To me at any rate, it is shocking that neither Jackie nor I had ever traveled to South-West England before our mid-May trip to North Cornwall. I suppose we were busy spending time in the opposite corner of the island, where Jackie's family hails from.
We finally made it, though, visiting old friends in the prettiest fishing village -- Port Isaac -- where we stayed in the comfortable Bay Hotel, which offers sea views from many rooms and is equipped with a good WiFi signal and a lazy, friendly Great Dane. We had a couple of days of perfect sun, when the sea looked positively Caribbean, or at least Mediterranean. This was a purely visual effect: The few swimmers we spied were wearing wetsuits against the cold. We also had a day of cloudy, rainy weather, which changed the water from bright blue to the steeliest gray, a transformation well worth seeing.
Apart from viewing the Celtic Sea, there is much else to do in this area, especially if you like country walks (here, for instance) and if you find old churches and even older stone crosses as interesting as we did, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm and expertise of our friends Janet and John. Most of the churches we visited had explanatory booklets for sale; for us, these were indispensable.
One happy constant in England is the ubiquity of pubs (serving very good local ales such as Doom Bar from Sharp's Brewery and Tribute and Proper Job from St. Austell). There are evidently fewer pubs than there used to be, but we always managed to fill our quota: a half pint of cask ale for every couple of churches. In one village we were able to get both, along with a nice sandwich of local crab and a salad of lightly smoked sausage, bacon and poached egg, at the St. Kew Inn.
Note that a car (not to mention a designated driver if you adopt our ratio of sightseeing to beer-drinking) is imperative, as is either a GPS gizmo or a friend who knows the roads, many of which are one-car narrow, minimally signposted and hemmed in by very tall hedges.
This is all very rural. But at mealtimes you are by no means limited to Cornish pasties or bread and cheese, and we had good experiences at the restaurants of two chef-owners well known in the UK and not entirely unheard of in the US: Nathan Outlaw and Rick Stein.
Mr. Outlaw cooks an ever-changing seafood tasting menu (£85, or $135, typically for nine courses) at his two-Michelin-star Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in the sleekly refurbished St. Enodoc Hotel in the village of Rock. For this tiny restaurant, reservations must be made further in advance than we were able to plan, so we booked a table instead at Mr. Outlaw's simply decorated Seafood and Grill Restaurant across the lobby. Here, once you get beyond the first courses, the straightforward menu is akin to a modern steakhouse's: for their main dishes diners choose a locally caught fish (or locally raised meat) from a brief listing of, say, four fish (along with specials; Port Isaac lobster the night we were there) and three meats, then a sauce to accompany it, plus side dishes.
We started with glasses of aromatic but dry sparkling wine from the nearby Camel Valley Winery (which you can visit, as we did) and a sort of fritto misto of salmon (its breading intriguingly blackened with squid ink), oysters and monkfish cheeks; all elements would have benefited from slightly briefer cooking. Jackie's mussels (from Porthilly, just down the Camel Estuary) were plump and briny and their Doom Bar-based broth well balanced (especially noteworthy as beer isn't the easiest liquid to cook with). My smoked mackerel pâté was perfectly seasoned, though the beets that tinted the accompanying grilled bread did little for its flavor.
My main course of turbot was roasted to moist perfection, with a gorgeous gilded surface; my choice of sauce - orange-rosemary butter - was served in just the right quantity, enough to make its mark but not so much as to outshout the fish. The lobster butter pooling in the shell of Jackie's lobster was dreamy and intense. A lemon pudding was rather like a light, too-buttery financier; the elderflower ice cream it came with lacked flavor and aroma. The other dessert we ordered was excellent: a rhubarb crumble whose topping remained crunchy until not a crumb was left.
Would I travel down from London to eat here? Okay, that is a silly question, but the answer is no; while main courses were a delight, the cooking was not consistent enough, and it isn't really an "occasion" restaurant. But I would return if I were already in Cornwall, and I would certainly be eager to give the fancier Outlaw restaurant a whirl.
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To get from Rock to Padstow you can take a cute little ferry, which sometimes, though not when we were there, you need to hail with a flag (provided in a box on the beach). When you arrive, you are on Rick Stein territory: in this 3,000-person village he operates four restaurants and three shops (plus a pub, another restaurant and a deli elsewhere in the area). Clearly there is plenty of tourism. And if you need a brand-name place to stay, he's got 40 rooms scattered among his properties.
We had lunch at his principal restaurant, The Seafood Restaurant, a spacious dining room not quite on the waterside (parked cars mar the view). Jackie started with a few oysters, again from Porthilly; they had something of the creamy richness I associate with Pacific oysters but at the same time were strikingly bright and briny. My first course was a pile of crabmeat and a teaspoonful of "brown crab meat" -- the other stuff in the carapace -- with a refreshing salad of cucumber and wakame seaweed dressed in a mildly Japanese way. There was also mayonnaise ostensibly spiked with wasabi, but this was so understated as to be silent.
Jackie and I did not coordinate our orders and both wound up with fish and chips: ultra-fresh, perfectly seasoned cod in a batter that stayed crisp as lunch progressed and chunky french fries. There was also tartare sauce for the fish-and-chips heretics (us). Our friends also did not coordinate and both ordered turbot; it came in nice thick bone-in portions, perfectly cooked and served with hollandaise sauce. We drank an excellent Muscadet, a wine that is easily forgotten but that, when from a good producer, has a lot going for it.
Stein's menu is lengthy and varied: while it offers plenty of plain fresh fish, there are a number of more elaborate dishes and even hints of Asia. For that alone it would be a particularly appealing restaurant, but the appeal is bolstered by very good cooking. It would be worth the boat ride even if you had to stand at water's edge waving a flag to catch the ferryman's attention.
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Nathan Outlaw Seafood & Grill. St. Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall PL27 6LA; +44 (0) 1208 862 737; www.nathan-outlaw.com (reservations may be made online, but not for the fancier Restaurant Nathan Outlaw); open for lunch and dinner every day. Three-course dinner for two, about £135 ($210) including wine and service.
Rick Stein's The Seafood Restaurant. Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall, PL28 8BY; +44 (0) 1841 532 700; www.rickstein.com/The-Seafood-Restaurant.html; open for lunch and dinner every day. Three-course dinner for two, about £130 ($205) including wine and service.