The lighting gives the game away. In an otherwise impeccably stylish first-floor dining room, all curvy modern chairs, antique chandeliers and National Trust paint colours, these ugly great black arc lights glower down from the ceiling.
The lighting gives the game away. In an otherwise impeccably stylish first-floor dining room, all curvy modern chairs, antique chandeliers and National Trust paint colours, these ugly great black arc lights glower down from the ceiling. Of course! They're TV lights, and John Burton Race's New Angel is more than just a restaurant, it's the latest location for the ongoing reality series that is his life.
After the success of Channel 4's French Leave (frazzled workaholic chef quits his two-star London restaurant for the Languedoc, with wife, six kids and documentary crew in tow) comes Devon Leave, or whatever the latest series will be called. Newly relaxed chef buys landmark restaurant in picturesque English harbour town and attempts to put it back on the map while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Dartmouth, a postcard-pretty spot on the South Devon coast, was home to one of Britain's original destination restaurants, The Carved Angel. In the 1970s it formed one of the foodie Stations of the Cross, together with The Hole in the Wall in Bath and Abergavenny's Walnut Tree Inn, though its reputation has dipped slightly in recent years with the departure of the original owners.
Burton Race bought the restaurant (though apparently not the name), reopening it in May as The New Angel, and installing two head chefs from the scene of his former glory, Reading's L'Ortolan. It was at L'Ortolan that he won his two Michelin stars, as well as his reputation for being a little, well, demanding. This is the man Gordon Ramsay calls "a bit of a hardass".
At Dartmouth, he's applying the principles he followed in France. He'll use as much of the fine local produce as he can, and prepare it more simply. At lunchtime, the daily changing menu might offer a bowl of local mussels with crusty bread, or Budvar-battered fish and chips. In the evening, things get slightly more cheffy, along with a French Leave legacy of simpler country dishes (though at £8-£12.50 for starters, £16-£22 for mains, prices are distinctly metropolitan).
Downstairs is more informal and family-friendly, and dominated by the open kitchen, but we ate upstairs, in the smarter, modern Georgian dining room, with its incomparable views across the river Dart to the Balamory-coloured houses of Kingswear.
Our meal was memorably good. We chose relatively simple starters - Dartmouth crab salad, and an onion and bacon tart featuring onions so meltingly caramelised you could have made a soup with them - but every detail was absolutely spot-on.
Burton Race is using line-caught sea bass from local boats; steamed and served with a vibrant lobster bisque sauce, it was so fresh it could just have just jumped out of the harbour. My main course was a bold and brilliant combination of sweet lamb fillet and lightly curried crab mousse, formed into a kind of yin and yang symbol and served with a scattering of summer veg - shelled broad beans, diced tomatoes, peas - every element of which exploded with taste.
It was almost a relief when puddings fell short of being outrageously delicious, and were merely good. Otherwise we'd have been forced to scrap the rest of our Devon itinerary and stay in Dartmouth until we'd eaten our way through the menu. That day's special, a terrine of red fruit in champagne jelly, raised suspicions that it was a way of using up fruit that was slightly past its best. With coffees and bittersweet truffles, our bill came to around £60 a head before service.
The waiting staff seem to be nearly all French, and though they're pretty professional, they can't quite keep pace with the kitchen. Our starters arrived within five minutes of ordering, before our waiter had even brought the bread. But service is nicely unfussy. Wine is left on the table and there's no ritual tasting. The wine list contains some treasures from small producers Burton Race discovered on his year off, offered as the "French Leave selection". There's quite a lot of this kind of brand synergy going on. The menu tells us that copies of the French Leave tie-in book are available to buy. And there's a sign on the door informing customers that Channel 4 are currently filming a new series, and by entering the premises, you will be deemed to have given your assent to appearing on it. It's Big Brother for middle-class gourmets.
From our experience, local rumbles of discontent about the famous Carved Angel being taken over by a "telly chef" are unjustified. Burton Race is one of Britain's brightest talents, with the skill and profile capable of doing justice to this legendary restaurant. Once the TV crew has moved on, presumably he'll still be there, together with the new clientele the series has drawn in.
The cameras weren't rolling the night we visited, but Burton Race was very much in evidence. As we left he was lounging in the kitchen, chatting to his staff and looking positively relaxed. Seems like the hardass has had a soft landing. Cue music and credits.
The New Angel, 2, South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon 01803 839425, www.thenewangel.co.uk
Visit www.discoverdevon.com or call the Discover Devon Holiday line 0870 608 5531
SECOND HELPINGS: CHEFS ON THE MOVE
By Christian Broughton
The Box Tree
Simon Gueller has bought this 18th-century farmhouse, a foodie destination since the 1960s. He's been out of the scene for two years, but won a Michelin star at his last venue; this opens on Thursday.
37 Church Street, Ilkley, Yorkshire (01943 608484)
What used to be the Fulham Dray boozer is now Tom Etridge's latest gastropub. Paul Merrett (from The Greenhouse in Mayfair) flashes his Zanzibari roots over a European menu, from hot and sour soup to doughnuts.
18 Farm Lane, London SW6 (020-7381 3331)
Hywel Jones, who won a Michelin star at the Mandarin Oriental in London, is now at this grand country house. He's still cooking British classics (such as pot roast pork belly) sourced locally.
Colerne, Chippenham, Wiltshire (01225 742777)
After two years at Spain's El Bulli, Tony Flinn has brought molecular gastronomy to Leeds. If roast duck with olive-oil chocolate bonbons sounds odd, get this: it used to be Vinnie Jones and Goldie's nightclub.
19 Boar Lane, Leeds (0113 245 5922)Reuse content