Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Paul Ainsworth at No. 6, Padstow
Luxury has a certain aroma. It's the perfume of expensive Diptyque candles and elaborate flower arrangements in hallways with polished marble floors, of Aesop handwash in plush bathrooms, of the very best fragrance atomisers and scented oils and incense burners money can buy. It's a mix of aromas that follow you from the foyer at Claridge's to the grand staircases of the Rosewood and the wood-panelled corridors of the Connaught, anywhere people with immaculate taste and infinite budgets work to create an atmosphere of easy decadence.
It fits, then, that the first thing you notice as you step through the door of the Padstow Townhouse - a grand and luxuriously well-appointed pile on a commanding position overlooking this pretty fishing village - is a glorious waft of cinnamon and vanilla from a tastefully discreet source somewhere in the common areas. Because make no mistake, despite missing one or two of the trappings of five-star hotel - there's no basement swimming pool, vaulted reception or residents' bar - the rooms (or, more accurately, suites) are every inch to international luxury standard, and staying here is an experience on a par with the very finest accommodation options in the country.
Perhaps I should try harder not to be so superlative. It is, after all, essentially "just" a glorified B&B - there are bedrooms (fantastically spacious and beautful bedrooms, lit by the whitewashed North Cornwall sun, yes, but still just bedrooms), bathrooms (clawfoot copper baths and rainforest showers, with heated floors, true, but still bathrooms) and breakfast in bed (admittedly soft-boiled duck egg, smoked salmon and caviar muffins, yuzu shots, fresh pastries, summer fruit compote with organic yoghurt, local cheeses and charcuterie may not constitute your usual breakfast but it is still, technically, breakfast). Service is attentive to the point of supernatural - somehow you only had to look like you needed something and a member of staff would magically appear from around a corner, and not once in two days did I manage to get to the front door before someone opened it for me. All these things are, on one level, what you might expect from a B&B, only they're all the absolute best you can possibly imagine they can be.
Anyway, rather than banging on any more about how wonderful the Padstow Townhouse is, I'll just leave the above photos from my stay with you to fill in the details, and turn back to much more comfortable ground - what I had for my dinner. Five minutes walk down the hill into town is No. 6 by Paul Ainsworth, gleaming from a recent refurb and ready once again to be the standard-bearer of gastronomic achievement in Padstow. I've been a fan of the place since a sadly rushed lunch there a few years ago as part of a press trip (there is no part of a press trip that isn't rushed) and determined to come back and do the whole thing properly.
And boy, am I glad I did. I can hardly imagine a better showcase of the talents of Cornwall's fishermen, farmers and bakers than Paul Ainsworth and his team, who tie the rich bounties of the area together with an artist's eye, supreme command of cooking techniques and a menu of wit, sparkle and invention. The joy begins with the bread course, presented with local Cornish sea-salted butter, fluffy cod's roe sprinkled with pork scratchings, and a kind of yeasted/caramelised butter bringing to mind a similarly stunning version by one of my favourite London restaurants Pidgin. Oh, and the bread was superb too, a bright, sticky crumb encased in a dark, toasty crust.
There are few finer things in life than a really good liver parfait made by people who really know what they're doing, and Paul Ainsworth's version is absolutely the last word in the matter - perfect parfait, if you will.
Scallops were dressed in a really interesting citrussy dressing described as "gentleman's relish" on the menu so perhaps it involved anchovy as well somehow. The "kimchi-style" cabbage was only very lightly pickled and not too burdened with chilli, but provided good texture and an interesting (and slightly unusual) vegetal contrast to the seafood.
"Jacob's ragout" was a very clever idea - ribbons of turnip that looked for all the world like egg pasta, with a cute little copper pan of beef ragu, satisfyingly full of flavour and with a slight heady note of vinegar to stop it becoming overwhelmingly rich. If I'm going to be brutally honest, I probably would have preferred actual pasta than turnip pasta - the promise of a few silky threads of the real thing could never be satisfied by a vegetable - but I appreciate what they're trying to do and I still enjoyed it.
Tamar Valley lamb, boned shank I think, was a glorious soft texture, with not a hint of the chewiness that can afflict certain slow-cook cuts. It was seasoned with a wafer-thin slice of mutton ham, and salt-baked celeriac (and celeriac purée) underneath provided an earthy hit of winter veg. On the side, a breaded and deep-fried nugget of sweetbread came with a fantastic rich reduced jus that only the very best restaurants have the skill and energy to make. If lamb and celeriac is the perfect winter dish (and I'm increasingly convinced it is) then it surely can not come in any more satisfying form than this - a riot of texture, colour and flavour.
I'm afraid I didn't get a very good shot of the roast duck itself, so you'll have to take my word that the timing on the flesh was spot-on, the flavour of the duck powerful and gamey, and the accompanying "clear peking tea" in a cute mini teapot, containing duck consommé and a lemon and herb "teabag", was a masterful take on Chinese flavours while retaining a solid European (or rather Cornish) identity. The pot, by the way, contained "pick your own" salad, bits of dressed veg and crispy bacon to dip into as you enjoyed the duck.
Best of the mains, though, was - naturally - fish. A fillet of bream, prepared so utterly perfectly it had somehow transformed into something close to the texture and flavour density of halibut - blinding white flesh, with a good strong skin of golden-brown, fatty wonderousness. This miracle of a fillet would have been enough simply by itself but with it came a pot of deep-fried seaweed (seasoned with salt and vinegar), oyster leaves, foraged ransom (sort of like wild garlic) flowers and white crab meat, which combined to form a symphony of colour, texture and spectacle that made the entire trip to Cornwall worthwhile by itself.
Instead of a full fancypants cheese trolley, Paul Ainsworth go down the route of highlighting a single cheese - in this case Barkham Blue - as a kind of pre-dessert. Barkham Blue is a genuinely excellent cheese, strong and salty without being bitter, and with a lovely creamy texture. Presented with a miniature tart tatin, it becomes a clever take on the Eccles cake & Lancashire cheese combo, only possibly (and don't tell anyone from Lancashire this) more rewarding. Oh and that's a little mug of cider on the side there, because why not.
Desserts proper were enjoyable, if a little less overwhelmingly brilliant than what had come before. Cornish "trifle" with rhubarb and blood orange was as good as cream, rhubarb, ice cream and blood orange spongecake can probably be, namely "quite" good.
And it's always fun when a bit of theatre such as the pouring in of molten "caramac" livens up a chocolate mousse, and even more fun when it turns out the chocolate (named as Michel Cluizel 100%) has as powerful and complex a flavour as this. It wasn't otherwise a particularly mind-bending dish but then taking one high-quality ingredient and presenting it simply is sometimes all that's required. I didn't hear anyone on our table complaining, at any rate.
Maybe usually petits fours and digestifs are taken in the No. 6 bar upstairs, but as we were staying at the townhouse the fun continued back up the road, with a glass of 14-year Old Malt Cask Laphroig from the pantry, a couple of fruit macarons and a flask of Paul Ainsworth malted hot chocolate (which involved orange and hazelnut liqueur and was an incredible piece of work), these two sites working together to produce a seamless blend of sparkling service and gastronomic delight.
I know, I'm gushing again, and yes, the eagle-eyed will have noticed that the Townhouse portion of the trip was comped - feel free to take anything said about there with a crystal of Cornish Sea Salt. But please believe me when I say that Paul Ainsworth at No. 6 is one of the very best restaurants in the country, and a trip to Padstow without a reservation there is a bit like going to Alton Towers and not having a ride on the Nemesis. Or something. Look, I guarantee you'll love it. No matter where you're staying.
Our stay at the Padstow Townhouse was comped, but we paid for dinner at Paul Ainsworth.