The Salutation Inn, restaurant review: Forget the tasting menu - a truer test of a chef is how well they do the basics

68 Fore Street, Topsham, Devon, Tel: 01392 873 060

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Four and a bit years ago, when Lisa Markwell, the editor of this newspaper and my fellow restaurant critic, asked me to become one of those people who write about food, I sought her advice on how to go about it. Among the many clever things she said, one stood out, which, though you might think it obvious, seems to have been missed by certain fellow critics on other newspapers. And that is, remember that you're writing for your readers, on the off-chance that they are looking for a recommendation – and not for your fellow critics, on the off-chance that they're looking for guidance on a score, or an idea for an introductory paragraph.

To that end, one of the principles I've tried to observe concerns restaurants that do tasting menus. It doesn't matter where other critics stand on this; they're just something I've tried to avoid. So when I go to restaurants such as The Salutation Inn in Topsham, which offers both tasting menus and a lunch menu, I try to opt for the latter, for three reasons.

First, the evidence suggests that readers are more likely to do the same; second, it's more affordable, and I generally attempt, believe it or not, to avoid expensive options; and third, the measure of a chef's skill isn't how aerodynamic the emulsions and foams on their tasting menu is, but whether they apply the same care and attention when asked for a club sandwich.

Here in a beautiful town on the Exe estuary, there is a tasting menu if you want it – and also a marvellous light lunch menu, served in the airy Glasshouse café, which is simple and straightforward: bread, olives, soup; a clutch of main courses (some in starter size, too); two sides; four types of sandwich; a bunch of cheeses and some desserts. And, for the most part, it's terrific.

A cauliflower soup of the day (£5.50) looks like a visitor from the tasting menu in any case, because it comes in two parts: a thick base and a foamy supplement, which we are encouraged to mix. The resulting texture is pleasing, and the flavour is strong, though I rather wish the whole thing were that little bit warmer.

The smoked mackerel with horseradish, salad and toast (£8.50) has plenty of character: the fish has a really strong smoky flavour, and the horseradish is properly hot. There's enough toast to eat this as an open sandwich, so it's very good value.

That also goes for the moules marinière, which come either small (£7.50) or large (£11.50). These are easily fetched out of their shells, and served in a delicious sauce that's not too fatty, cut through with diced onion, and well seasoned.

There are perfectly reasonable options of sausages from nearby Kenniford Farm, with parsnip and mustard mash (£12.50), or pumpkin and cep risotto with Parmesan (£8.50 small, £12.50 big). But I am more intrigued by the Mexican-inspired huevos rancheros: spicy black beans, poached hen's egg and tomato salsa (£11.50), all served in what looks to me like a corn-based tostada. Despite the piquing of my interest, however, this dish feels far from whole: the lukewarm egg is soggy rather than firm; the beans aren't spicy; and the salsa lacks kick. The overall feeling is of a dish that never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

This is a shame, because otherwise the menu is solid and dependable. Of the sandwiches, for instance, the free-range egg and watercress and the crayfish with citrus dressing both elicit a squeal of delight.

To finish, a little tray of cold desserts – from which we're encouraged to select a range of small bites to share – has several excellent offerings. Best of the lot are a dish not unlike a posh Snickers bar, almost ice-cold with crunchy peanuts; and a triple-chocolate mousse and ganache number that feels suitably indulgent when it's chilly outside.

Drinks in the Glasshouse include the marvellous, local Ferryman ale (£4). The vibe exuded is one of comfort and competence, and of a local establishment pleasing its regulars. Living hundreds of miles away, I'm not among them, but for residents and visitors to the South-west, on the off-chance that you're looking for recommendations, this is one of those, and a hearty one at that.

8/10

The Salutation Inn, 68 Fore Street, Topsham, Devon, Tel: 01392 873 060 £70 for two, with wine

Four more foodie notes from the past week

Negronis

The Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards served up this cocktail (super-strength) last month, and gave me a real taste for it.

Steak tartare

I adore this starter, and can't understand why some people eat it without the egg and/or Tabasco.

Thai beetroot soup

This gorgeous vegetable has become an obsession. Sainsbury's spicy soup is very healthy – and tasty.

Elderflower cordial

I drink huge amounts of fizzy water. Of all the many ways I have tried to make it taste better, this is my favourite.

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