Sand Bar, Praa Sands, Cornwall

Location, location, location.  You certainly couldn’t argue with the location of the Sand Bar, being bang on the extended surf beach at Praa Sands (pronounced “pray”), as pristine as any beach you could find on these fair isles.  As a venue though, the Sand Bar is not a classic British pub like the Halzephron Inn, but in its own way cool and quirky. A very popular venue too, as people drove in from miles around and the surfers wandered up from the beach to chill.

Having said that, the Sand Bar describes itself as a pub but isn’t – it’s a place to hang out, hold a party, eat lunch, have a morning coffee, drink with your mates, bring the kids, do what you want.  It reminds me far more of the continent than the sort of establishment you tend to find in the UK, though the menu is a mix-and-match affair, extending from snacks and sarnies via tapas, kiddy menus, burgers and pizzas, steaks and seafood, right through to the Sunday carvery – which was the objective of the birthday party that arrived on a particular sunny Sunday in July.

A small diversion though into the world of carveries, which as we all know are eternally popular in the British dining psyche, and can be good, bad or distinctly ugly.  They are first cousins to buffet culture, much loved by my mother.  I’m not especially keen on buffets, nor carveries for that matter, though I will acknowledge up front that the best might serve a very decent meal.  Many don’t, and for the same reasons that buffets often don’t.

For example, a chef may cook a joint to perfection, but after an hour or more sat under the infra red lights the probability is that it will be tough as shoe leather and way past its best, notably red meat joints like beef and lamb that for optimum dining depend on being rosy and succulent in the middle.

So what do we do?  All in for a tenner, never mind the quality, feel the width!  We pile up the various meats regardless.Then we are caught up with the myriad of vegetable options and other accompaniments – don’t we love our Yorkshire puds, without caring if they are served with meats other than the traditional roast beef, though like the meat they may over time turn to cardboard.

Individually the veg may be great, but by the time they are piled high on a plate they are submerged beneath the welter of cooked ingredients.  I’m very partial to braised red cabbage and cook it myself to serve with a number of carefully-chosen dishes.  In the context of a carvery, a pile of red cabbage on the top taints everything underneath in purple, where a well-chosen dinner will allow flavours to combine and contrast easily.  With a plateful they add no value – the whole becomes significantly less than the sum of the parts.

Then there is the gravy, which should be made from meat juices and ideally in the roasting tin.  Here you have many different meats, so gravy ends up as a generic brown gloop originating in a packet. It doesn’t take much effort to make a really good gravy that resonates with the depth of flavour of our chosen meat, so why do we, the paying public, accept such a blatantly inferior product?

Sad to say, the carvery at the Sand Bar fell into this latter camp.  I wanted desperately to like it but should have chosen separately.  The gammon looked tasty, but I went for some beef and lamb overcooked to the point of toughness, and pork that I could barely taste, so drowned out was it.  Unlike the recent trip to the County Arms, there was crackling present, but not even that could make its presence felt.  My comments above about veg and gravy all apply.  Shame really, since the ingredients themselves looked perfectly decent and may well have been cooked with competence and enjoyed, had they been cooked to order.  In the carvery canteen, you simply can’t taste and enjoy.

One of our party selected a vegetarian option of mushrooms and what looked like gnocchi in a stilton sauce.  Not necessarily what I was in the mood for, but it may well have been a better choice in the circumstances.  Looking around the dining room, the pizza didn’t appear to be the finest example of the art, though the burgers gave off good vibes, if burgers can give off vibes.

A word about the service: our waitress was young and enthusiastic, but made one mistake – the water brought for tea was cold rather than hot, a minor indiscretion, soon sorted.  She also proved willing by bringing a sharp knife, small plates and forks for the birthday cake.  In fact all the staff came across as polite and eager to please, not something you could say about every pub or restaurant.

But then, from the management’s point of view at the Sand Bar, their carvery sells well so why should they do anything different?  I hope the answer is that they care about quality and will aim to differentiate by finding a different way to serve the Sunday lunch.  Evidently I am but a lone voice, but I hope they care enough to improve one or two notches.

Either way, put your feet up and enjoy the sunshine.  Mañana!

PS.  This is the reply from owner Steve:

Hi Andy,
Thanks for taking the time to write, and send us, your thoughtful review of Sandbar. I’ll start by saying that my partner Rosie was a bit miffed by a lot of the review, and thought it rather over critical. However, you have hit on some areas that I have thought about and struggled with over the years, and I think that you might appreciate a response.
First off, you were wrong about the pizzas – they’re great! (providing you’re not a fan of stodgy deep-dish, heavily over-topped Chicago-style abominations) – you should have tried one.
When we took the bar on, 12 years ago, It was a very tired, old fashioned, seasonal pub, aimed very much at the cheap family holiday market. 
We wanted to turn it into something that would give a bit of the flavour of beach bars in Australia/Bali/Goa etc. for plumpish middle-aged sedentary Brits – like me! To that end we threw out all the cheap generic drinks, brought in the espresso machine, smoothies, and reasonably good quality food. Not cheap (as you will have noticed), but not too expensive, and with a relaxed atmosphere where anyone, apart from the traditional British Drunk, would feel welcome. However, trying to get this balance does mean that we have ended up with a menu that is lacking a defined direction. (You could say mish-mash – We, of course, prefer ‘eclectic’).
One of my biggest dilemmas was over introducing a Carvery. When I was young, fit and keen, I had spent about 25 ears as a chef. I was confident (arrogant?) enough to just cook food that I liked, and trust that sufficient customers would share my tastes. As a chef I hated carverys, for all the reasons that you  set out in your review of Sandbar.

However, after “retiring” as a chef, I did run a carvery for friends for a few months. I was frankly amazed at just how popular the carvery was, and got quite interested in the logistics and compromises involved in producing half way decent meals, with very limited staff, in basically school canteen conditions.

Having decided to have a carvery at Sandbar we have, over the years, tried out various options and cooking methods, and are always ready to improve. We’ve tried various joints, including Mutton, slow-roast/stuffed shoulder lamb/pork, braised Brisket, and (my own favourite) fore-rib of Beef on the bone. Whilst all of these have their fans within our customer base, and the more unusual joints had a very high degree of satisfaction with a few “discerning” customers, the vast majority demand the blander, leaner cuts. I decided to stop being so ‘sniffy’ about food, and to try to give customers what they want, not what I think they should have.

Unfortunately these cuts can also easily become dry, as you pointed out. You were a bit unlucky that Sunday, ‘cus our head chef had been taken ill on the Saturday, and the other guys in the kitchen were unfamiliar with our (admittedly complicated) auto-oven. While Top Rump will never (for me) compare to fore-rib, we do usually manage to produce a joint that is both tender and juicy.

Anyway, sorry that your meal was not as good as it should have been, and be assured that we do take comments and criticisms seriously, and will always try to improve food/service. If you’re out our way again, say hello. I’m Steve, the short plump guy with grey beard & glasses, and I’m usually doing the carving.

Cheers,

Steve.

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