Restaurants: Shore thing

Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow has had a revamp. Tracey MacLeod finds out if it's still a good catch and, opposite, our most famous fish chef talks about his new TV series. Photographs by George Wright
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1988, one Richard Stein wrote a book called English Seafood Cookery, containing recipes he'd developed at his popular restaurant in Cornwall. In the intervening decade, Richard has contracted to the snappier Rick, while his empire has expanded inexorably, fuelled by the success of two BBC series. Now the award-winning Seafood Restaurant has been joined by a deli, bistro and hotel, and thanks to Mr Stein, Padstow, a pleasant fishing town on the Camel estuary, is famed as a piscine gastropolis.

Last year, Stein ploughed some of the profits from his book sales back into the Seafood Restaurant, which he and his wife opened on the site of a converted harbourside granary in 1975. They bought the building next door, tunnelled a new kitchen underneath it, and increased the restaurant space by half again. This expansion has eased the pressure on tables; the restaurant is legendary for being fully booked months in advance, but I had no problem in securing a reservation with only a few days' notice, in a sunny week in early October.

Before our visit, my friends and I whetted our appetites by reading extracts from Taste of the Sea, Stein's first BBC book. So inspirational are his descriptions of unfancied fish such as dragonets, hake and conger eel, that we decided we would suppress our latent resistance to oily or bony fish varieties and order something truly different. We were slightly disappointed, therefore, to discover that on the night of our visit, the fish featured on the Seafood Restaurant's extensive menu were largely the usual suspects - skate, monkfish, sole and sea bass.

The restaurant's location, too, wasn't quite what we were expecting; it isn't perched quaintly on the harbour-front, but set back behind a one-way system and a pay-and-display car park. The expanded dining room is bright, white and roomy, with parquet flooring, black wicker chairs and a selection of gaudy prints on the walls. "It's all a bit Terry and June," sniffed Richard, one of my dining companions, who seemed to have been expecting a fashion spread of clear-skinned young models in chunky knits, rather than the middle-aged spread of blue-blazered Rotarians and their good lady wives who predominated.

The fish is the thing, though, and there was plenty to tempt us. Familiar offerings such as skate with black butter and capers swim alongside more exotic dishes like mussels stir-fried with black beans, and there's an extensive choice of crustacea. Prices are high, with starters at around pounds 10 and main courses around pounds 22, and only one choice for the non-fish- eater - steak au poivre - lurks shamefacedly at the bottom of the list.

I started with a monkfish and tiger prawn salad, served in a fennel butter vinaigrette. The prawns were spliced and lewdly splayed, like frogs' legs, but both they and the monkfish were transformed by a seasoning of green peppercorns and dried chilli flakes, which complicated the dish without dominating it. Richard chose sauteed squid salad, something he claimed to have seen Rick Stein cook on the Richard and Judy show, and he didn't regret his decision. A heap of tender rings came spiced with chilli, mint and coriander and served with roasted rice, and he was soon smacking his lips and "mmm"-ing just like his daytime TV namesake.

Sharon's scallops were steamed in their shells with ginger, then dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and spring onions. "Normally I like scallops fried or roasted, but these are so delicate," she enthused. Such was her enthusiasm, in fact, that she attempted to eat the decorative seaweed garnish, and was only narrowly dissuaded from pocketing the empty scallop- shells to use as bathroom ornaments.

I'd taken the precaution of bringing my copy of Taste of the Sea with me, in order to bone up on any of the more difficult fish. (I'd also hoped Rick Stein might be on duty and I could engineer a meeting by asking him to sign it, but learnt that he was away on holiday, and doesn't often cook at the restaurant himself these days.) As we waited for our main courses I amused myself by looking up the recipes for some of the dishes on the menu, and found that a number of them feature in the book. While Sharon was quizzing our waiter about the fish used in her Goan fish curry - porbeagle shark and grey mullet - I found them in the book, but discreetly closed it again rather than passing on the off-putting information that grey mullet is found in the greatest concentration around sewage outlets.

The curry was thick, fruity and well grounded and the accompanying puri and chutneys proved that the talents of the kitchen extend well beyond the treatment of fish. "As porbeagle shark curry goes, this is the best I've ever had," Sharon announced. There was an Asian touch, too, to my chargrilled sea bass, which sat in a fragrant vinaigrette dotted with thousands of microscopic vanilla seeds. The combination of the ascetic simplicity of the fish and the complex sweetness of the vanilla was a revelation, and we wondered why we tend to be so timid when it comes to combining fish with unusual ingredients and spices.

That said, Richard's dish, roast troncon of turbot with hollandaise sauce, exemplified the simplicity that is the cornerstone of Rick Stein's approach. Turbot is so firm and fine-flavoured that his troncon (a steak cut from a big fish, as I learnt from my indispensable book) would have been perfectly delicious on its own, even without the vivid sauce that accompanied it. Portions for all three of us were generous, and only the side-dishes of vegetables seemed slightly tired, betraying the pressure of maintaining attention to detail when handling a hundred covers.

Service, too, was rather perfunctory, and we had the impression that some of the staff were merely going through their paces, rather than being genuinely enthusiastic about their work. We were ignored for long periods, the wrong utensils were brought, and an enquiry about what was really good on that night's menu prompted the kind of weary response you might expect from a sulky teenager asked to list their hobbies. Stein's combined businesses now apparently employ over a hundred people, more than the entire Padstow fishing fleet, so perhaps a certain loss of the personal touch is inevitable, but if we'd been saving up for a special occasion, as many of our fellow diners obviously had, we would have been disappointed.

Richard and I finished with sticky toffee puddings, which managed to be both light and rich, while Sharon found her chocolate meringue tartlet slightly too sweet, and she couldn't finish it, despite the fact that we'd worked up an appetite by spending the morning surfing near Padstow. "Normally when I eat fish in a restaurant, I want to get a bag of chips on the way home," she said, "but the portions here are so big that I'm quite full."

Our bill came to around pounds 50 a head, including wine, which I'm glad to report was left on the table rather than being brought over at intervals like a sacrament. We noticed that several of the tables around us held couples, and that an unusually high proportion of women seemed to be paying the bill. This, we concluded, indicated that it was they who had chosen to come, and that for many men, a meal still isn't a meal if it doesn't include some kind of meat. A visit to the Seafood Restaurant should be enough to convert any sceptic, and we returned to our rented cottage with a renewed enthusiasm for seafood, and a determination to work our way through our trusty - and by now rather sticky - book. Needless to say, we didn't stop for chips on the way home.

The Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall, 01841 532700. Mon-Sat 12-1.30pm, 7-9.30pm (winter hours), closed Sunday. Fixed price lunch pounds 28, dinner pounds 34. All cards except American Express and Diners Club. Limited disabled access.

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