Falmouth is one of the sort of quaint harbour towns in Cornwall you always promised yourself you might one day retire to. Not as quaint as Mousehole (“Maow’zull”) but still pretty darn lovely, if you can put up with a chill breeze whistling off the Channel and down the estuary between Falmouth and St Mawes. As with many docks, this one has many of its old buildings restored to make the quays a fashionable place to stroll and dine and shop; Discovery Quay is no exception.
The big headline premises, visible from some distance away, screams the name “Rick Stein Fish!” Stein, you will recall, is famed for his original, and very expensive seafood restaurant in Padstow, then his career as a TV chef (with the aid of the late and legendary Chalky), and now an empire of seafood restaurants around various parts of his native county. Stein does a good line in passion and humility on TV, arguably a trademark to differentiate him from the Gordon Ramsays of this world, but I have no doubt that beneath the bluster and charm lies a steely heart, an eye for good business, and maybe a little more vanity than at first appears. The self-publicity of running your own TV series and book sales (with the attendant but misleading image of an idyllic life swanning around the local beaches and looking for razor clams) is a great boost to your business, but such charm offensive can only work if your baseline products are good and attract customers for the right reasons.
In Falmouth he has chosen to open a moderately-priced restaurant designed to appeal to all-comers, not simply those who enjoy fish (eg. Lamb and spinach curry and sirloin steak find their way in among the fishy main courses.) But then there is the takeaway, a proper fish and chip shop on the road side of the premises, where the restaurant is entered from the quay, behind. Granted the menu does include char-grilled hamburgers and “fish chilli burger”, but otherwise this is an excellent bill of fare, featuring fish and chip goodies such as cod, haddock, scampi and hake, plus starters such as scallops, tiger prawns, cockles and mussels. Not only that but mushy peas and curry sauce make a welcome appearance among the sides.
Initial impressions are good. The establishment looks new, clean and fresh. Fish is cooked fresh to order too. There will be some whose patience lapses but I always belonged to the school of thought that good things cooked fresh are always worth waiting for, and fried fish is unquestionably one of them. Five minutes is a small price to pay.
Yes there is the Stein name but credit where credit is due, he is doing things properly to get the finest flavour from his fishy comestibles. Prices are by no means vastly excessive, with cod at £6.20, haddock £6.50, chips £1.60 and mushy peas a bargain 85p! Best of all, in the finest north English tradition, beef dripping is the medium for frying. If you want to repeat the Stein recipe at home, you can even buy his batter mix.
The goods arrive in a judiciously-sized box. The chips are placed underneath a layer of greaseproof paper with the fish teasingly reclined on top and mushy peas hidden away in a carton. Serviettes are readily available, but it would have been helpful for a plastic fork to be offered – not least because eating mushies without a utensil is rather tricky. That said, I did manage by using chips to scoop up the peas, but it is a false economy for Rick’s team to stint on the forks.
Wandering round the harbour side, lunch was eaten courtesy of the table and chairs lined outside Rick Stein Fish. The freezing wind cooled down the food rather faster than I would have liked, but that was unavoidable in the circumstances. Initial impressions were highly favourable – a thin crisp layer of batter over a thick fillet of pearly white and very fresh haddock, perfectly cooked and beautifully flavoursome, helped in no small measure by the wonderfully aromatic dripping – I just hope it was sustainable! The batter did go a little soggy on the underside in the course of eating, which reminds me that us Brits at one time used to discard batter entirely in favour of the moist, succulent fish – and here said fish was undeniably excellent.
The chips were certainly twice-cooked, and much the better for it – crisper on the outside than your average soggy British chip shop chip, but decidedly fluffy and tender on the inside. Mushies were also excellent specimens, worthy of the “Lancashire caviar” of old. Good also to see proper malt vinegar on offer – something of a rarity these days of “non-brewed condiment”, whatever that is.
Never having eaten in any other Stein establishments, I can’t say whether they justify their prices or reputation, but as far as this takeaway is concerned I would happily visit again and pay for a splendid fish & chip supper. Nice one, Rick – stick to the knitting and you’ll do just fine!