As a child, fish ranked right down there with Brussels sprouts, olives and saffron. Even heavily crumbed white shapes slathered with 57 varieties of tomato were a struggle.
Things have moved on though (as they tend to), and my taste buds have evolved. Now, saffron is pretty much the only thing I dislike – it seems to have a certain Toilet Duck taste that I can’t get over … maybe it’s just me. Everything else is all good; whether sprouty, olivey or fishy.
In fact, despite the slow start, I’m an ardent fish eater these days, and I have long been keen on a trip down to Cornwall for a meal at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Rock, where they only know how to cook fish. Nothing else. One menu. Nine courses. No meat.
An all fish taster menu is an intriguing proposition. Do we need to eat meat when we stuff ourselves? I’m sure there are many who insist we do. “Me man. Me must have fillet steak when go to cooked food shop“. I guess one aim of Restaurant Nathan Outlaw is to get diners to the end of the meal without them thinking this.
The restaurant is set in a small grey-blue room, which houses barely 20 covers and nearly as many staff (all of whom were brilliant). The space is clean and uncluttered, much like the food. The plain walls are punctuated by the work of Cornish super artists like Terry Frost. The star of each plate is always the very local, very fresh fish.
Our nine courses were split into three stages: three small dishes, somewhere between an amuse bouche and a starter; three ‘main’ courses; and cheese plus two desserts (not fish, obvs).
The three small dishes were brought at the same time. Fine dice of cured wild black bream, with fennel, lime and horseradish was fresh and lively; soused red mullet and Jerusalem artichoke was firm, earthy and just very subtly acidic; and scallop in a reduced red wine sauce was warm and sweet. All were delicious, but I wasn’t convinced by the way they were served at the same time. I think I would have preferred to focus on each individually; which I did, but maybe didn’t pause enough between them. A minor quibble, and my self-control issues should probably share a portion of the blame.
The first of the feature dishes was a (large) thumb sized piece of John Dory on white cabbage and a very clean, light and beautifully spiced curry sauce. This was a cracking dish and typified the experience: deceptively simple, classy food; fish cooked to perfection; with complementary saucing and unfussy presentation. Faultless, really, without being, or trying to be, groundbreaking. Which is not a criticism in any way. In fact, the approach was quite refreshing.
The second main of sea bass, celeriac and Porthilly sauce was probably the highlight; largely because of the exquisite, creamy red sauce, the dominant flavour of which was extracted from local crabs. Again the fish was spot on. Likewise the star of the third main fish dish, which was a fairly classic example of monkfish wrapped in bacon with mushrooms and baby leeks. I rather liked the mushroom purée served with this. The rounded squeeze of grey-brown purée echoed the presentation of many of the other dishes, and as with all of the dishes, was packed with flavour that complimented and enhanced the feature fish.
Cheese was local and thoughtfully paired with homemade chutneys and pickles. Desserts were seasonal, well made and, as with the dishes that preceded them, pleasingly and deceptively simple. I loved the quince tart with creme fraiche and a final rounded splodge of intensely flavoured purée.
Everything we ate was a classic example of ‘let the fish do the talking’. There was plenty of class and skill on show in the sauces, purées, and flavour pairings, but the fish still shone through because the dishes were understated and uncluttered. The intelligence of this approach should not be underestimated or underappreciated; it takes an enormous amount of restraint and control to cook like this and I personally found it very pleasing.
Perhaps somewhat bizarrely, though, I left wishing the menu had been a bit more fishy. I think that was probably a combination of the autumnal to wintery menu, and the fact that John Dory, sea bass and monkfish are all pretty meaty fish. Replace one of those with something like sole or a shell fish, and the balance would have been spot on.
More fishy fish, less meaty fish. Who would have thought it?
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Rock, in 3 words
Fish, fish, fish
£85 for the taster menu, no booze.
www.nathan-outlaw.com - St. Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall, PL27 6LA – 01208862737
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw is situated in a hotel – the St Enodoc. I’m sure it’s lovely. I was based elsewhere for my trip, though: at a genuinely cracking place called The Scarlet, overlooking the beach at Morgan Pawth, halfway between Newquay and Padstow on the North coast of Cornwall.
The picture at the top of this piece gives you an idea of the view from the outside pool. Which is pretty much the same from each room, whether bedroom or dining room. Heck, here’s another shot from the comfort of the scrabble board.
The Scarlet struck a super balance between ‘luxury yet sustainable eco hotel’ with all the mod cons and beautiful spa facilities; and savvy, independent, hotel. As at Nathan Outlaw, the staff were both incredibly friendly and super competent. It was comfortable, incredibly relaxing, steeped in quality and thoughtful planning, and was basically really bloody good. I wish we could have stayed longer.
The food generally matched the surroundings – with breakfast being a particular highlight, as well as very decent room service food. Dinner was ok, but with PadStein, Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw so close, I wouldn’t eat there every night.
A notable feature of the Scarlet (and the Bedruthan hotel, where I’d spent a few nights before decamping to the Scarlet) was how proud they were to be Cornish and to use Cornish produce. Theoretically they use local ‘where it is best’. They appear lucky enough to be able to do this for the vast majority of their drinks and ingredients, soaps and so on. It’s not a gimmick; surrounded by the sea and with cracking meat, game and arable farming, it’s easy to see why most Cornish would be quite happy to devolve.
The Scarlet is not cheap – B&B was beyond the £200 per night mark. I’m usually reluctant to splash the cash on hotels (why bother if you can carry a tent and a sleeping bag?), but this was more than worth it.*
www.scarlethotel.co.uk - The Scarlet Hotel, Tredragon road, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall, TR8 4DQ - 01637 861800
* A couple, but not all, of my nights at the Scarlet were subsidised by the hotel.