captives of the king of padstein

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The trouble with revisiting childhood haunts as an adult is that you destroy the original memory, paper it over; I have a dim memory of my eight-year-old self joggling down the main street of Clovelly in Devon on the back of a donkey in brilliant sunshine. Now this charming picture has been obliterated by the rather more recent memory of teetering down on foot in a howling November gale.

I wouldn't have thought it was possible to seal off an entire village and charge to go in it, but that's what they've done. You process through the shiny Visitors' Centre, with its stalls of Devon fudge and cross-legged pixies and pay your pounds 1.80 for ... what exactly? It's just two rows of whitewashed small cottages, struggling down a steep cobbled street to the sea.

There are very few villagers, scores of cats, and the imbalance starts to look vaguely occult. They slink out from alleys, sit on steps, peer from behind railings. One has even set up house in an abandoned crab-pot. A three-legged tortoiseshell ostentatiously ignores its battered, white, one-eyed neighbour. There are cats on sentry duty, shifty cats, preoccupied cats. A fat fluffy number, who couldn't look more off-duty if he were smoking a fag, sprawls on a bench, looking out to sea. Down by the harbour, there's a different sort of feline: a trio of Captain Cats, exiles from Milkwood, sit on the sea-wall, looking longingly towards Wales.

We drive on to Padstow; by the time we get there it's nearly dark, the wind has dropped and a fine rain is peppering the deserted streets. There is even less evidence of humankind here. We go into an empty pub and order a couple of pints, and the barman looks at us curiously. It's like a Robert Aickman ghost story. "Looks like we picked the one night in the year when the residents sacrifice to Satan," I whisper.

It turns out not to be Satan but TV chef Rick Stein who is worshipped here. He bestrides Padstow like a colossus. It might as well be called Padstein. Every shop has a pile of his Penguin 60s, or a Taste of the Sea poster. He has a deli, a bistro and a posh restaurant named, with an exquisite simplicity which could just as well be rampant egomania, the Seafood Restaurant.

Misled by the unpretentious name, we don't dress up for dinner. Ooops. The greeter looks at us startled, and yelps: "Have you booked?" We are deposited under a giant pot-plant in the hall under the fierce gaze of our fellow diners: elderly gents with silver-buttoned blazers and stern ladies in navy pleats. The Maitresse D' leaves us waiting for half an hour without a drink while everybody else is ceremonially ushered through. Predictably, we end up at the worst table, wedged in the corner next to the swinging door, but this is really quite fun: B's head dodges back and forth like a boxer's as he cranes in vain for a glimpse of the great man slaving over the pans.

Having salivated over the TV programmes ("just a squeeze of lemon ... bit of parsley ... pour over the juices ... and that is ... mmmm, ah, so good") I can't wait to tuck in, but well, plaice is plaice, innit? A bony little beggar wallowing in what looks like 2oz of melted butter. But I have to admit the Maris Piper chips are spot-on and the coffee fantastic. Crack squads of unsmiling waiters and waitresses patrol the room, which has that fashionable, overbright canteen ambience. It is very good for people- watching (we particularly like the drunken, raucous, slightly raddled "younger woman" with the gentle, doddery old geezer who is paying), but it's all a bit of a dear do.

The next night we eat in Stein's smaller, cheaper gaff, St Petroc's Bistro. Much more congenial, it has a fantastic bar with deep sofas which is rather like the Groucho club transported to Cornwall (only without the hideous clientele) and my main dish, hare with Hogg's crumble, is so stupendously delicious I can only wave my fork weakly in tribute.

On our last day we buy provisions in his deli and eat lunch in his cafe. All four establishments are staffed by clones knocked up in Rickenstein's laboratory - blonde, thin, brisk young women in black jeans, heavy boots and floor-length white pinnies. This is the Platonic Ideal of a cafe before which all others seem mere shadows: sandwiches, pasties, hot dishes, soup, cake, salads, beer, flowers, sunshine, newspapers, paintings, perfect coffee. We need this man desperately in Docklands. How on earth can we tempt him? I suppose we could offer to call it Stein Wharf.

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