruity local wine, which underlines the fact that you can actually get decent wine in this country if you look hard enough for it. The Bacchus was delicious: an excellent counterpoint to all the blue cheese. There were some intriguing-looking desserts too (such as olive oil cake) but no way was that happening…
In conclusion? A hard one to judge. The food was excellent, but strangely deceptive: perhaps more derivative than it initially appeared and with more style over real substance, which is how they justify an undeniably high price tag.
But that’s not really a major issue, as everything tasted really good. The problem was more the underlying attitude. The hygiene police were out in force, for instance, with the ‘welcome’ consisting of an instruction – rather than invitation – to sanitise hands, and more mask-wearing required than at the average Venetian carnival. The staff were always polite, but somehow you still couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that you were meant to feel privileged to be there. This starts before you even arrive, with the restaurant wanting you to lodge a credit card number as a deposit: the sort of thing that happens only at the very top places in London.
Perhaps most people might not notice, but ultimately there was an omnipresent, ever so slightly pretentious, edge of condescension on what was otherwise a pleasant – albeit gastronomically impressive, rather than exceptional – evening.
The Poet at Matfield, Maidstone Road, Kent, TN12 7JH, England.
Tel: +44 (0)1892 722416
Located in the village of Matfield in the heart of the Kent countryside, The Poet at Matfield is 6 miles from Tunbridge Wells and a 15-minute drive. There is limited parking available at the pub itself but there is additional free parking located at Matfield village green, which is a short 5-minute walk. The restaurant is open Friday to Sunday from 12noon to 6:00pm.
Type of Restaurant: Country Gastropub
Price Band: Expensive
Insider Tip: Be sure to try the blue cheese.
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.