There's something about Rick Stein that doesn't irritate people as much as other TV cooks and celebrity chefs do. Perhaps it's his looks: that exiguous grey hair, the honest brow and the guileless smile conspire to make him resemble a trustworthy fishmonger. To dwellers of Padstow, he may have become too ubiquitous a presence – four restaurants, a delicatessen, a patisserie, a gift shop, a seafood cookery school and 40 hotel bedrooms make up his phenomenal gastronomic/catering empire – but he's managed to retain the image of a basically decent cove with a charming obsession about all things fishy and crustacean.
The Seafood Restaurant was once a nightclub when Stein opened it in the early 1970s after he left Oxford. Inexplicably, not enough Cornish glam-rockers showed up to make it a moneyspinner, so it was reinvented as a seafront bistro in 1975. Over the past 35 years it's become a shrine to piscine perfection, while acquiring a deserved reputation as one of the most jaw-droppingly expensive eating-houses in the country.
It's been refitted since I was there last, and very handsome it looks too. On a cold and rainy Friday night in January, it looked gorgeous from outside, its name picked out in lights on the big glass conservatory. Inside, a well-stocked circular bar dominates the room, with a suspended ceiling of wood slats to match the pale, limed-oak floor. You sit at the zinc counter sipping Chablis and watching the waiters arrange huge platefuls of langoustines and fruits de mer. The walls are hung with random but appealing paintings of fish being eaten or prepared. There's a happy buzz among the diners in their Big Night Out blazers and sequinned décolletage.
The menus are enormous documents, the size and texture of public decrees that were once yelled at the locals by town criers. They reveal that Stein's current strategy is to offer both sturdily traditional Victorian dishes and subtly tweaked, spiced and gussied-up Asian treats as a contrast. For every classic fish soup or potted shrimps there's a sashimi of hand-dived scallops or a shangurro (crab stuffed in the Basque style with tomato, garlic and olive oil baked on the shell). Of course you can have local cod and chips – at £17.50 the cheapest main course by a mile – but you know you really want to try the hugely flavoured Singapore chilli crab.
I felt duty-bound to try the oysters Charentaise, a dish (and a concept) new to me: you eat a Carlingford Lough oyster, briny-cold and creamy, then a forkful of hot spicy sausage, then a slug of cold white wine to seal the experience. This tequila/salt/lemon routine sounded fun but was strangely pointless. If you eat the oyster first and the Merguez sausage second, the spices cancel the taste of the oyster. If the other way round, the oyster obliterates the sausage. They didn't go together at all: different textures, tastes and temperatures, sea and land. It seemed to me like a dish invented one evening when the staff were a teensy bit plastered.
Angie, my date, keen to support the local fauna, chose the Cornish crab with wakame salad and wasabi mayonnaise. "The wakame seaweed is fine," she said, "but it needs a citric punch. Hand me a wedge of lemon..." The crab was yummy, the cucumber crunchy and the horseradishy mayo a heavenly tease on the tastebuds.
It takes a bit of nerve to charge £34 for a Dover sole, even if it has just been bought in Padstow harbour that day and is lepping fresh. You know you're not paying for sophisticated cooking, since the whole point of sole is to do as little as possible to it. Angie's sole was char-grilled with sea salt and lime. It was fat and full of roe, and looked fantastic in its charry brown shroud. "The first mouthful," said Angie, "is firm, fat, hot, succulent – but just not very interesting." Then she tried the butter sauce, which was "transforming and absolutely gorgeous". It was a harmony of chicken-and-fish stock, shallots, parsley and butter, and lifted the sole to spiritual heights. My Indonesian seafood curry featured three of my favourite things, monkfish, squid and tiger prawns and coated them in a subtle sauce involving cumin, ginger and lemongrass. I absolutely loved it. It was a fish-curry dream from which I hoped not to awake.
From a limited pudding menu, we shared a wonderful pavlova: the meringue so sticky it clung to my teeth like a ravening pit bull, while the crème anglaise and little pools of passionfruit left us both feeling cleansed and healed. How good it was to return to an old friend of a restaurant and find her in rude good health, refreshed and keen to try a few exotic new things. If only she hadn't developed a taste for idiotic prices in the ensuing period, we might all visit her more often...
The Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall (01841-532700)
About £160 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Sea of love
5 South Embankment, Dartmouth (01803 835147)
The super-fresh fish dishes here include grigliata mista di pesce – char-grilled John Dory, prawns, squid and dab.
The Stein Inn
Waternish, Isle of Skye (01470 592 362)
This atmospheric inn on the Skye shoreline serves sublimely fresh local scallops, West Coast mussels and langoustines.
36 on the Quay
47 South Street, Emsworth, Hampshire (01243 375592)
Try the lemon sole paupiettes accompanied by a crab and leek lasagne at this one-star Michelin restaurant.Reuse content