On the High Street in Whitstable, less than five minutes walk from the still working fishing harbour, the restaurant is painted pink and blue so can hardly be missed. Squeeze inside and the you'll find the following: shop counter is in the front, the dining room in the middle, and the kitchen is out back. Beyond the kitchen is the yard and at the back of the yard are the toilets. But since walking through the kitchen is not allowed, to use the toilets requires you to exit the restaurant, turn left followed by another left and then enter the third door down the alley (also painted blue). This would be a miserable journey in the rain, and even when dry, with the yard full of empty packaging and rubbish, it's hardly a blast.
The dining room is tiny, and set up broadly as three tables of four and a table of two. However, there's insufficient space in fact even for that, and two of the tables for four are necessarily pushed together so making it a table of eight. It feels like you've squeezed into a domestic space rather than a real restaurant and Come Dine With Me and Restaurant in Your Home come to mind, though we're praying the food will be somewhat better.
For £5 however there is also listed '1/2 a dozen rocky oysters', though if you want '1/2 A dozen rocky oysters with sauce mignonette' that bumps the price up to £6.75, perhaps a deliberate policy of social engineering. Unsurprisingly then, ours come with only a wedge of lemon.
So far so good, nothing spectacular but a decent start.
For fish restaurants on the sea front, one obvious style is to keep it basic and let the fish shine in its fresh simplicity. Plates might look modest, but the great flavours of the sea more than compensate the diner. The second style is to go full on clever and work some kitchen magic into the ingredients, a style best exemplified by Nathan Outlaw's award winning seafood restaurant in Rock. Sadly, Wheeler's does something that lies midway between the two and suffers badly for it.
There's a natural elegance to a whole fish brought to the table as the centre piece to a plate, but here, lemon sole (complete with bones) is smothered in the cream sauce, with everything piled on top of everything else. The food is not too bad in itself but it does lack refinement, so does little to tempt the diner. Bone removal from the lemon sole is difficult when the fish is buried under the rest of the menu, and while the lobster claw placed between my two lasagne hills is out of the shell, the cartilage is left in. It was only last week that we saw Monica Galetti upbraiding the weaker contestants on Masterchef The Professionals on this very issue. If you're offering the basics, it's fine (and understandable), but in a more ambitious kitchen, which, from the menu, this must be considered, it seems amateur. So where does that leave Wheelers?
Taste-wise, the food was okay but never stunning for it lacked depth, while busy plates can smother not only the appearance of the dish but also that extra something that quayside eating is supposed to bring. These mains were anywhere mains and if there is something special about the fish sourced by Wheelers in Whitstable, it was sadly lost by the time it reached us.
If the food had been brilliant, a cramped dining room sandwiched between a shop counter and the kitchen with an outside toilet might have seemed delightfully eccentric, but with terrible service and mediocre food, the sum total left us shrugging our shoulders and declaring 'you win some, you lose some', and today we felt we had lost.
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