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We review: Essence

Each month our food reviewer Bibi Roy visits one of our hospitality partners to find out what members experience when they dine.  This February, Bibi heads to the exciting new Tunbridge Wells restaurant and TN partner, Essence at The Pantiles.  Atul Kochhar and Jitindar Singh thank members for supporting local with a complimentary glass of prosecco with their meal.


Back in 2019 an old friend by the name of Atul Kochhar began talking to me about the possibility of opening a restaurant in Tunbridge Wells. I started sending him details of available properties, none really fitting the bill until one day I found a longestablished business, fourteen years to be precise, situated at the bandstand end of The Pantiles. Bingo, we had found our site. Woods was well loved by many Twellians and has a special place in my heart. Why, because it is where I met my best friend who incidentally worked there for many years. 

At first Atul and partner Jeet were not sure, but I convinced them and they realised this would be a worthwhile labour of love. So much work was required and it would be several years and a pandemic that would almost scupper the whole thing. Pub In The Park, after Pub In The Park would go by with visitors asking, “are you ready to open yet”? Sadly we were no closer to getting an answer. The whole building needed fixing, but after careful negotiation, blood sweat and tears, Essence On The Pantiles finally opened on 7th February 2024.

Before opening day an exclusive launch party was announced with much of the town’s business owners, councillors, restaurant owners, chefs and influencers being invited. Lucky attendees were treated to superb canapés and menu samples of Punjabi samosas, chaat cones, seekh kebabs, paneer tikka, vegetable biryani, kosha mangsho and outstanding fish moilee, to name just a few of the dishes, each and every one an absolute joy on the palate. Goodness we were a lucky bunch that night.

Deciding to visit again with the toughest critic in the business, Mama Roy, we made our way through torrential rain and flooded streets across the Pantiles, back to the restaurant on the day after opening. Weekday lunch menu was on the agenda and we were very much looking forward to it. So, what did we try?

Firstly we were very warmly welcomed by owner Jeet, General Manager Roger and the lovely Diksha, who greeted us like old friends. Essence has already got many menus but with  two courses for £22 and three for £26, it was a no brainer.

Starting with a mixture of plain and spiced popadoms with excellent mango, tomato, (my favourite), and chilli chutneys, mum munched her way through a bowlful whilst perusing the extensive drinks menu. Their bar manager is a marvel and has curated one perfect selection that will please everyone.  After all of the perusing, mum decided she was still cold and ordered an Earl Grey tea. I was having none of it and tried one of their signature cocktails named Masala Fizz. White rum, garam masala syrup, mint, lime and prosecco top. It’s addictive!

Roger advised us that the idea of this lunch menu was to ensure patrons could have an enjoyable meal whilst not going back to their day feeling sluggish. Where one would normally have a small starter and larger main, possibly followed by a dessert, the format of our meal was slightly different, with the starter being larger than the main course. Bear in mind there are accompaniments with the main that make it perfectly acceptable. 

I chose the Gilafi, lamb seekh kebab, two fine spiced minced lamb kebabs coated with peppers, salad leaves and a green chutney. It was superb, very succulent and plenty enough for two. Heat on the lips but oh that mixture of spices. They definitely got this one right and I loved the chicken version on launch night too.  Mum chose Raj Kachori, a street food chaat splashed with chutneys that are housed in a giant crispy fried shell. Whilst familiar and comforting, the latter was difficult to get into with a fork, but after hilarious bashing with a spoon, she thoroughly enjoyed the flavours. It was quite funny watching others trying to get into it and we suggested they provide a little tabla hammer to tap the top as a little table theatre. You never know they might take us up on it, Diksha thought it was a great idea!

Next the Shahi Kofta, two large koftas pleasantly presented in a brass handi, drizzled with yogurt. These vegetable, beetroot and cheese dumplings had great texture and colour. We both asked for a tandoori roti to enable us to lap up all of the sauce. Neither of us are naan lovers and so appreciated the alternative recommendation from our host.

My Malabar Fish was pan-seared sea bass in a very good Malabar sauce, accompanied by a subtle beetroot and potato mash. I loved the crispy skin on the fish, the cooking spot on. Kuldeep, Head Chef has always been good at fish and this dish was very impressive. I could have done with another piece but as both main courses were complimented by chef’s choice of vegetable, which that day was saag, (spinach), corn and pulao rice the mains were more than adequate.

Dessert reminded us of those at Atul’s restaurant Kanishka. Pan-Asian influenced aiming to be crowd pleasers. No tacky penguin shaped ice cream in sight. Where do they even get those things anyway and does anybody actually eat them?! Apple Saffron Tart was mum’s choice. The best thing about this was the saffron brulee which she would have happily eaten on its own. I was trying to steal several spoonfuls, it was so moreish as my date pudding arrived. I realised through goggle eyes that every table around us was filled. What a positive response on their second day of opening. Back to that date pudding. On top was a whipped stem ginger ice cream full of crystallised ginger pieces, I love that and the drizzles of toffee sauce. The pudding was very light and easily hoofed down by this sweet tooth fairy.

Initially not being convinced with the menu format, we conceded that Roger was indeed right. The portion sizes were well planned. Who would want to go back to work or home feeling too full in the middle of the day?  Throughout the meal we praised our server Rahul who was very courteous and professional. In fact everyone impressed us. We also expected the noise levels to be high due to the vastness of the building, but this was not the case, they were very acceptable. Table spacing was generous and we liked how the main dining room, bar and upper floors for private dining were zoned. The designers are to be commended for the beautiful decor which flows marvellously.

For my next visit and to give more detail, I wanted to try some of the a la carte dishes. Kuldeep kindly sent me an amuse bouche that usually accompanies the tasting menu that starts next week. Quinoa salad had a spice punch, it was perfectly seasoned and calmed by a cute little cone of potato chaat. You can’t go wrong with these morsels. Love an amuse bouche me. Kuldeep then asked me to try Jalpariz, three hand-dived, baked scallops in a balchao spiced mix, pumpkin seeds podi. The scallops, served in a large shell, were chunky and perfectly cooked. They source from well known Chapmans. I felt the sauce overpowered these beauties and that they would be better seared with less of it. The quality was evident, therefore I was of the opinion that they should not mask such great flavour. I did enjoy the warmth on my lips though. Who needs filler!

With a tandoor in the kitchen I had to sample their mixed grill which included a selection of a fine lime scented king prawn, succulent lamb chop, damn that was good, chewed to the bone, a gigantic portion of mustard salmon, perhaps too big, I think I would prefer stone bass, but then I’d be at Jamavar! Lehsuni malai tikka and tulsi chicken tikka, perhaps I would have substituted with chicken seekh rather than two large pieces of chicken, all be it with different spices, I made the suggestion to Jeet. On the side of this a green chutney and baby leaf salad.  There is something about cooking over fire and in a tandoor that makes everything taste so much better. That unmistakable charring and smoke cannot be achieved by other means. 

Of the above I couldn’t fault the effort. It was a corker of a platter, my favourite most certainly being the lamb chop and prawn.  I thought paneer might be a good addition and the presence of acidity through a small pomegranate and mung shoot salad maybe. All feedback was taken with grace and noted. In the end I asked for some raita which did help dissipate the strong but very pleasant spicing.

After such a large main course I decided to take a break and chat with Kuldeep and Jeet. I have known both for some time now. You won’t meet nicer people in the industry. Jeet is a first class gent whom my mother has adopted as she can speak Bengali with him, a real plus point it being her mother tongue.

And so I reached the final leg. It was time for masala chai, “made the traditional way”. It was very refreshing and I am pleased to say they didn’t add any sugar, a good thing as I proceeded to order the gajar halwa mille-feuille with malted milk ice cream. What?!! This one was a goody. The halwa was lovely and soft, like squashed ladoos amidst flaky pastry. The malted ice cream just made it better bringing the whole dish together. This one is a keeper everyone.

Essence was much anticipated as it took so long to open. What the team have achieved here is fantastic. The space is stunning with nods to Indian tradition whilst reflecting the Georgian grandeur of this stunning listed building.  I am very proud to have been part of their journey and hope the community embrace them with open arms. Judging by the bookings and feedback the future looks bright. 

Congratulations Atul and Jeet, what a journey!

Words by Bibi Roy. Review exclusive to the TN card.


Member reward: Receive a complimentary glass of prosecco when dining in. Please show your membership card at the beginning of your meal. One per member.  More details here.

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