There are two things of note about Rick Stein's new restaurant. One is that it's the first time the charismatic fish maestro and TV chef has opened an establishment in the UK outside Cornwall. There, his piscine empire takes in Rick Stein's Fish in Falmouth, the Cornish Arms in St Merryn, Rick Stein in Porthleven – and in Padstow his empire extends so far (The Seafood Restaurant, St Petroc's Bistro, Rick Stein's Café, Stein's Fish & Chips) that the town has been locally re-christened Padstein.
How Rick failed to open a mocked-up German bierkeller, featuring outsize beer jugs served by bosomy wenches, and call it Stein, I'll never understand. How he neglected to invest in a Gothic-themed restaurant selling 50 brands of frankfurter sausage and call it Frank'n'Stein we can only guess.
Will the same happen to Winchestein? Or is Rick Stein Fish and Seafood – the name on the sign over the door – the start of a chain to be rolled out across the country? It certainly looks part of a brand – a vision of grey-blue understated chic, created by Rick's interior-designer ex-wife Jill. And that's the second thing of note: the Stein family are everywhere. Their middle son, Jack Stein, is executive chef, their youngest, Charlie, chooses the restaurant's wine. The eldest son, Ed, has some group role as design guru. I'm reminded of that limerick: "There's a very odd family called Stein/ There's Gert, and there's Ep, and there's Ein/ Gert's novels are bunk/ Ep's statues are junk/ And nobody understands Ein".
Anyway, the décor is pleasingly simple, the tables are no-nonsense, no-napery, white-topped MDF, there are cushiony banquettes and Cornish sea scenes on display, while copper lamps hang over the long, grey, marble-topped pass – coastal chic for ladies who lunch in this posh county town. The waiting staff are notably bright-eyed and welcoming, and rush to bring you menus, water and bread – though I was surprised to find the butter was slicked with truffle; surely not everyone likes truffle on their sourdough, its immense flavour coating your tongue right from the word go.
The menu is small by comparison with Stein's flagship Padstow restaurant, but promises lots of comfort eating on this chilly November lunchtime. Only a fool or a madman could fail to order the fish and shellfish soup with rouille and Parmesan, a Stein classic. It's cooked à la Provençal using 'gurnard and whatever fish is good at Newlyn market', the rasp of fish stock attacking your throat, the tomato-and-cayenne-spiced broth warming your insides, the garlicky rouille fresh and lively. My salt and pepper squid was also delicious, the squid cooked in long prehensile fingers and alarmingly wobbly starfish tendrils. Spinach leaves, soft cucumber, red chillis and beansprouts made a terrific backing group.
My main-course hake was all about texture – a fat, well-roasted tranche of solid white fish sitting on a plump, perfectly seasoned pouffe of potato mashed with spring onions (a dish the Irish call 'champ') and served simply with a sauce of fish stock and soy. Basic, down-by-the-harbour cooking, but faultless. My wife Angie's fish, though, was more problematic.
Dover sole was, by a mile, the priciest thing on the menu at £32.95, and it wasn't great. It arrived with a spoonful of raw onions on its innocent, sandy-coloured back – why would you do that when it's already anointed with sea salt and lime? When it was sent off to be taken off the bone, it returned drenched in a thick buttery sauce, with a rancid whiff that made our noses wrinkle. Was it the combination of onions, lime and butter? In its claggy coating, the sole was, said Angie, inedible.
It was a terrible waste of a light and delicate fish (and of £33) but Stein's staff rose to the occasion. Oliver, the charming maître d' apologised, vowed reprisals on the miscreant, took the dish off the bill, and made everyone happy. I noticed that the side-orders of glazed carrots with tarragon, and roasted pumpkin with chilli oil, both seemed a little heavy on the butter, but that may have been a coincidence.
We shared a pudding of autumn fruit sabayon that reeked of Christmas: lightly poached apple with blackberries and blueberries, tickled by a mint leaf and lifted by a weep-making mulled-apple sorbet, accompanied by the enfolding arms of a Campbells Rutherglen muscat wine.
Rick Stein's new venture offers warmth, style, confidence, friendly service (our Lithuanian waitress Neringa was a real trouper) and extremely competent, if not exactly transformational, cooking. Only a heavy hand with the butter let the kitchen down. I've no doubt the Stein family can deal with this minor problem – and if they don't, I noticed that the restaurant is conveniently situated across the road from an office of the British Heart Foundation...
Rick Stein, 7-8 High Street Winchester (01962 353 535). Around £37 per person, before wine and service. Lunch menu: two courses £19.95Reuse content