A Trip to Cornwall
Those Asians who are on their way to London for the London Olympics might want to take a bit of time away from the games to journey to Cornwall to sample Rick Stein’s ‘The Seafood Restaurant’ in Padstow. I have wanted to go there for years and, having finally satisfied this longstanding curiosity, I have been vacillating about a review for months because of reservations over rating those who are exceedingly successful and cooking celebrities enjoying immense commercial success.
There is the reality of over-expectation and the likelihood is to be highly critical and over-reactive, perhaps to the point of losing objectivity. Objectivity is the key and a grasp of how demanding are the throngs of worshipping diners from all corners of the world in what is arguably the biggest tourist attraction in Cornwall, if not all southern England.
I would like to say from the outset, our dining experience was most enjoyable and not only were my expectations met and curiosity fulfilled, in my opinion Stein’s team over-delivered in all respects.
To quantify this, splitting the experience into three definitive facets; service, food and ambience, I am encompassing our own dining encounter and my observations around the room of other guests and their contentment.
Dealing with service first and putting the challenge in perspective, this is Sunday lunch in the middle of July, the peak of the English summer (of course it was raining and decidedly cool) and Padstow is heaving with tourists.
The restaurant was bursting full as it is seven days a week, with hardly a break between lunch and dinner service and you could absolve any waiter from mental and physical fatigue through overexposure to humanoids and the monotonous revolving door of tourist hordes.
Most front-of-house staff has some reprieve in human relations through regular diners, building up a rapport with loyal diners and evolving relationships of mutual respect.
Not so here, with not an indigenous Cornish diner in site. I looked around the room at a kaleidoscope of cultures, largely foreigners (mind you anyone north of Bude is considered alien in these parts) and a few large tables of what I assume, by their accents, were Londoners on summer holiday.
And not only are they here for a transcendent seafood experience, there’s a palpable sense that they all feel they are part of a privileged fraternity with a self-imposed kinship and concomitance to Rick Stein and no table or person is more important than they.
However, the front of house staff take all this in their stride and looking around the room all I see is contentment and intensification of conversation as lunch roles on, all adding to the theatre and pulsation of conviviality.
As an aside, this was not the case with our dining experience a few weeks earlier across the channel at Le Jules Verne Restaurant at the Tour de Eifel, Paris, an equal tourist magnet although it was the antithesis of our experience at Rick Stein’s, marred by surly, condescending service.
Our designated service staff handled our large table expertly and impeccably with a genuine friendliness and tolerance; if you imagine how easily agitated a table comprising a veteran sommelier and waiter, a well-heeled and worldly Korean woman with her equally well-travelled parents in tow, an English husband (thankfully a calm and collected banker with deep pockets) and our two respective well-looked-after daughters.
In part our contentment was due to the speed in which our bottle of Faiveley Rully Blanc arrived, the waiter well tuned-in to the fact we did not want pre-lunch drinks but obviously we were in need of a drink and that getting that first glass of wine sorted was strategic. So many restaurants fail in the simple basics of settling people in to their dining experience, and one sure way to aggravate a diner is a dry argument.
Another over-expectation that seafood restaurants face is the diner’s assumption that the menu will be elaborate and dishes intricate, although as with any great produce, it is the chef’s expertise in sourcing the very best, freshest (fish and seafood) and technique to maximise the flavors and textures with a necessary degree of restraint and ability to subtly enhance but not adulterate such great core ingredients.
In Stein’s own words, “Nothing is more exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked.” And yet the menu at The Seafood Restaurant is far from orthodox (classic European?) and reflects Stein’s far-flung travels and adventures, captured so vividly in his television programs and cookbooks.
Stein’s menu transports you all over the gastronomic planet with tantalizingly Asian-influenced dishes like Sashimi of Scallop, Salmon, Sea Bass and Brill - Singapore Chilli Crab - Salt and Pepper Squid, Line Caught from Sennen Cove. Or his interpretations of classic French dishes like Bouillabaisse with Sea Bass, Monkfish, Gurnard, Langoustines and Mussels - “Fruits de Mer,’’ Seafood in the French style, all left in the shell and served on ice with mayonnaise and shallot vinegar, mussels, clams, brown crab, lobster, langoustines, whelk, winkles, scallops, oysters, velvet crab and native prawns.
Conversely, appealingly simple and decidedly local offerings such as Falmouth Native Oysters caught from traditional sailing boats - Local Cod, Chips and Tartare Sauce - Padstow Lobster either grilled with fines herbs or steamed with mayonnaise.
We ordered several entrees, sharing among ourselves classic Mussels Meuniere that compared admirably to our own catch of Helford River mussels that week; Lobster Risotto, Salmon Tartare, Fish and Shellfish Soup with Rouille and Parmesan, and Seared Scallops and Ibérico Ham with Pimentón and Pardina Lentils, all excellent and the scallops particularly good.
For mains, while ordering separately, we all decided to go for the local catch; Hake, Tuna, Black Bream and for the most, simply grilled. The accompaniments we ordered, Melange of Vegetables, Carrots and Minted New Potatoes were perfectly cooked, the potatoes so good we had to order a second round.
For myself I ordered Whole Dover Sole Meunière with noisette butter, dusted with flour and fried in an oval pan with childhood memories of flounder fishing at night with a Tilley lamp and spear back in New Zealand.
Cooking whole flounder or sole is not at all easy in terms of turning the fish and keeping it all intact, and I normally resort to using a heavy pan-frying one side and finishing in the oven drizzled with Seresin Estate lemon-infused olive oil (http://www.seresin.co.nz/oil/seresin.php).
My Sole Meunière was cooked and presented to perfection and the sweetness of the fish enriched by the noisette butter, yet balanced by the lemon tang, was immaculate and went brilliantly with our Pieropan Soave Classico, the quintessential fish wine.
And on that note, the wine list is extensive and yet very user-friendly with Stein’s personal touch with comments and anecdotes on his favourites. It is an intelligent and eclectic selection favouring crisp and refreshing whites, as it logically should be however it is a commendably broad range and global representation that has something for everyone, both in regional diversity and price.
There is homage to legendary Australian wine man, Len Evans, with a range of his Tower Estate wines and one can sense Stein’s affinity with Australia in the multitudes of wines from here and his intimate notes. Also from the Antipodes, and a reflection of Stein’s well-travelled palate, two of New Zealand’s best pinot noirs are featured, Felton Road and Two Paddocks, with a personal note of recommendation on Sam Neill’s wine.
Gazing around the room you can sense all are gratified and there is an Indian family at the table next to us tucking into, with considerable zeal I might add, what looks like a double order of Fruits de Mer. Their children seem fascinated by this array of seafood which prompts me to highlight that is a most congenial menu and dining space for children of all ages, although above 3 years old in line with the restaurant’s booking policy.
Another table next to us up to their armpits in Singapore Chilli Crab, indeed most amusing for us Singapore-based expats who take pleasure in inflicting this dining conundrum on international visitors; on the one hand gastronomic bliss yet on the other physically exhausting and about as messy as eating gets at the table.
Jill Stein has created a wonderfully bright and airy dining ambience, clean lines and modern design, an open–plan space punctuated by a large round bar in the centre of the room and if you had no luck getting a booking, I would most definitely be jockeying for a position at the bar where they take walk-ins; actually I’d be happy propped up here even with a booking if a couple or on your own, amongst the oyster shucking action.
There are arousing contemporary seafood and indulgently themed art pieces adorning the walls and an impressive school of fish sculpture, as you would expect of a celebrity seafood chef and no doubt each piece tells a story. And that is in essence what The Seafood Restaurant is encapsulates; Rick Stein and a continuing story of discovery.
All that go to Padstow know this; it is a premeditated pilgrimage to a shrine of seafood and I believe a powerful census of the bourgeoning interest in wholesome, genuinely regional produce and a down to earth dining experience.
People in droves, of their own volition, are attending the Stein’s Seafood Cooking School where they can learn everything from the basics of filleting fish to cooking a Malaysian Crab Omelette. I want to go there myself and spend a whole week at the school!
And that in essence is what Padstow is all about now; you could easily spend a week here, eating your way through Stein’s restaurants, cafes, bistros and Pub, and they can put you up too with some 40 rooms of accommodation in different Inn’s, houses and cottages.
There is Rick Stein Fish and Chips on the South Quay, “... somewhere you can wander in, choose your fish and wait while it cooks.” Rick Stein's Café in Middle Street, the sort of place that you can drop in for a full cooked breakfast, light lunch or three-course dinner but in a relaxed ambience, but also a showcase for many of Stein’s cookbook recipes that are featured on ‘cookbook evenings’ every Tuesday. Also next door is Stein Gift Shop selling jewellery, ceramics, cushions, linen, glass, tableware and lots of beautiful gifts that Jill Stein has found on her travels.
St Petroc’s Bistro in New Street is more about classic European bistro dishes, perhaps a welcome balancing act to being over-fished if you are around Padstow for several days with dishes like Coarse pork and herb terrine, From the grill, A selection of cured meat, Warm salad of pigeon breast with watercress, potatoes and walnut oil dressing, 28 day dry-aged Aberdeen Angus and Charolais cross 16oz chateaubriand with pommes coq d’or, bordelaise sauce – and there’s plenty of fish and seafood featured, for the palegic obsessed.
Then there’s the Stein’s Deli, an Aladdin’s Cave of wonderful produce should you not be able to get a table at The Seafood Restaurant. Also there is Stein’ Patisserie in Lanadwell Street with a wide range of freshly baked bread, pastries, and cakes, all homemade by them in Padstow.
Further afield there’s the Cornish Arm’s in the village of St Merryn just outside of Padstow serving up excellent British Pub fair and beer from St Austell Brewery, and the Seafood Bar above Rick Stein's Fish and Chips at Discovery Quay, Falmouth, a sort of English Seafood Tapas Bar where the original owner chef Ripley is back running the place for the Stein’s.
Yes, it’s an empire by most restaurateur standards however befitting, if not heroic, of a person who has written 16 cookery books and made ten cookery programmes. And speaking of heroes, Stein ‘Food Heroes’ is my favourite food television series and book period, encapsulating all my beliefs and the most profound sermon of how we need to rediscover and support what is so good about food and artisan producers. Not to mention I had four Jack Russell’s of my own – the smartest four legged companion on the planet.
I am sure many of you have been glued to his television programmes, Rick Stein's Spain, Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey, Mediterranean Escapes and French Odyssey and have all his cookbooks and DVD’s. He is one of the most charismatic television chef’s in the world, but not because of any trumped up reality TV showmanship, but a genuine magnetism to his incredible passion for food and natural plainspoken approach and pragmatic elucidation of gastronomy, travel and adventure.
What Stein and his ex-wife Jill have achieved in creating this food and travel experience is nothing short of extraordinary and I hope the blueprint for many more chefs and restaurateurs to help not only local, rural communities rediscover the worth and potential, but serve as cultural learning experience for all of us.
Rick Stein received the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2003 New Year Honours list for services to tourism in Cornwall, a great acknowledgement of his efforts and he is arguably the most influential chef and produce ambassador in the UK – and I would have thought worthy of Knight Grand Cross.
I have just watched the video on Stein’s website which not only has me hankering to go back to Padstow and Cornwall but is the best way to meet all of Stein’s chefs and the team effort.
Overall, my experience at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant was most memorable and I think very good value at 330 pounds stirling for seven of us. Certainly can’t wait until we get back to Cornwall and will assuredly be taking in more of Padstow.
For more stories on the Wandering Palate in Cornwall, follow the links: