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Address: Unit 8 / Jetty 5 / Chatham Quays / Dock Head Road / Chatham / Kent / West Yorkshire / England / ME4 4ZJ / Tel: 01634 893726

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      16.04.2010 12:28
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      Highly recommended for a casual meal out

      Zippers is a fairly new brand by Richoux, owners of a vaguely anonymous upmarket French café/restaurant chain in the smarter parts of London. Quite why they felt the way forward was to branch out into mid-range Italian fare on an oasis of regeneration surrounded by a not-particularly-nice area of Kent is anyone's guess, but here it is in Chatham Maritime all the same.

      First impressions are perplexing. The logo is oddly Seventies-retro and more suggestive of a bar than a restaurant. This is also true of the name. I've been trying - and failing - to puzzle out the thought process that led to an Italian restaurant being called 'Zippers'. Maybe the person responsible was just a big fan of 'Airplane!'. Who can say?

      Inside, it doesn't get much less peculiar. This is truly a décor of two halves. On the one side is a bar-slash-open kitchen running the full length of the room. The bar is rather dramatic, with stepped mirrored display shelving, the largest coffee machine I have ever seen and plenty of polished granite. In front of the bar, though, is a bizarre row of floor-to-ceiling slanted glass panels which seem to serve no purpose other than to keep the great unwashed away from the bar and annoy the serving staff as there is only one narrow gap in the panels for them to get through. It does look stunning though, and certainly is a talking point.

      On the other side of the room is the seating area, which is rather less stunning. Veneered tables, giant plants, wide floor-to-ceiling office-style Venetian blinds (shudder), oddly incongruous Indonesian teak-style staff stations, single gerberas in vases, generic art on the walls... you can almost hear the designer saying "no, sorry, I used up all my imagination on the greenhouse in the bar. Just go to Argos and pick out the least hideous stuff you can find". This is a shame, as the first impression is rather let down by the second.

      This continues in the toilets. At first glance, these are rather nicely done, with space-age hand dryers (I liked these very much), fashionably large wall tiles and Corian basin shelves. Until, that is, you notice that everything is made of plastic - even the tiles, which have the appearance of cheap ceramic, so cheap ceramic would have done just as well. Corian costs around £400 per square metre; there are only three toilets (one of which is for disabled customers) with barely two square metres in each, so why not stump up the extra for the real thing? One can only hope that the idea was to have something hard-wearing - Corian does chip easily - and easy-clean, and they've certainly achieved that since it was spotless, and this was at 9.30 on a Friday evening.

      On to the menu. There's nothing particularly unusual here, apart from some peculiar additions such as shepherd's pie and fish and chips. There are sections for starters, risotto, pasta, pizza, house specials - including peri-peri chicken (that well-known Italian dish) and steak - burgers and fish; with one or two exceptions, there won't be anything here that you haven't seen before. This isn't a bad thing, though - I'm not sure a place like Carluccio's would fit in well here, and even for those more adventurous souls it can sometimes be nice to know to expect on your plate.

      There is a good selection for vegetarians, with two risotto dishes, five pastas, five pizzas and two salads to choose from. There are a couple of dishes which are vegetarian apart from the parmesan, but they are happy to make them without where possible. I did like the sound of the Arancini risotto (fried rice balls), a dish which I have never seen in a restaurant before, but was rather less than impressed by the veggie burger, which is a Portobello mushroom. This annoys me on two levels: firstly, a mushroom is not a burger; if you put it in a bun, it becomes a mushroom in a bun, but still not a burger. Secondly, I am always disappointed when restaurants fall into the trap of thinking "You are vegetarian. Therefore you must eat mushrooms". I loathe mushrooms - not to mention aubergines and goats' cheese - and always have, so my heart always sinks a little when I glance at a menu which is unimaginatively heavy on these ingredients. Mind you, things have improved a lot. When I stopped eating meat thirteen years ago, you got a veggie lasagne if you were lucky - I remember many meals out which consisted of a side salad and a bowl of chips.

      There is a dessert menu with the usual chocolate fudge cake, apple pie, ice cream, cheesecake and token tiramisu. The drinks menu is also fairly standard, with a decent selection of wine, soft drinks, juices, liqueurs - including limoncello, which is to be avoided at all costs as it is evil, evil stuff - coffees and teas. If you want a beer, you're stuck with Nastro Azzurro and I was a little disappointed that there were no cocktails as I thought the styling of the bar would lend itself rather well to a Cosmopolitan or two, if only you could get anywhere near it.

      Menus can be found here:

      http://www.zippersrestaurant.co.uk/menu.php


      The menu may be unexceptional, but the food was excellent, which is so much better than the other way around. Highlights were:

      Calamari - I don't even like seafood, but this still smelled appetising to me. Apparently it tasted just as good. It was served in an amusing china bowl shaped to look like a newspaper cone (I'm easily entertained).

      Chicken risotto - risotto is so easy to get wrong, but this was just right. The chicken pieces were just on that cusp between moist and flaky, giving a nice contrast to the creamy rice.

      Fusilli with courgette - this was mine, so I can elaborate a little further. The courgette was cut into small strips and seared, so that it was slightly softened but still had some bite to it, and then cooked further in a garlic, chilli and cream sauce. The garlic was just hinted at and the chilli was tingly rather than hot (probably the best you can hope for with a cream sauce since capsaicin is fat-soluble, and I'm trying not to think about how much fat this dish contained). The dish is supposed to have parmesan in it, but they kindly made it without so that it would be vegetarian and I don't feel that it suffered for it; in fact, parmesan may have been rather overpowering, since none of the other ingredients came through particularly strongly. This leads to the rather pleasing conclusion that the chef may have adapted the dish to compensate for the missing ingredient rather than taking the easy route of simply excluding it. Either way, the flavours were perfectly balanced. The pasta was actually rotini, which has much tighter spirals than fusilli, so it held the thick, creamy sauce much better. I will be attempting to re-create this one at home!

      Chocolate fudge cake - well, we couldn't resist this despite being absolutely stuffed. Actually, it was a very good choice, as the cake was very light and the chocolate flavour not too sickly.

      Raspberry cheesecake - I didn't try any of this, but it disappeared pretty quickly.

      The service was perfectly adequate without being overbearing, and we had no complaints in this area. Any queries - these mostly had to do with me and my inconvenient vegetarianism - were handled quickly and efficiently, and the staff didn't seem to mind having to come back to our table three times before we were ready to order (it's been a while since we all got together!).

      For two-and-a-half courses (we shared two desserts between four of us) with a bottle of wine and a couple of rounds of soft drinks (but no coffees), the cost was £23 per head, not including service. For the amount and quality of the food, I think this is impressive. I've only been here once, but I am reliably informed that the quality is consistently good. It is also family-friendly, with a very reasonably-priced children's menu of main course, ice-cream and soft drink for £2.95 and the usual crayons and colouring books provided. There are no stairs anywhere, so it would be easily accessible with a pushchair or a wheelchair.

      We booked as it was a Friday night, but I would imagine that during the week this wouldn't be a problem. During the summer, I expect that it will be very busy at lunchtime; there is seating outside with views over the quay, so I can see it being popular when the weather is good. It's not a large place - perhaps fifteen tables - so it will fill up quickly at busy times.

      If I were rating it solely on the quality of the food and the service it would get five stars without question, but with the décor and the mushrooms being what they are, I'll give it four. I can see this restaurant becoming something of a regular haunt; I wouldn't necessarily go there for a special occasion, but for a casual family lunch or dinner with friends it is perfect.

      If you'd like to know more about the area and visitor attractions - including Dickens World and the Historic Dockyard - information can be found here:

      www.chatham-maritime.co.uk

      And here:

      www.chdt.org.uk

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