Mention the town of Padstow and Rick Stein’s is going to be the first name that comes to mind. On our August visit his brand is in evidence throughout with cookshops and home stores added to the ever-growing list of restaurants and hotels, the streets crowded with Stein-hunting visitors.
Although slightly less well known, another of the town’s adopted sons has been winning national recognition (and a Michelin star) for his food in the last few years. The shuttered windows of Paul Ainsworth’s eponymous restaurant provide a cool, contemporary space a little removed from the throngs outside. Although the decor is more smart boutique than ye olde Cornish, the West Country ingredients championed in the menu and the work of local artists and craftsmen on the walls and the tabletop give a strong sense of place.
On a Summer lunchtime visit we’re shown to a table in the shady front dining room. There’s also some outside space and a room upstairs. Our servers are relaxed and confident, their easy professionalism setting the tone for the meal to come. First to the table is excellent sourdough and homemade butter with an extra dish of whipped cod roe and crunchy pork. The focus of the kitchen is clear from the outset: well crafted food with interesting twists but always the emphasis on taste. Ainsworth’s flavour combinations are quite conservative by current standards and our lunch suffers not at all for that.
Super fresh mackerel comes lightly charred with an array of foliage and light, pickly flavours. The bold flavour of the fish more than a match for a few shavings of ham. Good eating.
Pork features again with a plump oyster enrobed in unctuous, fatty Cornish salami. The fennel and apple remoulade lightening and brightening.
The next dish is a surprise: there’s no indication in the menu that it will feature a soup. I’m worried that my usually soup-phobic other half will turn her nose up. No danger: she’s satisfied by the rich little canapés of bone marrow and caviar on the side and I’m happy to slurp down the last few spoonfuls of velvety parsley emulsion.
A middle course of seared foie gras atop sweet peppers and a ballottine of ham belly is one of the few dishes on the menu without a local ingredient as it’s star. Perhaps incidentally, it’s the only dish that doesn’t inspire. It’s a little bit dull, overly rich and the hazelnuts and peppers sit uncomfortably with the other elements.
Back on form with a quenelle of fantastic Port Isaac crabmeat and day boat cod. The skin has been salted, dried and deep fried to a crisp little puff. The opulent shellfish sauce is spiked with a little fenugreek. This is a type of dish that I’ve tasted many times before but the top quality ingredients take it to the next level. Beautiful.
The monkfish dish is more ambitious. First taste of the hoisin broth is brutally strong but once I heed the waiters explanation and use it to dress the stirred in crunchy leaves, the dish balances. The monkfish never gets the chance to really shine in this assembly, but it’s a nice dish nonetheless. Dish descriptions by the staff display their deep knowledge of the menu. No one puts a foot wrong and they’re happy to talk at length about the ingredients and they’re provenance.
Desserts are delicious. The homage to Gary Rhodes masterful bread and butter pudding is perfectly execute. No chef will ever better this version of the classic. The caramac, chocolate and pistachio confection is indulgent and fun.
A long drive back to London gives us a chance to ruminate on an excellent meal. Flavours are clean, honest and satisfying. Paul’s impeccible culinary roots (and probably his local audience) don’t allow for much overcomplication or cheffy grandstanding. There’s entertainment in the dishes but not at the cost of taste. Lunch of the Summer.