Last updated at 10:39AM, September 5 2015
‘It looks a bit “tourists beware”. But this might be the best pub cooking I’ve had in my life’
I always hate it when people ask me where they should eat. Given my job, I recognise it comes with the territory and I ought to be better, but I become paralysed with self-doubt. Do my tastes coincide with yours? Do you want somewhere where the cooking is flawless or simply where the waitresses are pretty? Do you want to be at the vanguard of culinary experimentation or just to avoid being poisoned?
What we need is some kind of impartial barometer, a metric that digests the opinions of all the nation’s diners and spits out the parameters of acceptability at the end.
Which is why I was delighted to read a local restaurant report from LivingSocial, “the online marketplace for shoppers”, whatever that might be. No more guess work, no more studying the colour of your cravat to work out if you’d be happier at Wiltons or Nando’s. Now I know you all.
I know, for example, that 70.5 per cent of you think price the most important factor when choosing a restaurant. I know that you are happy to pay £12.04 for a main course, maybe £14.50 if it contains a bit of fish. I know you will travel 7.3 miles to a British restaurant, 6.7 to an Italian, 6.1 for French, but only 6 for American. And I know that in Liverpool you spend 16.2 per cent of your disposable income on booze. I’m with you there.
So none of you will like the St Tudy Inn, a British-leaning pub on the fringes of Bodmin Moor. I travelled all of 11.8 miles from Rock on the north Cornish coast, so was destined for disappointment even if they served lobster and black pudding pizza with succotash and French dressing.
The pub isn’t much to look at, certainly when approached via the scruffy car park and through the Plain Jane flat-roof extension. John Inverdale would probably wonder if it hadn’t been taken aside and told, “Listen, you’re not much of a looker, so you’d better find something you can be good at.”
That something is clearly the food. Chef Emily Scott took the inn over just before Christmas and it is now very much a restaurant with rooms rather than a drinkers’ pub, with predictable protests from some quarters that it’s turned its back on the locals with its fancy menu and high-falutin’ prices. Although, judging from the cheery welcomes and requests for “the usual table” that we heard on a Saturday night, not all the locals are that aggrieved. But remember, they won’t have travelled as far as you will have done. The prices didn’t strike me as particularly grabby, either. At £12.50, the chicken pie is only 46p out of your reach, and your £14.50 will get you a choice of the battered gurnard and chips or goujons of lemon sole. Just steer clear of the sea bass with capers and herb dressing or hake with mozzarella and tomatoes.
Inside it’s all slate floors, fresh paint and bare wood. Carpet in the “dining room” in the extension clearly marks it out as the more formal option, but an open hatch to the pub proper allows the happy buzz of conversation to drift through and jolly things along.
The cooking is of the type you might hope to encounter at a well-catered Home Counties dinner party; nothing to scare or thrill particularly, but good solid dishes chosen to allow a small kitchen to cope with demand. The starters were mainly assembly jobs and the mains a mix of slow cooking and last-minute searing. It’s an approach that makes perfect sense, and far better that than the path of least resistance, which is to buy everything in.
Raw carrot salad was very retro in its simplicity: a mound of grated carrot with horseradish and “Emily’s secret dressing”.
“She won’t even tell me what’s in it because she wants to bottle it and sell it,” confides our charming waiter. Too much sugar would be my guess and I don’t think it’s going to cause Paul Newman any sleepless nights but it suited a vegetarian daughter very well. Three scallops, served in their half shell with thyme and garlic butter, could have done with a more searing heat to emphasise their natural sweetness, but they were fine molluscs. A timbale of Padstow crab had a lovely zing to it, but the batter around a ricotta and mint stuffed courgette flower was heavy-handed and left a greasy slick on the plate. It also revealed the kitchen’s consistent timidity with seasoning. They really need to ramp that up to show the cooking at its best.
The sea bass was very respectable and the sherry and tarragon chicken pie was good and flavoursome, although I’d go easier on the Emva Cream. The only real dud was a shoulder of lamb with fennel and chickpeas. There’s no excuse for not slow cooking slowly enough and this tasted rushed and devoid of any oomph.
We had a very jolly evening though, helped along by a stonkingly good value wine list. Looking at the bill, I see service wasn’t included and I didn’t notice. I’m sorry: you deserved better. Perhaps you assumed we were from Bristol, where a quarter of diners never leave a tip.
We didn’t drive 47.8 miles the next day just for lunch, but to visit St Michael’s Mount near Penzance. Except, this being England in August, it’s been a Cornwall of windscreen wipers and wind turbines rather than sandy coves and ice cream and the castle was closed because it was too choppy for the boats to cross. So we consoled ourselves with a meal at the Victoria Inn in nearby Perranuthnoe.
Despite supposedly being Cornwall’s oldest pub and its bright pink façade, it looks a bit “tourists beware” from the outside and the OAP three courses for £8.95 sign does nothing to dispel the notion, but you walk in and the landlady smiles and breaks off from serving a couple of regulars to show you a table in the dining room (which in truth, with its plain, standard-issue stained pine furniture, does nothing to persuade you you are in for anything more than roadkill pie) and she hands you a single-sheet menu printed up just for that service with half a dozen starters and same number of mains, and she says the menu is bit shorter than in the evening, but as it is, this one’s got wondrous things like lobster and monkfish bisque or carpaccio of Bodmin venison on it, and suddenly you sit up and listen and think the room’s not so bad after all, and you like the way your money’s clearly going on the food and not on the bells and whistles.
So you order the bisque and it’s as rich and comforting as you’d hoped and full of the goodness of the sea which hits the shore 100 yards down the road, while the gentle smokiness and chew of the venison is tempered with the crackle of puffed wild rice and blobs of acidulated carrot purée. Very clever cooking. And just as you are thinking that what the carpaccio needs to make it perfect is a little cruciferous crunch, the waiter comes up with a small bowl of soused heritage cauliflower with apologies from the chef for leaving them off and would we accept by way of apology this basket of beer and cheese bread that has just come out of the oven.
And we taste it and decide that we would, for it is the best bread any of us has tasted.
Then they bring out sweet, flaky Cornish hake in a superlight batter with proper home- made tartar sauce; a ribeye of beef where your initial chew is rewarded with the melting flavours of buttercup and clover; a fillet of wild sea trout served with a riff on patatas bravas, spiked with capers and orange and lemon confit, where every mouthful is a perfect push and tug of sweet, bitter, citric and smoky.
And as you mop up the last of the juices with that bread, you think, that might just be the best pub cooking you’ve had in your life. But then you think of the prices. £15 for fish? £20 for steak? As we now know, no one’s going to thank me for recommending a place with prices like that.
The Victoria Inn, Perranuthnoe, Penzance, Cornwall
(01736 710309; victoriainn-penzance.co.uk) Score: 8
Price: starters, £6-£9; mains, £12-£20
St Tudy Inn, St Tudy, Cornwall
(01208 850656; sttudyinn.com)
Price: starters, £5-£10; mains, £12.50-£18
Read the review here;