Travelling from place to place, from hotel to B&B to hotel means eating out all the time which can definitely be a mixed blessing. At each new town there is always the “adventure” of finding a suitable restaurant nearby for how one is feeling that night, for the type of town one is in. In Devon and especially in Cornwall the fishing industry means that eating fish is almost a necessity so over six nights I ate fish five times as well as having smoked salmon at breakfast with my scrambled eggs on some mornings. So, how did these meals compare? Two were some variation on the traditional “fish and chips” and the others were more sophisticated meals at more or less stylish restaurants.
My first fish & chips meal was at the Red Lion, Clovelly where we were staying for our first night. This would have to rate as average although I was not too fussed about that as I did not have any particular expectations that it would be anything other than a pub-style fish and chip meal. Nevertheless it did suffered from all the usual failings, from my perspective: too much of everything to start with. I know I don’t have to eat it all but I hate leaving food on my plate so this is not good for me. The chips were too big and the outside not crispy enough, the inside not soft and melty enough; the beer batter was much too heavy and there was way too much in proportion to amount of fish smothered in it; and finally the peas were too large and a bit too hard for me. It is necessary to be harsh as this is a strict assessment of quality.
Next up we moved majorly up-market at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant at Padstow. This was easily the nearest thing we came to full-on fine-dining on this trip. Kate started with half a dozen oysters before moving on to a Monkfish Vindaloo served with kachumber and raita salad, pilau rice and cumin puris while I went straight to a main (because I have the pudding) of Crisp Skinned Fillet of Stone Bass with a Symphony of Alliums (don’t ask me!), served with Cornish white crab meat, chargrilled spring onions, pickled shallots, caramelised leek purée and chive oil. As is often the case with this type of meal it was not entirely clear to me exactly what on my plate constituted what out of this long list of items. However it was very artistically presented in the contemporary style and certainly all tasted very nice. Kate really enjoyed her curry fish dish. Needless to say this was the most expensive meal of the entire trip.
Next up was the Porthminster Beach Café in St. Ives. This was almost literally a stone’s throw from our hotel that sat very high on the slope overlooking the beach which was all but deserted at that time of the evening. We were given a table looking directly out over the beach and the ocean. This place was a step or two down from Rick Stein’s in price and fineness of décor and the menu, although less extensive, offered similar complexity. Here Kate was not feeling like a full meal so chose the Thai Fish Cakes from the starters for a main while I had Baked Hake Fillet served with Celeriac Galette, a Salsa Verde Crust, Parma Ham and Almond Pate. This was the best hake that I have had since being in Britain although the comparison is only with South African hake purchased from Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall so perhaps not a particularly signal achievement.
Next up was a hotel restaurant meal at the Fowey Hotel, Fowey. This was a very traditional style hotel and restaurant at which there was an attempt to create a “club” atmosphere and style. We were provided with menus in the lounge bar prior to repairing to the restaurant and orders were taken there so that food could just appear once seated at table. Here I chose the fillet of salmon.
Now the thing is that oven-baked salmon fillet is one of my own signature dishes so there was a pretty high bar to clear and I am afraid they didn’t quite make it. Not that it was not quite good, just not excellent. (BTW: Did you appreciate the triple negative in that last sentence).
But that raises the question of just what makes food so especially good or bad. What arbitrariness of taste is deciding? I don’t watch Master Chef but I have eaten at a lot of different restaurants over the years and cooked many a meal myself. Isn’t it really the case that food can only be so nice or tasty? And what of our taste memories? Can we say that we have these or really only the memory that we had enjoyed a particular food consumption occasion? And with so many other factors influencing our memories of events how can we know that it isn’t these that conspire to shape these memories?
Enough of the philosophical reflections on the nature of sensation memory. I must move on to the final meal which was at a place called Simply Fish in Brixham a small fishing port on the southern coast of Cornwall a little south of Paignton. This was located in a street just off the harbour which was itself surrounded with tourist orientated shops and eateries that gave it the feel of a fairground but this business seemed to be able to pull off the difficult trick of providing good quality food at reasonable prices in a very casual atmosphere in which almost anyone could have felt comfortable. They had a fish and chip takeaway business running on one corner of the street and the sit down restaurant at the other corner. All this was owned by a local family fishery business called Roberts Fisheries which made us think of a business in Sydney such as Di Costi.
Kate went for the day’s special of Lemon Sole while I had the classic fish in batter with chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce. In addition, Kate started with oysters and I, of course, had a pudding instead. Suffice to say that this really was one of the best examples of fish and chips that I have had for a long time. The fish was delicious with a very light and crispy batter and the things is we had all of this at a price that was, if not a fraction of that at, say, Rick Stein’s, then at a third or a half the price. I realise, of course, that with a restaurant meal what you pay for is not just the food but the whole package of the restaurant itself, its style, ambience and comfort, the level of service and so on. Nevertheless my vote for the best overall fish meal of the trip was that at Simply Fish on a taste, enjoyment and value for money basis. For Kate, I think it was the Monkfish Curry at Rick Stein’s based purely on the taste.