Thursday, 8 May 2014
Paul Ainsworth at No.6, Padstow
I don't think there was anywhere in our whistle-stop tour of Cornwall that we didn't want to stick around longer than the time allocated. One of the unfortunate consequences of packing quite so much - and crucially, quite so much good, interesting stuff - as we did into our weekend was that when the time came to leave each place it felt like we'd barely had time to scrape the surface of the goodies on offer. Retallack, where we were staying, for example, had this amazing thing called a Flow Rider, basicaly a vast permanent outdoor surfing simulator, which we (well, I at least) jealously glimpsed from the car windows on a number of occasions as we raced back and forth out of the resort.
But nowhere was this lack of time more excruciating than at lunch at Paul Ainsworth at No.6 restaurant, in Padstow, where - and I'm sure I'm speaking for all four of us here - we could have happily spent all afternoon, stuck around for dinner, camped overnight and done it all again the following day given half the chance. The food - every bit of it - was extraordinary of course, but I'll get to that in a bit. What really gave our lunch the boost into the stratosphere was a front of house team that struck exactly the right tone - professional but friendly, warm but not "matey".
The air of capable enthusiasm from the serving staff made a whole lot of sense after head chef Paul Ainsworth had appeared at the start of service to do the rounds. I know it's easy for a restaurant blogger to be slightly starstruck on these occasions, but he was so happy and chatty, in the manner of someone who's got the best job in the world and knows it, that his staff needn't have looked hard for a lead.
Anyway, enough shameless chef groupie-ism. Our meal began with some house-baked sourdough accompanied by something called "Lincolnshire Poacher butter" (not quite sure what the deal was with this; Lincolnshire Poacher is a very nice cheese, but had no idea it was a butter too?) and a bowl of fluffy cod's roe topped with pork scratching bits. Lots of things, sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, going on here - a great way to kick things off.
Starters each came with a radically different presentation but weren't just quirky for the sake of it. Torched mackerel - a glorious crisp skin and softly smoked pink flesh - sat on a kind of spring garden, with various loops and twirls of crunch and colour.
"Pickled duck" turned out (admittedly to the slight disappointment of the person who'd ordered it) to be a relatively straightforward chicken liver parfait and brioche affair. But speaking as someone who's never not enjoyed anything involving poultry liver, I thought it was marvellous. I liked the cute little Hovis tin the brioche came in too.
My own Porthilly oysters came three ways, "natural" (raw) on a bizarelly moreish seawater granita of some sort, "escabeche" with pickles, and "crisp" - battered and deep-fried on pickled cucumbers. Great presentation, too, perched on a box of sea shells.
"Crubeen" is apparently a traditional Irish casserole, so quite how that inspiration translated into this pretty pile of food wasn't immediately obvious. What was obvious was the huge slab of roasted foie gras wobbling away on top, and the extraordinary colour of the sweet red peppers underneath.
Mains next, and day boat cod, bright as the driven snow and falling apart into clean, meaty flakes, under grilled fenugreek and a pile of the freshest, zingiest crab salad. There are no words.
How do you even begin to describe the wonder of something like "Cornish Saddleback pork, lardo, lettuce, crackling, scallop & orchard sauce"? A vast slab of pink loin which cut like butter, a puck of sticky slow-roast cheek (I think) topped with a golden-crusted scallop, a fold or two of translucent lardo, some smoky charred lettuce, and finally an extraordinary vertical coil of crackling next to a little jug of thick porky gravy.
Or monkfish, in a gentle curry crust, accompanied by cubes of glistening marrow fat, whipped parsley, sour cream, and a separate bowl of what they coyly describe as "veal shin salad" but what turned out to be rich, sweet, slow-cooked veal amongst leaves of smoky charred lettuce. Unbelievably good.
There was even a savoury pre-dessert of some local blue cheese on top of a fresh onion tart. Look at it all shiny and lovely.
"A trip to the fairground" was Ainsworth's Great British Menu 2011 dessert, and is just as spectacular up close. I won't even begin to guess how each of the different elements is constructed in detail, but there's fruit marshmellows on sticks, glasses of peanut parfait and chocolate mousse, and sticks of honeycomb sugar with popping candy amongst God knows what else.
This was "A trifle Cornish", a rhubarb and saffron concoction inspired by a recipe from 1596. Pretty, isn't it.
Hopefully you'll have seen by now why we were in no rush to leave. We even had to grab our coats and dash off before the petits fours arrived which still annoys me to this day. But if nothing else, those brief, gluttonous couple of hours were more than enough to convince us that Paul Ainsworth is a very special restaurant, worth far more than the meagre amount of time we had to devote to it, and indeed one of our party managed a return visit mere days later. Sparkling service, a ludicrously pretty location, and world-class food. Why would you ever leave?
We were guests of Paul Ainsworth but as you can hopefully just make out from the menu, prices are hardly unreasonable for food of this standard. Plus they do a lunchtime menu for £19 for two courses, three for £25 and even including a wine pairing for £39. Which is incredible value.