By any reasonable measure, Michael Caines must be one of the most inspirational chefs in Britain. His story is well known in food circles. Adopted as a child, he grew up in Exeter, studied catering at Exeter College, became a renowned chef, lost an arm in a car accident (20 years ago last week)… and was back in the kitchen less than a fortnight later. He refused to let this considerable handicap get in the way of his becoming a world-class chef, and he now runs a business empire garlanded with two Michelin stars.
Reputations matter in all trades, but in restaurants more than most – especially in the age of the celebrity chef. Caines' precedes him: his name is synonymous with style, stamina, and the south-west. That is why it is odd that I've now been to two of his restaurants, and both have disappointed. Three years ago, I wrote that Gidleigh Park, a double-starred joint in Chagford, Devon, offered exceptionally good food, served professionally, but in stuffy, staid surroundings and at an astronomical price.
At Caines' restaurant in Exeter's Abode hotel, facing the cathedral, they have the opposite problem. The setting is nondescript, while the food is more affordable. It's just not particularly good – and certainly not worthy of Caines' reputation.
The problems start long before our lunch, when I call in the morning to ask whether we can move our booking from 12.30pm to noon. The lady on the phone umms and aaahs for a while before saying it's tricky because they're packed to the rafters, so could we make it 12.15pm and they'd try to get us in. Yet when we arrive, it transpires that the place is virtually empty, with only seven or eight other diners, and perhaps 40 vacant seats. Was it that much busier a quarter of an hour earlier? If the idea is to convey the sense that the restaurant is very busy, so we're lucky to get in, isn't this going to be exposed as nonsense when we arrive to see a half-empty lunch service? I just don't get it.
There is a tasting menu for £65, with matching flight of wines for £38; but the weekday lunch menu looks fine value. Two courses for £12.95, and three for £17.95, with Caines' blessing? Not bad at all – until you taste it. A cucumber-and-dill gazpacho has so much herb crème fraîche that the dill, if any was put in, has been murdered; and though the cucumber flavour is strong, the texture is sickly. A beetroot and salmon gravadlax with horseradish espuma is better, the beetroot firm and fresh and the horseradish very hot.
A bigger selection on the à la carte menu looks tempting, and I am seduced by something called "Crispy duck egg, charred vegetables, overnight tomatoes, smoked béarnaise sauce" (£12.50). This, in common parlance, is send-backable. The egg is soggy rather than crisp, seated atop an unloved dump of limp, bland vegetables pretending to be cooked, and served with a smear of béarnaise that needs more vinegar, tarragon and care.
The lunch menu is, thank goodness, otherwise decent. A fillet of sole comes with excellent parsley gnocchi, mushrooms, peas and broad beans in the right proportions; and the lamb rump with Lyonnaise potatoes – sliced, pan-fried, and served with a caramelised onion purée – is full of hearty and warming flavour. The meat comes apart in hot, tender ribbons, and the potatoes are al dente ideal.
The desserts are eccentric, each containing an array of elements. Chocolate orange is orange tart with baked chocolate mousse that tastes like Angel Delight combined with a confit-orange sorbet; assiette of strawberries is just strawberries prepared three ways (mousse, parfait and poached) with basil coulis; and the mango panna cotta, with exotic fruit salad and passion fruit sorbet, doesn't cohere as a dish, because the sorbet is too weak and the exotic fruit too strong for the delicate panna cotta.
It's all technically competent, and, as I say, the lunch menu is OK value. But nothing we ate is memorable, except for the misnamed crispy duck egg, which is memorable for all the wrong reasons. I hope that Caines himself pays a visit to try it, wipe it from the menu, and stop it besmirching the name of a hero to chefs far beyond his beloved south-west.
Michael Caines at Abode, Abode Exeter, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Tel: 01392 319 955. £70 for two, including drinks
Four more foodie notes from the week
Keen on pork, I had some of these at Blackfoot in London's Exmouth Market. Smothered in a smoky marinade, they were exquisite.
Every yuppy in his thirties has his Pistachio Years, where you convince yourself the savoury hit is healthy. But it's not.
No day at the cricket is complete without one of these, drenched in Colman's mustard and honey. Melton Mowbray is hard to beat.
Muller Fruit Corner
The strawberry rendition of this yoghurt-and-fruit compote combo is the safest option to go for in our work canteen.Reuse content