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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Grace Dent

Sète, Margate, Kent: ‘They’ve completely nailed the Parisian wine bar vibe’ – restaurant review

Warm, pleasing, straightforward: Sete, Margate.
Sète, Margate, Kent: ‘Warm, pleasing, straightforward.’ Photograph: Matthew Hague/The Guardian

February in blowy Margate, and I enjoyed the seafront like a convalescing Victorian, drank coffee at the new Cafe Louie on Sea at the Turner Contemporary, savoured a dreamy sunset and wondered why I didn’t come here more often.

Margate’s demographic and its food scene may have shifted a fair bit over the past decade, but this Kentish seaside town will never be like gorgeous but airy-fairy Aldeburgh or Southwold. Yes, modern Margate is far prettier than it used to be, but it will never be prettified to that hyper-real state that happens when seaside towns go posh and end up finding themselves swimming in £7 sausage rolls, with the locals all sold up and the newcomers working on watercolour exhibitions. Modern Margate is certainly a bit “let’s go to see the new Tracey Emin, then pop by Angela’s for a small plate of turbot head brawn with pickles”, but it’s also still very much Chas Hodges rhyming “buckets and spades and cossies and all” with “fill of jellied eels at the cockle stall”, and if you come here to “summer” in 2024, there will still be a brutalist 1960s tower block overlooking the beach.

‘Star of the show’: the tempura pumpkin, served at Sete, Margate.
‘The star of the show’: Sète’s tempura pumpkin. Photograph: Matthew Hague/The Guardian

The restaurant Sète is a short walk from the town centre in Cliftonville and began life just over a year ago as a “Parisian-inspired wine bar”, a mood that owner and manager Natalia Ribbe has well and truly nailed. As you approach the door, you see a dewily candlelit, informal room filled with customers perched on stools and supping their choices from the handwritten specials blackboard. Nothing fancy or remotely intimidating, but still elegant, which those Frenchies are so very good at.

Ribbe, who is not French but German/American, could have stopped there, because she’d taken a former sweet shop and turned it into a marvellous place to drink pet nat “à la orange” with perhaps a plate of anchovies on toast. Job done. However, she then went on to open a 40-seater restaurant in the back room with food by Billy Stock, formerly of St John and the Marksman in London. Stock’s menu is French-leaning, too, with pungent, sweet confit garlic and goat’s curd stuffed into vol-au-vents, braised squid on olive toast with puddles of vibrant aïoli and slices of thick, creamy, lardon-bejewelled tartiflette. Everything is served as small sharing plates, but still very much hangs together well as a meal.

‘The best thing on the menu’: Sète’s chicken schnitzel with Cafe de Paris butter.
‘The best thing on the menu’: Sète’s chicken schnitzel with Cafe de Paris butter. Photograph: Matthew Hague/The Guardian

The best thing on the menu – or, indeed, perhaps on any menu I’ll eat this year, and it’s only February – is Stock’s chicken schnitzel, there in honour of Ribbe’s heritage. The tender schnitzel, robed in crunchy breadcrumbs, is served with a whopping quenelle of Café de Paris butter, though Stock’s version is like a steroid-riddled curry sauce mated with a buttercream ganache.

Sète has few fancy bells and whistles; it is a warm, pleasing, straightforward room decorated in creams and browns, and reminds me of the 70s, when Britain still loved beige and tapioca. What the place does have, however, is the winning combination of Ribbe at the helm and Stock on the stoves. Ribbe is a natural, effusive host, flitting from back room to front room with ease, and bringing together all corners of the bar and restaurant.

Stock, meanwhile, is plainly a very good cook who adds breathtaking depth to even the simplest dishes. Take his curried lamb mince with turnips. “Let’s order the lamb mince – that sounds delicious!” said no one ever, because in the wrong hands lamb mince is bad school canteen shepherd’s pie or, at its very worst, salty stodge, but here Stock makes it multilayered, sweet, herby, spicy and fragrant, and serves it with small, peeled, softened baby turnips.

Sète’s choux bun pudding comes stuffed to the brim with rhubarb and custard.
Sète’s choux bun pudding comes stuffed to the brim with rhubarb and custard. Photograph: Matthew Hague/The Guardian

There’s also a deftly dressed, crunchy salad laden with king crab and, for me, the star of the show, pumpkin in tempura with a pesto-like pumpkin-seed dressing and a lot of grated parmesan. Yes, it turns out you can batter and deep-fry a pumpkin, and we are fools not to have done so until now. On the evening I visited, a choux bun filled with sweet vanilla custard and a layer of stewed forced rhubarbcalled to me from the short pudding list.

Sète is small, unshowy and just a little away from Margate’s main drag, so it may well be overlooked by daytrippers. But if you’re in the know and down here to catch some art at TKE Studios or some waves once the days grow warmer, this is the place to reserve a table, check if the schnitzel is on and soak in the ambience of the costa del Kent.

  • Sète 238 Northdown Road, Margate, Kent, 01843 606007. Open dinner only, Weds & Thurs, 6-9pm, Fri 6-9.30pm, Sat 4-9.30pm. About £40 a head à la carte, plus drinks and service

  • This article was edited on 9 February 2024, to clarify that Natalia Ribbe is now the sole owner of the restaurant

Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is back for its sixth season on Tuesday 13 February. Tune in here.

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