Continuing our occasional series about places outside London that my generation, horrified by scandalous house prices in the capital, are likely to move to, today we are in the patch of Devon called Topsham. Full disclosure: this glorious town on the banks of the River Exe is a mile from Ebford, the village where my wife Charlie grew up. But given that we have no intention of moving back there (unless she has plans to which I am not privy), and given that I don't know the owners of the restaurant we are in, I feel no qualms whatsoever about telling you that this place is utterly delightful, and then some.
Alumni and students of Exeter University know this suburb as the home of the Topsham Ten, one of the more notorious pub crawls in the south-west; but that is actually rather out of kilter with a quaint and quiet little place, about 10 minutes' drive from Exeter, and just up the road from the huge, and hugely successful, Darts Farm shopping complex. One other big thing going for it is La Petite Maison.
This is a family-run restaurant in the best sense: Douglas and Elizabeth Pestell took over in 2000; he runs the kitchen, she runs things up front. Their purchase fulfilled a decades-old dream, particularly for Douglas, whose training included a formative spell with Michelin superhero and three-star holder Michel Guérard. Their ground-floor rooms are split in two, and fit around 30 covers between them without being cramped. The menu is short, technically superb – and expensive.
By expensive, I mean £32.95 for two courses, £38.95 for three, with home-made bread, coffee or tea, and truffles thrown in. Once you include service, that's more than £40 for three courses, which would be pretty pricy even for London; but then the south-west is not the cheapest place to live – and Topsham is one of the more affluent bits. So much for my generation moving here…
But if the prices aren't easy to swallow, the food certainly is. There is never a dull moment on this menu. Starters include excellent and firm scallops with black pudding, bacon, and a light lemon dressing that cuts through the salty offal exquisitely; a vast, overflowing goat's cheese soufflé with roasted tomato and strong pesto dressing; curried parsnip, which is a genuine revelation due to the addition of coconut to the warm soup; and a terrine made of confit of duck leg and breast with foie gras and a plum chutney, which is worth the train fare from London alone.
The main, traditional courses, are intelligently balanced plates prepared with great skill, and no skimping on the extras. For instance, the fillet steak – beautiful rather than blue when ordered medium-rare – comes with a thyme-potato croquet, Savoy cabbage, bacon, mushroom, cream and sherry sauce. I don't know what sherry they use, but it has a nutty warmth that binds the dish; and the little mushrooms retain their firmness despite being coated in sauce. My tastebuds get lost between the overwhelmed thyme and the crunchy cabbage, but that's what you get from a plate with so many parts.
The best among the mains has even more: escalope of venison with accompanying mini-burger, pear poached in red wine, red cabbage, boulangère potato – a marginally healthier version of dauphinoise – port, redcurrant jelly and game jus. This is like one of those Christmas meals with all the trimmings, except it's all your Christmases at once. It is almost too much, but within the mix is pure magic: the pear is both hard and soft at the same time, and the burger is full of meaty juices that spill everywhere.
There are also good bass and pork dishes, but some of these plates are so big you could share them (which could be a good way of cutting the bill) – and you really should leave room for dessert, not least the best sticky-toffee pudding I have ever had. There is also an excellent chocolate mousse cake with caramelised pecan and roasted pecan-nut ice-cream.
Those, like the rest of the menu, are generous and memorable – and in that, a distillation of the spirit of Topsham. If this journalism lark goes tits-up, perhaps my wife and I will think again about moving here; in fact, we'll probably save up, try to buy this restaurant, and change very little about it.
La Petite Maison, 35 Fore Street, Topsham, Exeter, Tel: 01392 873 660. £100 for two, with drinks
Four more things I've been eating this week
Biscuit of the week is this nutty number from M&S, though one little complaint: too soggy too quickly when dunked in tea.
I'm probably Crush's most loyal customer. This "super smoothie" has berries, yoghurt and wheatgerm.
Torta de Trujillo
At Iberica in London, a hang-out for BBC types, this creamy, organic sheep's milk cheese is magnificent.
Chocolate frosted flakes
Charlie, my wife, made some of these with dark chocolate, golden syrup, and a mini egg on top. Scrumptious.Reuse content