Agaric, Ashburton, Devon

Richard Johnson takes time out from trekking on Dartmoor to indulge in the homely charms of Agaric, where mushrooms are the house speciality
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Indy Lifestyle Online

WHEN I want solitude, I hike up to Dartmoor. I sit for hours, just watching the tors as they break the clouds. Then, when I want company again, I hike down to Ashburton. The Studio Teashop is perfect for something toasted and buttered, but I always find myself hungering for something more substantial. Not any more – not now I've discovered Agaric.

When I want solitude, I hike up to Dartmoor. I sit for hours, just watching the tors as they break the clouds. Then, when I want company again, I hike down to Ashburton. The Studio Teashop is perfect for something toasted and buttered, but I always find myself hungering for something more substantial. Not any more – not now I've discovered Agaric.

Before he opened this stylish, intimate little restaurant, Nick Coiley was head chef at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth. Not that Agaric feels like the beginnings of his empire. After all, he only opens the place four and a half days a week. The rest of the time he's busy with his family, collecting winkles and razor clams on the beaches of south Devon.

Agaric has a warm, homely feel. There's a bell above the front door – just like Rita used to have in the Kabin in Corrie – and well-worn rugs dotted all over the place. A small marketing operation in one corner sells fruit preserves, meringues, and the last of the Christmas puddings, but the rest of the room is filled with wooden tables as substantial as butchers' blocks.

Agaric isn't "smart smart". Gentlemen might call it "jumper smart". Ladies might call it "blouse smart". But we all know what we're talking about. Even the food comes under- (rather than over-) dressed. There's nothing intimidating about the place – which is why one respectable gentleman slipped off his shoes while a young waiter took his order.

All waiters under 25 are churlish. All right, off the top of my head, I can think of at least two occasions when my "waiters under 25" law has been proved wrong. This was one of them. Our waiter was in the last year of his A-levels, and wouldn't stop smiling. Short of taunting him by scribbling revision questions on the tablecloth, there was nothing we could do about it.

While he smiled, he told us that the name "Agaric" comes from the Greek for mushroom. And although you can order something that doesn't feature mushrooms, Coiley only writes the menu once he's been through the local mushroom seller's trug.

So the spinach pancakes with a shiitake mushroom and spinach filling and chilli and mushroom sauce (£6.95) seemed a sensible choice. The thick green pancakes arrived in a stack – just like they do in an American diner. They weren't pretty or fussed over, but the sauce melded them together to form a rich, comforting union. The chilli did its job by separating out the flavours.

My smoked eel and horseradish pâté with salad and toasted olive bread (£7.25) was a little too strongly smoky. Smoking with a wood-fired kiln is a craft – like baking. There's beech and apple for eel, and oak for salmon and trout, but each smoke is different, and as individual as every rack of fish. And although the accompanying leaves were nice, a tart carrot salad would have been nicer.

Neris noticed that a table – right by the door – had a single place setting. But, as busy as Agaric got, no one ever sat there. I imagined it was left empty in honour of a diner who went to fill his parking meter one winter's eve, never to return. But I was wrong. Our smiling waiter told us that the table is always empty because they never sit anybody in a draught; this restaurant is about something bigger than profit.

Although, at £16.95 for a pan-fried Devon fillet steak, it's fair to say profit is part of it. The steak came with a portobello mushroom, loaded with as many tiny shallots as it could bear across my sea of wine gravy, and a side order of Dauphinoise potatoes. In my opinion, these are not the potatoes for steak. It's all about surface area. Some mathematician somewhere has probably worked out an equation.

The vegetables – squash and celeriac – came in greaseproof-paper packages tied up with string. Which are a few of my favourite things. Unlike ginger and forced rhubarb. Even the name "forced rhubarb" frightens me. Don't be misled by its pretty pink stalk. There's nothing sweet about it. But in the hands of Coiley, with hot puff pastry that melts the heavy clotted cream ice cream, the bastard fruit was heaven.

When they're in season, Coiley serves up figs from a tree in town. But then a lot of the houses in Ashburton have old walled gardens with fantastic fruit trees. He gets his free-range eggs from one of his neighbours, and blackcurrant prunings from another. I would tell my neighbour what to do with his blackcurrant prunings, but (luckily) they're the vital ingredient in Coiley's exquisitely fragranced blackcurrant leaf sorbet.

On the butter-yellow wall hangs a picture of a restaurant kitchen. It's decidedly more hi-tech than the domestic set-up he's got at Agaric. Heck, he even uses a wood-fired oven in the garden to bake his bread. In the visitors' book, there's a note from Jean-Christophe Novelli demanding that Coiley should be more famous. Look around you, J-C. It does rather beg the question "Why on earth would he want to be?"

Agaric, 30 North Street, Ashburton, Devon (01364 654478). Open Wed-Sat, lunch and dinner, Sun lunch. For more information about staying in Devon, call the Devon Holiday Line (0870 6085531) or visit www.devon4allseasons.co.uk

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