Well, yes, I think it can. In fact, I’m sure of it.
Nathan Outlaw is the chef who puts the dinner together, along with a small team. You’ll find his restaurant in the St Enodoc Hotel, overlooking the small town of Rock, the muddy/sandy coves around the Camel estuary and the undulating fields beyond. It’s a fine view by any standards: quiet, wavy, swelling and subsiding in various shades of dun and green, oddly seductive, in an understated, very British way.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the last place in the UK you looked for very fresh, very well handled, very well cooked fish was beside the sea. British seaside towns were notorious for the squalor of their restaurants and their ignorance of the great produce that swam in the waters along their promenades. This all began to change — what? 35 years ago — with Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, just across the estuary from Rock. It’s still taken a long time for the rest of the country to catch up.
But the Seafood Restaurant is what you might call Old School, polishing up classic recipes from around the world. Nathan Outlaw is very much New School. He’s one of a generation of British chefs scattered all over the country, who make dishes according to a personal vision of food, who owe much to tradition, who are aware of contemporary developments in technique and technology, but who simply use these as a basis for personal expression.
And so to dinner. It kicks off with a dainty nibble of a salad of brown shrimps on toast: seaweed-and-butterscotch, slightly chewy shrimps; gently acidic, crunchy salad. Two mouthfuls and it’s gone.
Next, John Dory fillets, taut, virile and muscular, with an airy, fresh parsley sauce (a touch of crème fraîche? A hint of vinegar?), as elegant as a suede glove.
Then along comes a heap of cool, white crab meat, sweet as you like. It has that sparkling, dancing quality that you get only with prime crab, cooked with complete mastery of timing and technique, and picked during the day. It sits on a few wafer-thin coils of crisp, aniseedy fennel. Around it is a puddle of beautifully modulated brown sauce mined with tiny cubes of apple. Brown crab meat and mayo, I think, thinned with, hmm, crab stock or cooking water. A hint of curry. The cubes of crunchy apple are clean and bright.
Now for some sea bass, skin fried crisp and brittle, flesh firm and flaky, with a sauce of classic velvet richness, shellfish-based, fleshed out with fruity peppers. On the side there’s something called mussel butter, to be plonked on top of toasted saffron brioche. It has a texture more like mussel parfait to me, smooth, soft, suave. There’s nothing remotely contemporary about this dish. Its structure, combinations, voluptuous flavours are rooted in the past, but I very much doubt if it’s ever been better cooked.
And a final fish dish, or fish and meat, to be exact: bustling, bouncy turbot, with a hint of Marmite about it, that sits very easily with a slice of lamb breast free of all fat and gelatine, cooked to a certain surface crustiness. There’s beetroot, too, and a red wine reduction dolled up with beetroot juice, oh, and loads else besides. This is turf and surf of a particularly individual and satisfying variety.
There are puddings afterwards, a cool rhubarb jelly with warm gingery knobs on, very clean and cool; and a coffee cheesecake, soft and emollient. To be truthful, nice though those these are, in essence they provide a gentle coming down to earth after the understated brilliance of what came before.
Understated brilliance – that seems the right phrase. Outlaw’s approach to cooking is too unshowy for blazing fireworks. His food is not an exercise in ego. Each dish is built up with considered care, the combinations lovingly crafted. There is a passionate respect for the primary ingredients, which are sourced with unremitting insistence on what is freshest, what is best. This is high cooking in the sense that there’s a keen sense of personality behind it, even if that originality and personality are camouflaged by perfect pitch, balance and craftsmanship.
So I pay up my £75 for the food very willingly. Actually, the bill for two comes to rather more than that, because we had a bottle of a splendid dry German Scheurebe, a rare wine to find anywhere, but a fabulous accompaniment to fish and shellfish. It wasn’t cheap, but who cares? I was happy. Happy with the room, which is restfully well spaced, comfortable and civilised; happy with the service, which was cheerful, charming, and nicely paced; and, above all, happy with the food. After all, it only works out at £12.50 a course or just over £10 if you count that shrimp nibble to start with. That’s fair money by any standards.
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, St Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall PL27 6LA.
Tel 01208 863394,
If you need lunch rather than dinner, or can’t face the full tasting menu experience of the senior restaurant, there’s the Nathan Outlaw Seafood & Grill, a brasserie, with all the bustle, buzz, children and cheeriness that that suggests. The ingredients are sourced with the same attention to detail, quality and locality, but are treated very simply. First courses are £6-£10, main courses £14-£22, puddings £6-£8.
After an exhausting morning standing by an immensely resourceful and determined AA man as he attempted (successfully in the end) to open my car, which had mysteriously locked itself, with my keys inside (don’t ask), I consoled myself with St Enodoc’s very own asparagus with butter, and then a plaice with anchovies and tarragon, both simple and perfect. By the time I’d finished, I was consoled and soothed.
Nathan Outlaw Seafood & Grill, St Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall, PL27 6LA.
The St Enodoc Hotel is perched above Rock, a very attractive fusion of English country house comfort (not the same as luxury, and much to be preferred) and New England cool design. It’s a very fine and friendly place from which to explore the pleasures of the Camel estuary, and to sleep after dinner.
St Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall PL27 6LA.
Tel: 01208 863394