Sunday 1 June 2014

Rick Stein's cafe

I don't blame restaurateur Rick Stein for the 'touristification' of Padstow. If I wanted to blame anyone, I might choose Sir Wyndham Portal. He chaired the London and South Western Railway company when it decided to extend its network into Padstow in 1899. As well as taking fish from the port and providing supplies to ships, it also made it much easier for visitors to arrive. Actually, it's been reported that local people cheered as the first train arrived, while a brass band played 'See The Conquering Hero Comes', so it seems many residents were pretty happy with the result.

Okay, so how about blaming John and James Herbert Cory? Their company started building Padstow's South Western Hotel (now the Metropole) just a year after the railway line was completed. Definitely an incitement to tourists. Or the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), whose golfing breaks at the Metropole undoubtedly added to the popular appeal of Padstow?

Or us, for coming here on holiday? On a previous visit we'd chatted to a life-long Padstow resident living opposite the cottage we'd rented. "Rick Stein is a very nice man and he's brought lots of jobs to the town", she told us. That's good enough for me. Besides, tonight we're booked into Rick's cafe for dinner.

The cafe is third in the list of restaurants on the Rick Stein website. First is The Seafood Restaurant, where it all began. Then there's St Petroc's Bistro, which isn't as fish-focussed. And after the cafe is Stein's Fish & Chip shop, which offers takeaway and sit-down food. (Pricing is similar to the chippy in the village where I live - and to local rival 'Chip Ahoy' - so no complaints from me.

It's fairly noisy as we enter the cafe at 8pm. The cafe makes a point of describing itself as 'family friendly' so it's hardly a surprise to see families with excited children. We're pretty excited ourselves, having eaten here before. A member of staff checks our reservation, seats us at our table and whispers "the crèche empties soon!" with a conspiratorial smile. Very nicely done.

Sure enough, the families with the youngest children are leaving before long. We order crusty bread with olive oil & balsamic vinegar and some garlic-stuffed olives from the 'appetisers' part of the menu, along with a bottle of wine. My only worry is that the olives might be served straight from the fridge. They're not. All's well.

There's a special three-course price of £23.50 each (starter, main and dessert) and we're planning to take advantage of it. My glamorous dining companion - to whom I'm married - starts with salt & pepper prawns; a dish she's chosen whenever we've been here previously. I'm told they're wonderful if you like that kind of thing. I prefer less disassembling with my dining, so pick the Pondicherry mackerel fish fry from the 'specials' board. It's also from Rick's Indian recipe book; no coincidence, I'm sure. A mackerel fillet is marinated in yoghurt, garlic and chilli before cooking. The result is less spicy than I'd anticipated, which is probably a good thing under the circumstances.

You see, we've both ordered cod curry as our main course. We were warned it was an "eight out of ten" for heat when we placed our order, although we trust there'll be more to it than temperature. And indeed there is. Served with rice and a poppadom (or 'papadum' if you prefer) plus an optional side dish of split-pea tarka dal, this is another dish inspired by Rick's trip to India. In fact, it's another from the southern Indian region of Pondicherry. The sauce is light and fresh - tomato, garlic and chilli - with decent-sized chunks of fish. Every last mouthful disappears, helped by a jug of water and a shared bottle of wine.

The cafe staff are perfectly happy for us not to rush straight into desserts. Once I start thinking about food again, a creamy pudding strikes me as an ideal follow-up to a spicy meal. I pick the gooseberry pavlova, which arrives as an individual portion: crispy like a meringue on the outside, moist and slightly sticky inside, topped with cream and gooseberry compote.

After an enjoyable couple of hours it's time to head back to our rented home for the week. As we leave, chef Paul Ainsworth emerges from his restaurant in the same road and walks off into the night. It's something of a foodie haven round here. Would we have come to Padstow if it didn't have Mr Stein's assortment of restaurants, Mr Ainsworth's Michelin Star and the Chough Bakery's pasties? Well, we didn't bother with any of these when we first visited. So... what keeps us coming back? Many different things. But it's fair to say the local food is an important part. As are the people. Although some of those tourists can be a little annoying.