ISLE OF SHEPPEY–Leysdown is about three and a half miles down the road from the Sheppey Prisons Cluster. It’s also one of the locations where Channel 4 comedy “The End of the Fucking World” was filmed. It’s home to several well-heeled families of horse-breeding Irish Travellers, many caravan and chalet holiday parks where people often live permanently, and to one of the U.K.’s few official nudist beaches.
You can see the The Red Sand Towers Fort from the beach, in case you feel a need for more throwbacks to the previous century. And all throwbacks are welcome, as far as I am concerned.
Roadside dinners out of Styrofoam packaging, lots of men with fading tattoos and women with false eyelashes, a proud trepidation mixed with excitement about the processions related to the Queen’s death and her funeral, and in my eyes, being an immigrant to this country who came over in 2011 largely for the possibility of becoming a writer in London like my idol Joseph Conrad, whose first language also wasn’t English, and also for the promise of an obscure, generous, romantic, good-humoured, simple-hearted and slightly criminal England I discerned in Pete Doherty’s songs, a patriotism wrapped in egg batter and colourful branded polyester which is no less genuine because of it… all of these things I found in Leysdown.
What I wasn’t expecting to find was one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in dozens of them around the world.
After I’ve been there, the Dining Room reminds me of two other Indian restaurants I was able to taste unforgettable grilled meat in – the Taj Hotel in Mayfair and Mahesh in Mumbai.
The Dining Room is cheaper than both, and while equally stylish, much less pretentious. The waiters, unlike their clients, have impeccable manners, the table is set according to international norms, and the menu belies stereotypes of ordinary English people lacking sophistication. But what even is an ordinary English person?
The Dining Room is part of my life now. It put a twist on a strange but lovely weekend for my family and I. We travelled to Leysdown on that Thursday to enjoy walks on the beach with our dog Brutus while not running into other Londoners who wanted the same. The Queen had died but we decided she wouldn’t want us changing our booking.
On Friday morning, our wedding anniversary of five years, my wife dropped our daughter Ileana face down on the rough cement outside the Bar Fish and Chips shop on the promenade, giving her a bleed and a belt-shaped scar from the tip of the nose across her upper lip like a lick of lipstick applied the wrong way round, a good enough reason, for a change, for the little one to cry most of the day.
With her cap on and this scar in the holiday chalet park we were staying, which had also seen better days, Ileana looked touchingly like a child from those charity appeals for Romanian orphanages in the nineties, which I remember well because some of them were filmed in my home town.
The chalet had a sweeping view over a field and the Swale, and was close to the beach, which made the intermittent electricity, dead internet connection, faulty shower, and bad food feel worthwhile.
The food is bad in Leysdown except for the Dining Room, which is rather the point. Indeed, we travelled all the way to Sheerness and we couldn’t find a meal without chips that wasn’t Indian or Chinese.
We also wanted oysters but couldn’t find any on the beaches or in the menus of the food establishments. At the garish Ferry House pub and hotel we went for breakfast so we didn’t ask. Not that we would have trusted such a simulacrum of overwrought generic Britishness to serve us fresh catch.
Apart from the Dining Room, the only remarkable thing to eat in Leysdown is served next door at the homonymous bakery: deep fried cheeseburger with relish, set in pastry.
The cavernous games arcades in Leysdown, reportedly some of the largest in the UK, also sell food but we were too mesmerised by the bright lights to feel like eating there.
We were wary of the Dining Room because from the outside it looks like an upscale garage or a discreet tailor’s. I walked past several times thinking, because of its name, that it must be one of those high street function halls that have to get food catered in for weddings because they don’t have permanent kitchen staff.
I remained circumspect even after the girl pulling pints at the Rose and Crown a few doors down told me we should try it because it’s “the best and poshest sit-down dinner place on the island; Indianish.”
A process of elimination ultimately led us to the Dining Room, after a day when we had leftover chips for breakfast and chips for lunch. We went in without a booking after two hours walking in a field. My daughter was still in awe of a hare she saw running away from us. We had left Brutus home to rest and half wished to be turned away so we could join him.
But we weren’t, thank God.
We were invited to sit in the bar areas while the waiters set our table. To drink my wife had a double gin and tonic and I had a double Jameson, no ice, as usual, plus a pint of draught Cobra to properly open the appetite. Ambiental music en sourdine was not always loud enough to cover the other diners’ occasional burps. We skipped the starters (a bad move in hindsight). She went for a tiger prawn curry which she found well put together but too sweet for her taste, and I ordered the grilled lamb chops. They were still a bit bloody inside, just like I like them, and well spiced. In proof that the chef didn’t mind venturing beyond Indian food, and recalling the pub barmaid’s “ish” remark, the lamb came with pilau rice as well as creamy mushrooms and spinach, and a third side of roasted vegetables. The Peshawari naan brimmed with coconut and was the best I ever ate, anywhere.
For desert, ice cream and gulab jamun, above decent but not brilliant. The waiter was late with the bill so we paid at the bar – £90 by card and a fiver as a tip. He had offered me a second pint, which I accepted and finished before he disappeared from the room, and it crossed my mind he was avoiding me because he feared I’d ask for a third.
I took the bones home to Brutus in a poo bag I had in my back pocket. Take it from a man who likes to think he knows his meat, his drink, and his eateries – the Dining Room deserves the Michelin star I’ve since read its owner telling local media he wanted. But I fear receiving it might harm Leysdown’s reputation.