Tuesday, 29 April 2014
The Green Room at the Retallack Resort, Cornwall
Cornwall holds a magic spell over anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to visit, something that’s quite hard to explain to the uninitiated. I remember the first time I stepped off the train at St Ives, and saw the impossibly blue waters, the vast golden beach, the whitewashed cottages spilling into the sea, it was a semi-spiritual experience, like all the trials of humanity were designed so I could one day return to this, the chosen land. Plus, the pubs serve this 6% cider called Rattler which, if you have enough of it (a couple of pints is usually more than adequate) makes you think you’ve met God. It’s a killer combination.
So when First Great Western asked if I’d like to try out the new Mitch Tonks seafood menu on the Pullman fine dining car I hardly needed another incentive to plan a return trip to the West Country. But what began as a quiet weekend in Padstow and a chance to fill in a couple of gaps in my Cornwall restaurant list soon snowballed into a 3-day food extravaganza, with visits to a local butcher, farmer, cheese maker and Rick Stein’s seafood school, as well as - needless to say - a healthy dose of the region’s finest restaurants. The reason for this upscale in scope and ambition was a meeting with the lovely people at Cornish Sea Salt who with Retallack Resort and Visit Cornwall offered to pull together a foodie’s wet dream of an itinerary, a non-stop tour of the very finest chefs and producers the area had to offer. And as anyone who knows Cornwall will tell you, this is not a part of the world short of talent in those areas.
I therefore have a lot of people to thank, and a lot of gushing write-ups to write, but to save Cornwall-fatigue for anyone not very interested in the minute details of what four lucky food hobbyists managed to blag of a weekend, I’ll try and space them out over the coming few weeks amongst the usual restaurants closer to home. I’ll start, though, with the backbone of the trip, our base of operations at Retallack resort and a quite unexpectedly wonderful meal at James Nathan’s Green Room restaurant.
It seems a bit churlish to describe any meal as “unexpectedly” good, especially one cooked by Masterchef 2008 winner James Nathan and even more especially one using the finest local ingredients such as St Enodoc asparagus and wild garlic. But as essentially a hotel restaurant in a purpose-built holiday resort 6 miles from Padstow, with a reputation (so far) that hasn't stretched much further than the county border, it's fair to say we weren't expecting our dinner at the Green Room to stand up particularly well next to the haute-cuisine theatrics of Paul Ainsworth at No.6 we'd enjoyed mere hours previously (more on which in due course).
But you know when all your worries about a meal disappear as soon as the first bit of food appears? When one mouthful of expertly crafted amuse is enough to reassure that you are, after all, in safe hands? So it was with a spring pea and mint veloute, warm and rich and velvety, served not with a spoon but in a mini teacup. And relax.
Monkfish came on the bone, grilled in a delicate pepper crust, decorated with pretty wild garlic flowers and on an I think saffron-tinted cream sauce. Almost the highlight of this dish for me, though, were a scattering of weeny fried potatoes, crunchy outside and gooey within, with an astonishing concentrated flavour. If I was a proper food journalist I'd find out where they got them from, but all I'm going to do is tell you to go to the Green Room yourself to see what I mean.
The aforementioned St. Enodoc asparagus, with brown shrimp, quail's egg and bottarga butter was, by any recognised standards, a world-class dish. A spear of jade green asparagus lay next to a puck of glorious seafoody butter which seasoned and livened the vegetable. But just how special this dish was, wasn't completely obvious until you cut into the kind of briochey cake next to it, which had - miraculously - a perfectly soft boiled quail's egg baked into the middle of it. Add a few brown shrimp on top of that and you have one of those plates of food that is destined to be a signature of Nathan's cooking. Quite brilliant.
Next to the asparagus, pigeon breast would have had to jump through a great many hoops to match up to it, and I'm afraid it didn't quite make it. Though prettily presented and with a good display of that gentle-sweet pickling the Japanese do so well, the pigeon itself was under-seasoned and lacking in, well, pigeon flavour, and needed some extra ingredient to make sense of all the sugar and vinegar. Still, I think there's more to be made of the pigeon and pickle idea so perhaps this is ripe for development.
We were right back on track with confit shoulder and noisette of lamb, though, which as well as having the most beautifully slow-cooked meat, drenched in those kind of silky reduced stock sauces (also redcurrant & rosemary) that takes some poor bugger all week to make, had with it a very clever carrot & cumin puree, displaying an admirable willingness to innovate but not at the expense of coherence. There was an amusing little 'finger sandwich'-shaped rack of soft and creamy dauphinoise potatoes, and various other painstakingly crafted bits of veg. A lot of work had gone into this dish, but more importantly it showed.
Pre-dessert of elderflower and passionfruit sorbet was everything you needed. Elderflower is, I've noticed, a very Cornish ingredient, cropping up in ice cream, cordial, you name it, but topping it with passionfruit added a lovely citrusy counter to the floral sorbet. Also, I bloody love passionfruit in all its forms so this was always going to go down well with me.
Dessert proper was Nathan's famous lemon sable with citrus syllabub, one of the dishes that won him the Masterchef title back in 2008 and every bit as convincing today. It must take an extraordinarily steady hand to plate up that mini stonehenge of strawberries and biscuit, but the beauty was more than visual; the strawberry 'soup' that surrounded it was like concentrated summer, and what an incredible colour.
Petits fours were lovely, too - edible chocolate cups of fruit mousses, physalis and shards of sesame cake. No bought-in chocolate truffles or half-hearted cupcakes here.
An excellent meal, then, and more than enough to put (in this humble blogger's opinion) the Green Room firmly in the top flight of restaurants in the country. But here's the kicker - all the above, all seven courses of local, ingredients-led loveliness, is available to you for £40. That's a full tasting menu for what some restaurants I could mention charge for a single main course. Well worth the trip to this part of North Cornwall, and indeed despite its requiring a designated driver to get to for anyone not staying in the resort, there was a steady stream of customers. A destination restaurant in the best sense of the word.
All great meals are worth a journey though, and in fact the setting, when not thrashing down with rain, is quite lovely; I thought at first the wetlands and lake that forms the centrepiece of the Retallack resort was a flooded quarry, but did in fact - hilariously - used to be one of those 'JCB World' parks where you pay to drive around in a big digger pretending to be a Transformer. Our rooms were so low and close to the water the first thing I saw upon waking up the following morning was a mother duck and her ducklings sailing past the lounge window. It's idyllic, but then Cornwall does idyllic in its sleep. That it's also swiftly becoming the second food capital of the UK is a more recent, and exciting, development.
I was a guest of the Green Room and Retallack Resort