- Food & Drink
You’ve heard of Padstow, haven’t you? Of course you have. It’s a small fishing village on the North Coast of Cornwall with just under 3,000 inhabitants and, staggeringly, 500,000 day trippers every year. The reason they come? Rick Stein.
It started in 1974, when Rick and Jill Stein bought a nightclub on the harbour side. Not long afterwards, the police shut it down. Left with a building they needed to make pay, they hung some fishing nets on the wall, dotted a few stuffed seagulls around the room and opened as a restaurant. The early years of The Seafood Restaurant were a mixed bag of queues, empty tables and marching up and down caravan sites with a loud hailer yelling: “Come to The Seafood Restaurant!”
In 1995 Rick’s TV series Taste Of The Sea glossed The Seafood Restaurant with its glamour and bedazzled diners began to make their way across the country to eat in Padstow. No more loud hailers. Instead, a steadily growing family business that now boasts 10 restaurants, a cookery school, holiday lets, shops and 350 staff. And not a stuffed seagull in sight.
I was invited to go down to Padstow with Chris Pople (whose write up of our weekend can be found here) to try the full Rick Stein experience for myself. We arrived late on Friday in the dark, with rain misting the windows of the train, and headed straight to St Petroc’s Bistro. A restaurant with rooms, St Petroc’s has a country house vibe (down to the Labrador that came padding into the lounge while we drank coffee) and a menu of dishes that have had a little French gussying up, but not too much to be intimidating.
We picked over Padron peppers and Cornish charcuterie while deciding what to really eat. The big draw at St Petroc’s is the Big Green Egg they have in the kitchen, and you can eat something smoky and charred in every course if you’re especially keen. The sweet-fleshed sardines wrapped in vine leaves had a touch of the charcoal about them, while my scallop and Serrano ham starter was every inch the bistro classic, down to the handful of thickly dressed salad leaves.
I ordered 30 day aged Hereford onglet with béarnaise for my main. The cheapest cut on the menu, its rich rust and iron flavour sang under a blackened crust, and knocked the bone-in sirloin out of the park. Our waiter brought over a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar for our chips, which cheered me no end. I once ate in a restaurant that, when asked for vinegar to go with the chips, provided a small bowl of Balsamic. We had to sprinkle it over the plate with our fingertips, like priests blessing potatoes.
I had a chocolate nut sundae for pudding, reliving the childhood joy of a vast glass dish of ice cream, cream, nuts, chocolate sauce and wafers. It was huge and easily shareable. Not that I shared. Instead, I helped myself to some of the pineapple tarte tatin, that had been given a smoking on the Big Green Egg.
When you’re going the full Rick Stein, then breakfast happens in Rick Stein’s Cafe. Cheerfully casual, with plenty of blonde wood, wicker and cushions, the cafe is a cosy little room that runs all day. I ordered my first ever kipper, which I think I’ve avoided until now due to my mum occasionally eating grilled kippers at home when I was growing up. The lingering presence of kipper can be an appetite killer.
An absolutely enormous smoked fish with a lip-licking saltiness, this was a kipper keen to make a potentially lasting impression. My friend Fi messaged me with her mother’s advice: after eating kippers, eat a teaspoonful of marmalade to prevent any long-term kippery side effects. I obeyed and have to say it worked: I was fish free until lunchtime, when we went to Stein’s Fish & Chips.
At 12.20pm on a drizzly Saturday we snagged the last two seats in the place. Outside, hooded and umbrellaed lunchers queued behind ropes. My haddock was crisp and greaseless and the chips fat clouds of starch. Not quite as good as the Anstruther Fish Bar, but satisfyingly hot salt and vinegar delicious. The only problem was the curry sauce, which was fragrant and well spiced and therefore completely wrong. Chip shop curry sauce should taste of apples, sugar and mysterious yellow. Like malt vinegar over balsamic, sometimes the cheap stuff is best.
In the evening it was the big one: The Seafood Restaurant. It’s come a long way from its nightclub days. Huge windows, white table cloths and a riot of paintings running across the walls, by 8pm the room was packed and there was a buzzy air of barely contained, well meaning chaos. The menu at The Seafood wanders the globe, much as the Stein family used to and Rick still does. There are dishes from China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Singapore and a scattering of European favourites.
Chris started with clams in XO sauce, plump and sweet-savoury with shards of wanton wrapper tucked in among the shells. My starter of sashimi arrived after Chris finished his (this was where our brief taste of chaos came in. Our waiter couldn’t have been more apologetic, and it’s worth mentioning that every single person we met in the restaurants was wonderful. Rick Stein’s name might be the restaurants’ selling point, but the staff are the real assets). Thick slices of sea bass, salmon, tuna and scallop, it was fresh and clean but not especially memorable.
The Singapore chilli crab, however, was extraordinary. When I ordered it, the water was careful to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I did and proved it by rolling up my sleeves. But I wasn’t ready for how much of it there would be. A stack of at least two, if not three, crabs were piled on the plate. I got to cracking and made my way through roughly a third of it before sadly conceding defeat. If I’d had an extra hour and a half-time walk up and down the harbour, I think I would have managed the lot. I would travel back to Padstow just to try.
How to go the full Stein in Cornwall
Travel: We caught the train from Paddington, although if you’re not staying in Padstow itself then you will need a car. Great Western Railways have started rolling out rebranded stock, attempting to put a little bit of old-fashioned glamour back into train travel. This is more obvious if you manage to get onto one of the trains with a Pullman dining car. And they run my favourite train service in the country: the Night Riviera.
Stay: We stayed at Martindale, a rambling four-bed country house that Jill Stein has transformed into something that is both beautiful and cosy. I covet the brick floors and plump sofas. At this time of year a 3 night stay is around £830, which seems like staggeringly good value if there’s eight of you splitting the bill. Most of the Stein restaurants have rooms attached to them, and there are a few more holiday lets that Jill has worked her magic on dotted around the countryside. You can find details here.
Coming up: If you’re looking for a reason to visit Cornwall in the winter, then the Winter Fayre on the 28th November could be the excuse you’re looking for. Held in Watergate Bay – home to another big hitting TV chef, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen – and sponsored by GWR, it’s a one-day shopping and eating frenzy that marks the start of the festive shopping season.
If one day isn’t quite enough for you, then the Padstow Christmas Festival runs from the 3rd-6th December. Celeb chef demos, a market with 100 stalls, Christmas films and a Santa fun run – if this doesn’t put you in the mood to jingle some bells, nothing will.
I visited Padstow as a guest of the Rick Stein restaurants.