Thursday, 31 March 2011

Eating out in (and around) Lyme Regis

Tuesday lunch at The George in Chideock:
Pub grub of the very highest order.

Becca and I returned last night from 5 days in Dorset, a short break that constituted our belated Christmas present to each other.  We stayed in Lyme Regis, which is a lovely place, and – not coincidentally – a place in which it is very easy to eat well.  It was, as you might imagine, quite a food-centric trip.  There was some fossil hunting too, of course, Becca being the offspring of one of our nation’s most eminent paleontologists, and Lyme Regis being pretty much where paleontology started, the jewel of the Jurassic Coast and all that (I may have made the “jewel” bit up, but if I have, and the Lyme Regis Tourist Board want to use it, then go ahead, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.  I’d happily  swap the strapline for fish…) but, at the risk of a stern look from Becca, or even her Dad, I’d suggest that the fossil hunting was mainly a pleasant – and, of course, educational – way of filling the hours between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner.

We were booked into Mark Hix’s Oyster & Fish House on our first evening, and were enjoying a restorative drink at the bar following the arduous five and a half hour Friday afternoon/evening slog out of London, down to and along the South Coast, when the man himself showed up, then joined us as we moved from bar to table and put the whole meal on the house, which was more than nice of him.  I’m not sure how journalistic ethics apply to blogs like this one, but I’m pretty sure you can’t legitimately review a restaurant in those circumstances, so I won’t.  I will just say that I can wholeheartedly - and honestly, with no sense of pay back – recommend the HIX IPA, the oysters, served with spicy little cocktail sausages, the fino sherry recommended to go with the oysters, the monkfish cheeks – much meatier than cod cheeks – the squid with pearl barley risotto, the scallops and the Hix Fix jelly (a morello cherry soaked in Somerset eau de vie, in prosecco jelly, with more prosecco poured over the top – the most alcoholic dessert Becca had ever had).  Which I think is everything we had.  Oh and the little amuse bouche of deep fried cuttlefish balls.  And the coffee was good too.  And the wine, a Picpoul, with which you can never go far wrong.  Thank you Mark.  And apologies to the staff, for the ridiculously and inadvertently meagre tip that was our sole contribution for a very fine evening.

We asked Mark for recommendations for other places to eat while in Lyme, and he got the waiter to put a call through to book us a table for the following night at his mate Anthony’s place.  Which again was a kindness, as I got the impression if we’d made the call ourselves we would have been told they were fully booked, which, to be fair, they were.  The only problem was that the next day, we did we knew neither where the restaurant was, nor what it was called.  Becca, to her credit, remembered at least that Mark’s mate’s name was Anthony – I thought it was probably Alastair.   So, after a fruitless hour or two in the afternoon, wandering the streets of Lyme, looking out for a place that might belong to an Anthony, or an Alastair, a small place, with a limited but ever changing menu, I had to return, rather sheepishly, to Hix and ask if they remembered where it was they had booked us into, what it was actually called, which turned out to be the Mill Tea and Dining Room, and how to find it. 

Even once, thanks to the very nice lady at Hix, we’d established all of that, our plan was further complicated by our hooking up with our very good friends Sarah and Jimmy who were in the area house hunting, having made the momentous decision to leave London and move their family down to the West Country where Jimmy has been offered a job teaching Art.  So now, in an ideal world, we wanted to change our late booking for a table for two, in a small restaurant that was already fully booked, into a table for four, at a couple of hours notice.  Here again it probably played in our favour that the booking had come via Mark Hix, and therefore we were mistaken for much more important people than I, at least, actually am.  I like to think though that it was more to do with the kindness, generosity and enthusiasm of Anthony and his partner, whose name I had erroneously convinced myself was actually Cleopatra (having been told it while concentrating hard on memorising the mildly convoluted directions for finding the restaurant), and their informal, slightly ad-hoc way of doing things.

Either way, when we called in at around 7.30 ahead of our booking at 9 to see if it might be possible to add two more people, ‘Cleopatra’ showed me the table they had prepared for Becca and I, which was not actually in the restaurant itself, but through a set of French windows leading into the art gallery next door, and said that if Sarah and Jimmy were happy to join us for drinks there, we could wait for a table for four to become free, which would probably be around 9.30.  When we returned at 9, none of the tables of four in the tiny dining room looked likely to clear any time soon, but a garden table and chairs had been brought into the gallery and set up alongside the previously laid table, and we were more than happy to settle ourselves in there for the duration.  As it turned out it wouldn’t be for the duration, we would decamp from the gallery to the dining room between starters and mains, but that was all part of the evening’s charm.  It was too social – and, I admit, boozy – an evening to do the food justice in anything that tried to pass itself off as a proper restaurant review here, but all the food we were served was genuinely excellent, and the service - from ‘Cleopatra’, who was running the floor on her own, so it was as well that she appeared slightly hyperactive – was both exceptional and exceptionally eccentric (they use the word themselves on their website, so I feel confident of causing no offence.  My apologies if that confidence is misplaced, there is certainly none intended) and indeed entertaining.  I can’t remember the last time dinner at a restaurant was quite so much actual fun.  And, at forty quid a head, with home made sloe gins on the house at the end - to make up for the improvised table arrangements when it had been entirely us putting them to trouble and not at all the other way round – it came to terrific value for money, however you measured it.

So, if you’re going to Lyme Regis for the weekend, I would strongly recommend booking yourself into both Hix Oyster & Fish House and the Mill Tea and Dining Room.  If you can only afford one fancy restaurant meal in the course of that weekend, then, at a pinch, I’d probably say go for Anthony and Eleanor (I looked it up on their website), they probably need your business more.  Sorry Mark.  And sorry Anthony and Eleanor if that last bit sounds in any way patronising.  OK, look, everyone: Just go to Lyme Regis and eat at both their restaurants – that way everybody’s happy…

Where else?  Becca and I went for Sunday lunch at the River Cottage Canteen, in nearby Axminster.  Now, regular readers of this blog will now that I have nothing but time for Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and all he stands for.  What you probably don’t know is that Tim Maddams, who appears regularly on River Cottage TV programs and runs the kitchen at the Canteen, was, if only briefly, a colleague of mine at the Rivington; and of all the chefs I ever worked with he was the one I liked, respected, and from whom I learnt, the most.  So it pains me greatly to say that of all the culinary expectations I set off to the West Country with last weekend, Sunday lunch was the one slight disappointment.  It wasn’t that it was bad, just a bit underwhelming.  The razor clams we started with – and I love razor clams – were big and fat and meaty, but, perhaps even partly because of their size, could have done with a bit more piquancy in their dressing, more garlic, maybe a little chilli.  The roast mutton was the big let down though, beautifully tender and full flavoured though it was.  Becca’s portion (and the portions were very generous, I would like to say, in mitigation) was obviously cut from the outside of the joint, and was, arguably, verging on overdone.  Mine, cut from the middle, was rare to the point of scarcely cooked.  And while I like my meat rare, this was just a little bit slippery in texture.  It probably would have been fine had the portions been mixed with each plate carrying the full spectrum from raw to well done, and admittedly we could have arranged this ourselves at the table, but even so, I’m afraid this mutton would have compared poorly with the standard set by Becca’s birthday mutton at St John back in October.  Which is perhaps like disparaging someone’s dancing on the grounds that it’s not as good as Fred Astaire, say, but even so.  Sorry Tim.  Perhaps I should have made more of a point of coming on a day you were actually in the kitchen…

And perhaps we should have gone for Sunday lunch at the George in Chideock, which is just the sort of proper old fashioned pub, with an open fire and everything, that Sundays and lunch were invented for.  And, Tim, if it makes you feel any better, it was thanks to the link on your Facebook page that we found it.  It is a proper old fashioned pub, but it is under the new management of ex River Cottage people, who seem to be doing that thing that should be relatively simple but is so clearly difficult to achieve that it almost never is, of keeping what it is about proper old fashioned pubs that’s really good, and that we all like, while introducing new fangled things like proper, seriously good food.  I guess part of the secret is in keeping that seriously good food very simple and completely unpretentious.  We went there for lunch on Tuesday and ordered the fish of the day, Pollack in a local beer batter, and a venison burger off the daily specials board.  And shared a starter of potted pork and piccalilli.  

Forgive me if I review this meal in reverse: the burger was big, dense and richly meaty, topped with a caramelised red onion and cumin relish, the cumin in which was the element of the unexpected that raised it from being just a really good burger to something really quite special.  It was every bit as good as it looks in the accompanying picture (my picture, that is, not theirs, they may be committed to simplicity and a lack of pretension at The George, but that doesn't quite extend to having pictures on the menu) which, experience has surely taught us since childhood, is something that can almost never be said of a burger.  

The fish was just about perfect too, gleaming white, firm yet softly flaking flesh, that tasted like real fish from the actual sea, inside a light, brightly golden batter that was crisp without being over crunchy and with (for me) just the right amount of melting sogginess on the inside where it met the fish.  Again, every bit as good as it looks.  

But the real star, and the reason I’m saving it till last, was the starter of potted pork.  Which goes straight on to my list (I haven’t determined quite how long a list it is, it’s just a top whatever) of all time best things I’ve ever had in a restaurant.  Slow (and I’m guessing real slow) cooked pork, potted in it’s own fat, served with the best piccalilli I’ve ever tasted with just the right balance of sweetness, vinegar and mustard heat, a handful of cornichons and a couple of slices of good granary toast.  For anyone who likes pork (and regular readers will have guessed by now that both Becca and I like our pork) then this was piggy heaven.  Actually sublime. 

1 comment:

  1. I was delighted to hear that The Mill Tea & Dining Rooms was declared winner of best restaurant in the South West in the 2011 Good Food Guide awards announced in May, which, along with Orwells (I was delighted to hear that The Mill Tea & Dining Rooms was declared winner of best restaurant in the South West in the 2011 Good Food Guide awards announced in May, which, along with Orwells (see post 5th May), makes me two for two on regions I’ve eaten at restaurants in the UK so far this year.

    I promise I hold no sway with the judges, but will gladly accept offers of free meals in good restaurants in these and all other regions…