Thursday 12 October 2023

Crocadon, Cornwall

Great restaurants often involve a great journey, and the journey to Crocadon, for everyone involved, staff and guests, is greater than most. Dan Cox was head chef at Fera at Claridges when I last sampled his cooking, and although the restaurant eventually turned out to be a bit too cutting-edge for the traditionalists at this grand old dame of London hotels, it sat extremely well with me, an ideal combination of strictly seasonal ingredients treated to an impressive variety of high-end techniques. When I learned he was leaving London to set up a restaurant-farm in Cornwall, I suspected it would be exactly the kind of place I would be interested in. Little did I know that the new venture would take a full five years to open to the public, a lead time more appropriate to the erection of a city skyscraper than a restaurant.

Alongside the metaphorical and temporal journeys, the actual physical journey to Crocadon - this being Cornwall - is also quite demanding. We'd booked the very closest AirBnB to the farm, which although only a few minutes drive away was still too far to walk (in the dark, drunk) so necessitated the booking of a taxi. The full 8 minutes we spent in the cab (four minutes there, four minutes back) cost £50, so if there are any lawyers or orthopedic surgeons out there feeling overworked and underpaid I can thoroughly recommend switching careers to taxi driving in Saltash.

That said, once sat down in the pretty courtyard at Crocadon, all such stresses began to fade. I don't care how jaded you might be about hyperlocality and seasonality and fine dining in general, but there will always be something extremely correct and pleasing about tucking into a fig leaf negroni right next to the fig tree said leaves came from. It's that sense of immediacy and connection with where your food comes from you rarely find in London, and exactly the reason it's worth the trip out of town.

Aperitifs - and a brief tour of the Crocadon gardens - over, we were reseated indoors. At only about 25 covers or so, the Crocadon dining space is pretty small, most of the converted barn taken up by a giant open kitchen in which chefs can be seen studiously tweezering micro herbs into charmingly handmade pottery (often crafted by the head chef himself!) throughout the evening. Lampshades are made from what looks like recycled cardboard, and seats are each covered in sheepskin rugs, another nod to the local environment. Essentially, think Noma-on-Tamar (I'm sure they won't mind me saying) with added Cornish charm.

But what of the food? The first morsel to arrive was a shiso leaf topped with a kind of chutney made with plum and beetroot. And to be clear, it was perfectly pleasant, in the way that a chutney made out of plum and beetroot has every right to be. Whether you consider it a worthwhile addition to a £95 tasting menu rather hinges on how much value you place on hyperlocality and seasonality versus, well, something you'd ordinarily want to eat. It would have gone nicely with a sausage roll.

The next snack had a far more robust flavour profile - mashed potato, buttery and smooth and nicely seasoned, dressed with a bright green celtuce (a kind of lettuce) oil, and topped with probably my favourite thing to do with a potato, matchstick fries. The combination of mash and vegetable oil worked well, and our whole table happily devoured this in record time. I mean, who wouldn't want a bowl of nice buttery mash?

Less successful - from my point of view at least - were these little tartlets of delica squash and lemon verbena, which looked cute enough but unless you are a real fan of squash - which I very much am not - didn't really taste that interesting. And although my personal aversion to squash definitely was a factor, I should also say I didn't detect much enthusiasm for these things from the rest of the table either.

Fortunately, the next couple of courses had far more going for them. Firstly, a padron pepper, delicately charred over coals and served with a wonderfully smooth and balanced lovage sauce. Not only was the padron full of flavour and the charring providing a nice texture, but it had a remarkable level of spice heat - something you're far more likely to find in home-grown than commercial peppers, it turns out.

And then a fantastic cuttlefish consommé, clear and brightly flavoured and with just enough infusion of lemongrass to lend a slightly East Asian feel. I admit, lovely though this was, that I did briefly wonder what a nicely grilled piece of cuttlefish steak would have been like, and which of the guests earlier in the week had been lucky enough to sample the rest of the animal, but this was still a very pleasing interlude of a course.

The next course consisted of turnip cut into thick ribbons like pappardelle pasta, in a rather astringent anise hyssop sauce. There wasn't quite enough of the advertised saddleback pork for my liking, and what there was was cold and rather tasteless, but any disappointment regarding vinegary turnip and cold pork was more than offset by a completely brilliant brioche bun glazed with pork fat, which pulled apart most satisfyingly into soft, moist halves, and some fantastic whipped butter topped with pork scratchings.

Fish course was a fillet of mackerel topped with radish, tomatillo and shiso, and although I very much enjoyed the nice vinegar/herb sauce it came with I'm afraid the mackerel itself was a bit mushy and lifeless. Maybe I've been spoiled with restaurant mackerel recently but I think if you have access to a proper charcoal grill you should be able to get a nice crisp skin on your fish while keeping a plump, firm flesh.

The "main" meat course was divided into two parts. Mutton from the farm's own flock arrived first as a rib piece topped with rosehip and white currant - yet more pretty sharp flavours but at least here the fattiness of the aged meat was able to offset it and produce a very pleasing effect overall. I also appreciated the way the meat slipped off the bone in one piece, which was fun.

Then finally, last of the savoury courses was more of the sheep, this time a neat piece of pink loin alongside a swoop of beetroot (I think) purée, a lovely slice of sausage made with leg meat topped with chilli, and what I assume was a mutton stock sauce studded with capers - again rather sharp but working well with the meat elements.

Desserts came in a number of stages, my favourite turning out to be the first - a kind of super smooth apple sorbet topped with marigold leaves which had a perfect balance of sweet and sour and full of summer flavour.

I also enjoyed the other dessert of steeped blackberries and sweetcorn cake, and the delicate tuiles of berry and corn layered on top, although I should point out I was in the minority on this as the others found it not sweet enough and yearned for something a bit more, well, conventional.

It's probably worth repeating at this point that you either value strict seasonality and hyperlocality above all other aspects of the restaurant experience, in which case Crocadon will be your very nirvana, or you end your dinner wishing they'd let their hair down and use a bit of chocolate or truffle or something just to provide a bit more colour. I understand completely what Crocadon is trying to achieve with their fanatically strict attitudes to super-low food miles and commitment to use only what they can grow themselves at the appropriate time of year, and normally I'd be completely on board with it, but the fact is I did feel like there was something missing from some of the courses - not always anything obvious, but something, perhaps some veal stock to enliven a sauce, or some fancy pastry work to zhuzh up a dessert - that would have made for a more satisfying end result.

Also, and I know I have a soft spot for game and go a bit giddy when I see it on a menu so this might just be a personal thing, but our taxi literally had to slow down to a crawl on the Crocadon driveway because giant flocks of pheasant and partridge were threatening to throw themselves under the wheels of the car. We were slap in the middle of game season, and the food "miles" could have been measured in steps, so why did none of these birds - sustainable, local and tasty - find their way onto the menu?

But I don't want to end on a moan, and it's worth stressing that we did have a lovely time at Crocadon, enjoying interesting natural wines and local ciders and whiskies, and service by everyone concerned was absolutely note-perfect. And although it's my "job" (such as it is) to point out faults where I find them, overall Crocadon are doing far more things right than wrong, and nobody left that beautiful building at the end of the night less than satisfied. At least, until it came time to pay for the taxi.

With a couple of final sets of petits fours - a summer berry meringue thing, and a little tartlet containing a purée of some other kind of citrussy fruit - the bill, with plenty of booze shared between the three of us drinking that evening - came to just under £140 a head, which to me looks like pretty good value considering the amount of effort that had gone into it all. There's no doubt that the Crocadon approach is the cutting edge of sustainable hospitality, and no amount of whining from a jaded Londoner about missing chocolate is about to change that - this is, like it or not, the future of British fine dining. And I suppose the sooner I get used to it the better.