It often happens in popular culture that the greatest talents live in the shadow of their more celebrated partners. Paul Ainsworth strikes me as being at least as talented as fellow Padstow chef Rick Stein, the man with whom he started his career, but who has spent more time on TV. Stein is an extraordinary chef, of course; but on the basis of one evening with both – or at least with their kitchens – I’d dare to suggest Ainsworth is his equal, if not better.
Given his recent excursion on BBC2’s Great British Menu, it’s just feasible that Ainsworth will one day acquire the fame that his friend can boast. He certainly knows a lot about how to run a good restaurant.
Sat between No 6 and Stein’s Seafood Restaurant is Rojano’s, which Ainsworth co-owns with Derek Mapp. An unfussy, family-friendly joint roughly analogous to Pizza Express, it does Italian in an affordable way. It is at No 6, however, that Ainsworth’s gastronomic skills really shine.
This is a fantastic place. It presents itself to the world in a humble fashion and you could easily miss it: 6 Middle Street is a renovated 18th-century townhouse. This gives it a very domestic feeling inside, with warm furnishings, understated décor and a small area upstairs that resembles a living-room. It’s here that we eat.
On the à la carte menu there are six starters, six mains, six desserts and cheese, together with a decent if moderately expensive wine list. To start, I have veal sweetbreads with pearl barley, parsley, lemon and Parmesan (£15). The sweetbreads are rich and intense, and come in a little jus, set against the most pungent parsley I’ve ever eaten. This goes very well with the lemon and Parmesan, a classic combo that coats the little globules of pearl barley in a perfect, furry exterior.
Then there are oysters, which, given our proximity to the Atlantic, are a must. These are from Porthilly, which is barely a few hundred metres away across the River Camel. They come with fennel, Granny Smith apple and salami (£12), and taste exquisite: a succulent squelch of chewy mollusc which has absorbed the flavours of an English garden and contrasts sharply with the spicy pig.
Vegetarians like my former self wouldn’t have the best time here. There are options, of course, but this menu is designed to display the best of the animal kingdom, not preserve it from human consumption. Among the mains, for instance, is a very good short-rib steak with butcher’s tartare, onions, red leaves and ultra-hot horseradish. It is a little too dear for my liking, at £29; but then again if you’re coming as a tourist rather than being a local, you might have saved up for this meal – which is as well.
Even the cheapest main – the vegetarian option of caramelised shallot tart with blue cheese and jam – is £27. If you pay an extra £1 you can have the day-boat cod, one of two day-boat options, the other being monkfish. A few years ago it became fashionable to attach curry flavours to fish, and here the tender, juicy chunk of cod comes with raisin yoghurt, cod bubble, cauliflower florets and curry. It’s pretty good, but not much more than the sum of its parts. The curry doesn’t have enough masala, so lacks both heat and punch, and the cauliflower is a touch overcooked.
Sat in the opposite corner to us are two elderly couples having an uproarious time, never so much as when they order a remarkable-looking thing called “A trip to the fairground”, which is always for two, and £24. This includes, we are told, fresh fruit, peanut-butter ice-cream, pistachio ice-cream and coffee crème brûlée. All of which looks most pleasing – but we opt instead for a superb bread-and-butter pudding with vanilla ice-cream, toffee and oak beer (£10) – after which comes my highlight of the night.
This is a bar of chocolate with pistachio, caramac – you know, the stuff that tastes of condensed milk, like you get in Indian stations – and a dark-chocolate sorbet. If there is one thing you do on your next trip to Cornwall, it should be to invest £9 in this sumptuous treat, but not before removing significant others from its reach. It really is the best dessert I’ve had in a year of sweet successes, and summarises, in technical flair and sheer gastronomic exuberance, why this must be one of the best meals in Britain. 1
Paul Ainsworth at No 6: 6 Middle Street, Padstow, Cornwall, tel: 01841 532 093. £150 for two, with drinks
Four more things I’ve been eating this week
I took a future prime minister to Quirinale in Westminster. Highlight: this fantastic, espresso-soaked pick-me-up.
Pea and ham soup
Cliché it may be, but the New Covent Garden Soup people do a terrific job, and few things are better than this velvety number.
Roast loin of pork
The Reform Club in Pall Mall does a brilliant lunch. The tender piece of meat with Bramley apple purée I had was close to sublime.
I’ve got into this, what with trying to avoid diabetes. At Villandry they serve it in a large wine glass. Worth the embarrassment.