Months ago, when I told a friend we were going to Cornwall for my partner’s birthday, he suggested in awed and hushed tones that I try to make a booking for Rick Stein’s restaurant, which was in Cornwall, somewhere. The friend is a gourmand. I like food but I’m a little lax with my celebrity chef knowledge. However, always amenable to suggestions about where to go for good food, I googled Rick Stein and discovered that he has not one, but four, restaurants in Padstow, Cornwall, UK.
That’s a bit excessive, thought I.
His website is very good, with pictures and menus; I had a good look around and decided that, for the occasion, I should book Seafood, although the fish&chippery was probably more our style.
I left it a little while but my friend’s words reverberated hauntingly in my ears: if you can get a reservation. It was a month and a half before our planned holiday. I had not asked work; we had not booked anything. Oh, how much effort is an email? I berated myself and sent one off.
The reply came back: Why, discerning marm, we do have a reservation – but only at 9:30pm. Would you like to make a booking? If so, please telephone us and provide a credit card number.
I should have known: my instincts are rarely wrong. I really did not like the tone of that email (I’ve paraphrased). I thought: oh, how ridiculous to have a reservation but only at 21:30, and to require a credit card for the booking. I already feel the restaurant is not for the likes of me – but the recommendation is in place. I telephone and give them my credit card number.
Thereafter, we make our accommodation bookings and it is nowhere near the restaurant but we have a hire car for the weekend, and Padstow is really not very far from our accommodation.
The roads in Cornwall are more twisty and turny then we expect.
I have packed a nice dress to wear. I put it on. I stand in front of the mirror for a while; I walk down into the lounge and sit there, trying to gauge if the dress is okay. I walk outside to ascertain if I will be warm enough. I won’t. I return to my room and put on tights. The dress is pale, and my tights are black. It looks all wrong. I remove the dress and put on my jeans, and a black shirt. There. I look fine. Not very elegant but fine. My partner looks lovely and I tell him so. He grimaces at me but the compliment is returned.
On the fateful night of The Booking, it is drizzly. Visibility is poor and I am reading the map. Both things mean that we are bound to get lost. Luckily, we only miss one turn. The journey however has been tense, with both of us craning our necks forward, wary of other cars, wildlife and the wet road. When we finally reach the restaurant 45 minutes later, we discover that the car park requires all-night payment, and we have not brought small change.
Never mind, I say, I will ask the restaurant. We go in and are skeptically greeted at the door. I smile and say that I have a booking. The maitre’d does not smile and looks my name up on his computer. He permits us to enter the restaurant with a disdainful gesture. I smile again and say: “I’m terribly sorry but could I get some change for the car park?” The maitre d’ continues to look unimpressed but tells us it is unecessary and that no one will check in the poor weather. I am rule abiding and a little torn, but the maitre d’ looks like he has no intention of giving us any change. We go to our table.
Beside us on one side are an interesting couple. I think they are old friends catching up: there is sexual frisson but of the safe kind mixed in with a little jokingly unsubtle innuendo. They also strike me as landed folk and/or country posh. She is beautiful with long dark hair and an aristocratic nose. He is also reasonably attractive but with a weak chin – something I associate with the middle child in a posh family (too many costume dramas for me). He wears a pink shirt, with cuff links; she is wearing a wrap-around dress. They both drink a lot.
On the other side are another couple, who strike me as travellers. I am pleased to see the man is wearing jeans and a t-shirt; the woman travel (quick-dry) trousers and a fleece jumper. They are eating crab and laughing. I like them instantly, and more so when he proffers her a crab claw with the words: “here, have a paw.”
I am too self-conscious to take any photographs especially as all the wait staff seem to descend on us. We are served by at least six different staff, only one of whom smiles at us. The maitre d comes to take our drinks order and his top lip remains disdainful as we order only one glass of wine; I ask for water for both of us. Another waiter brings the drinks to us, and places them on the table almost as an afterthought. He flounces off. I wonder where to.
Our order is taken by a surly waitress. We have ascertained that we are both feeling overwhelmed and out of place, so we take the easy option and go for the tasting menu of 6 main dishes, dessert and petit fours. In comparison to the better-than-you attitude of the staff, the tasting menu is on a tatty piece of A4 paper. I think about pocketing it so that I have a list of the dishes for future reference. However, I don’t wish to ask the staff if I may take it and have them patronise me further for being a hick. And I don’t really want a souvenir of the place.
The meals themselves were reasonably good, but most do not follow Rick Stein’s model of “good food, cooked simply”, which I see as we leave. No it wasn’t! I say to my partner, pointing at the sign. The crab and rocket salad was lovely, and the steamed mackerel was also very good – but a little salty. None of the other dishes stand out but I do recall that the main fish dish of pollock was a bit tough, and drenched in some creamy sauce. That’s not what either a good fish or good cooking of that fish should be like; fresh fish is silken and crumples on your tongue and fish should be set off with a sharp, but complementary, flavour.
Dessert – panna cotta – was decidedly disappointing.
To be fair to Seafood, we were a little out of sorts and perhaps did not choose the best dishes for our tastebuds. But rest assured, we won’t be dining at Seafood again (especially if I am required to book more than one month in advance). Rick Stein still has three other eateries in Padstow with which to redeem himself, and my vote is on the fish&chippery next.