Last week, Ryan Sutton, the chief restaurant critic at America’s eater.com megablog (vertical? online magazine?) dismantled both the Parisian gastro-temple, L’Arpege, and the increasingly popular act of destination dining.
It’s a strong essay. Brew a coffee, pull up a chair and read it. Slowly. Whether you’ve been and his experience was entirely different yours, or you feel his taste might not be one that matches your own, it appears reasoned.
The relatively long piece ebbs and flows, engages you, makes you smile, nod, raise an eyebrow, perhaps shake your head in disbelief. Dare I say it, it’s the kind of restaurant writing we don’t really get over here; because the reviews in the papers don’t have the word count (and/or are about entertainment), online mags pump out press statements, and barely anyone reads blogs, so why write? (Hi Mum).
His beef with L’Arpege is multi-portioned: poor service; grossly underwhelming food; disjointed menu; a yappy Pomeranian; perhaps unmatchable expectations; and certainly an extraordinary bill. Lunch for a solo diner with a single glass of wine cost €414. Enough to make anyone wince; even those earning dollars and are therefore yet to take back control.
But it is his comments relating to destination dining in general that I’ve found myself re-reading and pondering.
Do series like Chef’s Table and guides like The World’s 50 Best expose “novice gourmands” too readily to excessive financial burdens “and the crushing heartbreak” if expectations are not met? (Bit patronising, but yes.)
Does the promise of “yet another generic, tweezer-plated tasting menu justify sacrificing an entire evening in a country the diner might never visit again”? (Don’t tell my wife, but probably not.)
Should tourists “really commit to a thirty-course meal before they know whether they’ll be jet-lagged or homesick”, particularly if it means missing out on the surprisingly good and authentic local near the hotel? (Hmmmm, yeeeeessss, but successful spontaneity is easier written than done).
And I was interested in his reflection that, in his experience, only a handful of restaurants have justified a pilgrimage (the El Bullis, Fat Ducks of early 2000s, and Nomas of this world). “L’Arpège, by contrast, is operating in a heavily crowded field of farm-to-table restaurants across the globe, and I can’t say that it’s operating anywhere near the front of that pack.”
Which brings me, along an appropriately winding road, to the actual subject of this post: Coombeshead Farm in North Cornwall.
Having a proprietory interest over farm or kitchen garden is becoming a bit of a thing for chefs. Once the defining difference between Ray White over at Le Manoir and the rest, an increasing number of restaurants are now attaching themselves to inner city vegetable patches and out of town projects. From Phil Howard with his square of Fulham Palace, and The Clove Club with their Hackney plot, through to Skye Gyngell at Spring who’s served solely by Biodynamic Herefordshire farm Fern Verrow, to the enterprising Birch and idyllic Ethicurean in Bristol, and Simon Rogan with his productive Cumbrian fields. To know, exactly, where your spuds are from reflects an absolute focus on produce, and probably a bit of OCD too. Sutton is right ’n all — this is a global trend, probably with Dan Barber’s Blue Hill farm, barn and restaurant both outside and inside NYC in the lead.
As far as trends of recent years go it’s surely one of the better, likely to be long-lasting ones. After all, really good food starts with good ingredients. So if a restaurant’s completely immersed in the husbandry, harvesting and production of the ingredients they use, then there’s potential for both the people working there, and, yeah, sometimes the customers too, to have a unique experience — with no need for the aforementioned generic tweezering.
Tom Adams (founder of Pitt Cue) and April Bloomfield (nose-to-tail Brummy who’s a smash in New York) opened their own Cornish field-to-fork project in July this year. It remains early days and there’ll be years and years of maturing to come, but the seeds are planted and it’s already a little beauty.
Set in 60 or so acres of bucolic, rolling countryside, Coombeshead Farm is neither a hotel with a restaurant, nor would it be accurate to label it a ‘restaurant with rooms’. Rather, right now at least, it’s a dining table with a guesthouse and smallholding-gearing-up-to-be-a-farm attached. I stayed for two nights one month ago.
The place is immediately calming. You drive into a large, quiet, grey, courtyard flanked by former milking barns. Park up, get out the car, stretch, scratch, blink. Behind you, verdant, sheep-filled fields sloping down to streams and copses (to which you should walk before dinner, or either side of breakfast). In front, a modest farmhouse, probably with smoke pluming from the chimney, and possibly from the clay oven, fire pit or Big Green Egg either side of the house, which hints at the meal to come.
There’s no reception desk or bell to ring. Most likely you’ll be met by Adams’ partner, or just wander into the kitchen to find him stirring a battered Le Creuset milk pan on the Aga. It feels a little like you’ve happened upon a friend’s house. Albeit it a very comfortable one, and one you’re welcome to stay for dinner at, as well as kip the night. The beds, rooms, communal areas are all nicely done, with understated, rural-appropriate, contemporary style. But whilst the bulk of the bill is for the board, really the food is why you’re there. So I’ll focus on that.
From 7pm people congregate for dinner.
On one night most draped themselves across the sofas in the living room, on the other (and this is surely more common) everyone stood around the kitchen distracting the chefs as they tried to cook and plate; as if it were a dinner party or family gathering. Glass of wine to get you going? Pre-dinner gin based cocktail (with blackberry and nettle cordial during my stay)? Up to you, it’s all very relaxed.
It becomes clear that the casual informality is deceptive when the snacks start to roll. There were a plethora of different treats over the two meals, not least flawless, rich, sweet, tangy, melting home-cured back fat and curls of shoulder ham from Adams’ mangalitza pigs (crucially served at body temperature, which is almost never the case); the world’s greatest pork scratchings with a greengage ketchup; and various root purées, pickles, grated cheeses and cured egg yolks on paper thin crackers, all of which burst with extraordinary intensity when popped in the mouth.
Here’s the menu from the first night.
It’s short, sweet and simple, isn’t it?
Which is good because it reflects the fact that this isn’t a fiddly tasting event, or a starchy, showy meal where presentation trumps the pleasure of eating.
But it’s also totally useless as an indicator of the amount of work that will have gone into every element – written down or otherwise. Around the larder and wine cellar there are stacks of kilner jars, fermenting crocks, mills for different grains. There’s a prep kitchen in one of the barns (where, eventually, a restaurant will spring). Prime cuts hang, other cuts cure and smoke. The chickens wondering around the yard, the vegetable patch, the bee hives, the fact that Tom and his sous are always, always in the kitchen(s) … it’s not just for show.
More snacks happen prior to the monkfish that will apparently kick-off our meal. Though this time they’re on plates at the dining table, which 8-10 of you sit around. Together (it’s a communal, round one table affair).
We take our share of smooth, chicken liver pate, unctuous rillettes with fermented wild garlic flowers, exemplary whipped cod’s roe, smoked eel with pickled turnip — all the good things. Arguably, though, the outstanding sourdough and butter, and a plate of ferments which served as cutting, invigorating support, remain the most memorable things of the weekend. The pickles, by the way, weren’t gherkins or cabbage, but piquant and fizzing fermented nasturtium buds, ramsons, plums and elderberry capers; which indicates to anyone interested that the aim is to make the most of absolutely everything around the farm.
The menu proper is, understandably, not so far from the grown-up version of Pitt Cue. It’s just served in a homely style around a small table, starting one night with cured monkfish (possibly too salted), another with a steaming pot of fresh Cornish mussels.
Mangalitza loin was like no other piece of pork I’ve eaten. Thick, heavily charred and caramelised yet still blushing pink within, this had the funk and depth of aged beef, but also the nutty sweetness of Iberico or Alentejan black pigs, as well as the oozing juiciness of a slowly roast (but not to the point of pulling) Tamworth shoulder. The kind of meat that silences a room. Insane, sticky, rich beef ribs the next night had a similar effect. When you go, maybe it’ll be lamb shoulder from the pit outside that stops the conversation. Or a whole monkfish or turbot cooked over fire to share. Or something completely different.
A word, too, for the quality of the sides. Even with meat or fish of the highest calibre, vegetables are more interesting, aren’t they? There’s more that can be done, more twists and turns a cook can take. For all of Tom’s meaty, Pitt Cue and pig farmer background, I suspect he recognises this too. If not, then it was just luck that the salt-baked celeriac drenched with cheesy whey were among the best and most more-ish things I’ve eaten in 2016, with the tangy, warmed, skinned tomatoes and oregano not far behind.
The jelly and custard to finish was, obvs, more impressive than the menu description, though it was still just that: blackberries from the then abundant hedges were the focus, with creamy, balanced set custard and plenty of crunch on top. A reminder, in case the snacks and mains made you forget, that it’s just simple comfort food and some pickles, honest.
Breakfast will, I suspect, become Fäviken-esque in reputation. The dining room, when bathed in early morning sun, takes on a similarly peaceful and restorative quality to that of Magnus Nilsson’s pine-lined lodgings, whilst the spread is similarly considered and hygge-inducing: multi-grain bircher, homemade granola, luscious yoghurt, full-flavoured milk, compotes and jams, kombuchas, their own honey, more of that outrageous bread and butter, and a stupendous hog’s pudding sausage, centimetre thick belly bacon, fermented tomato ketchup and soupy scrambled egg fry-up. They buy in local apple juice, plus tea and coffee, though. Tsk.
It’s actually helpful to have a quality hotel or restaurant (or home) breakfast soon after for reference, just so you are fully aware of how good this is. In part because it feels modest, and humble, and quiet; much like the food the night before, and the rooms in which you lounge and sleep. This is not a Soho House interpretation of country. It’s just good.
Coombeshead Farm is definitely not perfect (yet). You, the interested foodie, the appreciator of hard work and genuine hospitality will love it. But your partner or pal who thought they were just off to the country for a swanky, trendy meal and a dirty weekend might be underwhelmed. More acutely, this is a communal occasion. Which many people (understandably) dread. I suspect that nine times out of ten guests will be surprised by how speaking to interesting strangers can provide great memories, particularly as they’ve probably a common interest in good food. But there is the genuine threat of sitting opposite a fun tampon, or being dominated by the town bore or a larger group.
The most first-world complication of all comes when trying to work out how many nights you should stay — it’s a hell of a long way to go for just one (unless you’re already south-west) and I’m very glad I stayed two, however the menu is necessarily not so different one night to the next.
Even so, it’s very definitely a special place. And it was a pleasure to experience the embryonic beginnings of what seems likely to be a remarkable project; which is already brilliantly hospitable and memorable (so don’t hold back if it sounds like your kind of thing). Tom said something along the lines of “really, I just want people to come, chill out, and fill up.” And that’s exactly what happens.
Where am I going with all this? Why the long ramble about destination dining and farm-to-fork restaurants, before an equally long ramble about my tea (and breakfast)?
I actually think that destination restaurants and gastro-travel are a totally legitimate form of entertainment, and is probably an underpriced one too; relative to the highest echelons of sport, fashion, cars and hotels, eating out is the most affordable luxury of modern times, mostly subsidised by low profits, overworked restaurant staff, and underpaid (if ever) producers. L’Arpege may even be the only place that actually charges as they should.
Yes, on occasion the meal will be genuinely poor, or there’ll be service that grates, but at other times disappointment is more likely due to a level of expectation that can’t be matched (for which the restaurant’s PR, the food media but also the the wound-up customer should each accept their portion of responsibility), or because a customer has simply chosen a decent but not extraordinary restaurant in the belief that because they’ve made a journey, there will be an epiphany.
Ryan Sutton’s concerns are, of course, valid to a point: I don’t want hype-induced heartache, generic tweezer menus, or to have wasted money on a fancy meal when something more authentic, fun and flavoursome could be found next door …
Coombeshead Farm is the only reason that you’ll visit the village of Lewannick. It doesn’t pretend that the £50 menu will take you to a place where classical scores crescendo as you eat; it’s just honest food, made from scratch from the land around it. i.e. much like The Sportsman, the food is ingredient focused, clever but unpretentious, and ultimately bloody tasty. It’s the kind of place I’ll happily travel to eat. A proper destination.
Coombeshead Farm in 3 words
Homemade. Quality. Destination.
Best split between two of you… single occupancy rooms are £110/120, double £175/185 inclusive of breakfast. Plus £50 per person for dinner with all drinks charged additionally.
coombesheadfarm.co.uk — Lewannick, Cornwall, PL15 7QQ — 01566 782 009
PS: Apologies it turned into such a long one.