With a week booked at a cottage down in Padstow it would be difficult to avoid visiting at least one Rick Stein's four establishments (not to mention both an eponymous patisserie and deli) in this picturesque North Cornish port. Time/budget constraints meant we had to skip the original seafood restaurant and St Petroc's bistro, but we did manage to fit in visits to both his fish and chip restaurant and Cafe.
Stein's Fish and Chips is located on Padstow's South Quay, between his Seafood School and Deli, luckily just a short stroll downhill from where we were staying. And after a very long and very warm journey down the M5, on the hottest October day on record, a cold beer and hot fish supper felt like a just reward.
The restaurant is open plan, allowing you to see through the takeaway area next door, and features traditional tiled counters and walls with shared wooden bench seating. This is a bright, noisy, busy space and not a quiet spot to linger over your meal. We managed to nab a couple of stools up at the window, with views out onto the quayside.
As well as Sharp's flagship Doom Bar bitter (you can see out towards the legendary Doom Bar sand bank from the quayside) they also stock bottles of Chalky's Bark/Bite, named in honour of Stein's late Jack Russell. The Bite packs a punch at 6.8%, with the flavour of wild fennel giving it an unusual edge that works nicely with fish, while the Bark has a lower ABV and the subtle taste of fresh ginger.
Fish is served straight out of the paper box, although they do provide proper cutlery for those who don't want to get there fingers greasy. The Ewing chose hake while I picked cod, the Southern chip shop classic. Flavour wise the hake was lovely, but I found it's texture a little soft; the cod broke into beautiful, pearly flakes that were perfectly cooked. The fish and chips come cooked in dripping, which gives everything a glorious golden colour and a lovely savoury edge.
Peas, tartare sauce pickles, etc are extra and come in little polystyrene pots. Peas were fine, and reassuringly green-grey, rather than an alarming luminous shade. Tartare sauce was the proper wobbly homemade stuff, and a luscious golden hue. I ended up using the chips as a vehicle to get as much of the glorious stuff in my mouth as I could manage.
I quite liked the basic 'chippy' presentation, but the prices don't necceasrily refect the humble
surroundings, and at nearly a tenner a pop, plus any extras, this isn't the cheapest fish supper you will ever enjoy. Having said that it could be one of the nicest; most of the fish and seafood is locally caught and, for the health concious among us, can also be served grilled as well as fried. And seeing beer batter and beef dripping in the same sentence can surely never be a bad thing.
Rick Stein's Cafe is set away from the harbour on Middle Street. I enjoyed a lovely lunch a few years ago and was looking forward to returning. Thankfully not too much has changed; inside combines a casual, relaxed seaside atmosphere with stripped wooden floors and comfy bench seats featuring bright cushions that give the place a bit of a Moorish feel. Due to its popularity inside can become quite cramped and noisy, but there is also a small courtyard available for al fresco diners.
The cafe offers a simple seasonal menu with breakfast, lunch and dinner options, as well as coffee and cakes offered throughout the day. At lunchtime 'starters' can be made larger for an extra couple of pounds, and there is a good value three course dinner for £22. Of all the eateries in the Stein stable this seems like the best value - managing to combine pleasant surroundings, attentive service and good food at moderate prices.
I chose the grilled seabass with lemongrass, spiced paste, katchcumber and steamed rice. The sea bass had been boned and stuffed with the spiced paste, before being tied together with string and grilled until the skin became wonderfully crispy and chewy at the same time.
Although the feisty spices were very liberally applied the fish stood up to them, and was complimented by the refreshing salad and comforting rice. This was a bold plate of food that could have possibly done with a dash less spice paste on the fish and citrus in the salad, but the heat and bright flavours certainly pleased a chilli head like myself.
Despite almost being swayed by the moule frites and a glass of wine for a tenner the Ewing went down a classic Mediterranean route; grilled hake with thinned mayonnaise, cannellini beans, capers and tarragon. This was a lovely, fresh dish. The creamy beans, sweet fish and late summer tomatoes working against the punch of the capers and anise notes from the tarragon.
To finish we shared the sunken chocolate cake served with a big jug of pouring cream. The cake was dense and fudgy with a sweet nuttiness from ground almonds, but also retained a bitter cocoa note which was tempered by the glorious lake of rich cream poured over the top.
After mains, cake and a few glasses of Ricks 'Spanish White' from Castilla-Leon, our 'light' lunch was rounded off with double espressos and cantucci biscuits to help give us energy for the sightseeing ahead.
We also made whistle stops to both the Deli on the quayside (a sad looking variety of fish late on a Friday, but a good selection of 'world' food as well as plenty of local treats) and the Patisserie in town.
As well as the obligatory kitchen knick-knacks and souvenirs on offer here there's some lovely locally baked bread and cakes as well as traditional steak pasties, and even an intriguing sounding haddock version.
So, while there is far more to this charming fishing town than just Rick's empire, you could do a lot worse than enjoy some local Cornish fish with a Stein twist. (And his range of handmade truffles, especially the peanut ones, are pretty moreish too...)