Published: 05:00, 14 October 2021
When KentOnline ran a feature about Ramsgate recently, one of those commenting left this cheerful little piece of advice "once you find yourself in a part of Ramsgate where you can't see the sea then you're in bandit country".
Believe everything someone commenting on a KentOnline story tells you, and you'd expect a trip to Thanet to involve picking your way through mounds of burning tyres, savage locals trying to knife you and wild dogs gnawing at the bones of a Down from Londoner who strayed off the beaten path.
It is a touch unfair. But there is no denying that behind the splendour of its sea-front architecture and magnificent marina, the former beating heart of Ramsgate's retail centre - namely its town centre - is a little, well, let's call it 'authentic'.
It's seen better days; like all town centres across Kent, shops have upped and left (take a bow Westwood Cross), or simply fallen over as we switch our method of retail therapy from strolling the streets to surfing the web.
But it's a wide, pedestrian-friendly, town centre which still manages to deliver a pretty decent range of outlets within walking distance for those who still prefer to hand over their cash face-to-face. And should you want a juice for your vape, place a bet or get your mobile phone fixed, well you're in luck.
Where better, therefore, to venture upon a Saturday afternoon than into 'bandit country' in pursuit of something to eat?
There's certainly no shortage of options - the place is teeming with fast food outlets to restaurants suiting every pocket and getting progressively cheaper the further from the main tourist thoroughfare you get.
Frankly, there's a time and a place for a greasy pile of chips or kebab. But today isn't one of them. The weather is mild and bright, a night drinking in the local pubs awaits, and what I'm after is something tasty. Properly tasty, not coated in mayonnaise or chilli sauce tasty.
Enter the Zest Café and Cocktail Bar. I can't imagine the bandits eat here. Not, that is, unless they want to count their ill-gotten gains over a plate of vegan tortilla chips. I'm not judging here. Perhaps they do.
But let's assume they don't.
We arrive about an hour before it shuts up shop for the day. It's small with a handful of tables - all of which are separated by those big perspex screens we have become familiar with in these pandemic times - and you could, should you so desire, perch on a seat outside and soak up the last of the autumn sun while watching the "feral locals" (copyright, another KentOnline commenter).
The plan is for a quick bite to eat and a cocktail - a rare treat as a. I resent paying a small fortune for one drink and, b. a cocktail should be a well prepared thing of beauty which prevents the first point being the key memory.
The cocktail menu is sizeable and amid the classic mojitos and daiquiris of this world there are the likes of a Pornstar Martini 'Milf Edition' (I don't ask) and a You're Hot Honey (which sounds like a sort of alcoholic Lemsip).
We plump for The Chai Life - rum, homemade vanilla chai syrup, aperol and lemon. They would be £6.50 each but buy two of the same and they're a tenner for two. I'm already liking this place.
And they are magnificent concoctions. Frankly, I could sit and drink these all day. They pack a kick, but the main thing is they taste delightful and are served up looking like how a cocktail should - namely that someone has just mixed the individual ingredients, shaken and served it with care and attention to detail.
For food, I opt for the 'Pine Apple' salsa (it has pineapple and apple in it - see what they did there?) halloumi wrap. I don't know who heads the halloumi marketing board (assuming such a thing exists), but they surely deserve some sort of medal. It feels like you can't move for an halloumi-inspired dish at the moment. Even Wetherspoon offers halloumi fries to soak up its cheap pints. All of which is handy, as I'm rather partial to it.
I'm offered fries or salad to accompany it. Does anyone really order the salad? Anyway, I don't.
The dish arrives about 10 minutes later - the wraps looking like they have just completed the London Marathon - wrapped tightly in silver foil. The fries looking, if truth be told, a little unappealing.
But, like Ramsgate, a knee-jerk reaction isn't what is required here.
The fries may look a bit lack lustre, but they are, in fact, crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle. A fine chip, in other words.
But what of the wrap? Stripped of their bacofoil overcoats (keep them in for as long as you can if I were you as otherwise the filling can squirt out the end) they are extraordinarily fine creations. I must admit, I was intrigued to see what the pineapple and apple mix was going to be like. Pineapple would not be my first choice for a savoury dish - let the perils of it on a pizza being an example to us all. However, it truly lives up to the café's name...it is zesty with a lightness of touch which plays a merry dance across your tastebuds. The two fruits combine perfectly to elevate the flavour; the sweetness of the pineapple being kept under control by the deft sour tones of the apple. It gives it a really fresh ping too. The halloumi is soft and tender and well cooked.
Oh, and the wrap itself is thin - so complements rather than acts as an overbearing distraction to the filling.
Should those nasty old bandits want the aforementioned vegan tortilla chips - and you get a mountain of the things - I am reliably informed they're top notch too (although the £8 price tag may eat into their profit margins).
In short, it's a delicious dish. As for the café itself? Well, it's relatively unremarkable but the staff are attentive and friendly. They also bring a glass of water, complete with slice of lemon over to you to accompany your meal, which is a nice touch. It's closing up by the time we exit - but there is no shooing us out of the door.
As we head out into the wild west that is Ramsgate, we spend a night on the town (and not, I might add in Wetherspoon's behemoth by the marina). We see no fights. We see no trouble. We do, however, see a lively town with an awful lot going for it; if you can park your Thanet prejudices before you get there.
Ratings out of 5
Food: Nice range of tasty treats - lots of veggie and vegan options and there's meat on there too for the carnivores *****
Drink: Cafés and cocktails make unlikely bedfellows - but the ones we tried were top notch *****
Decor: In a word? Plain and nothing to write home about. Pretty and welcoming exterior. ***
Staff: Friendly and cheerful. ****
Price: Strategic buying of the cocktails, mean you can get a meal and cocktail for £13.50 each. A bargain, given the quality. *****