TV CV only gets you oh so far
I have little time for most TV celebrity chefs, but I’ll usually make an exception for Rick Stein. His genteel avuncular charm, childlike wonder and boundless yet measured enthusiasm make him far more watchable than the majority of his arse-clenchingly irritating peers. The big man naturally doesn’t cook in the kitchen of his eponymous new eatery in Barnes, but his celebrity alone will be bait enough to reel in customers to this riverside restaurant.
Rick Stein Barnes is, if nothing else, a very comfortable place with plush banquette seating and ample cushions. The views of the Thames may be more alluring on a drawn-out summer evening, but held little appeal in the still-dark and long nights of spring – especially given the odd conservatory-like environs of the windowside tables. Another option in warmer weather would be the attractively floral and atmospherically lit courtyard tables.
It’s what’s on the plate that matters most though and it’s here that Rick Stein Barnes starts coming undone, slowly but surely.
First things first
Rick Stein Barnes insists on beginning each meal with a small ‘bar snack’. A morsel-sized smoked haddock fishcake was only mildly smoky and fishy, but was free from excess oil and not at all heavy or stodgy. As a de facto amuse bouche, it worked well enough.
One of the few things more ridiculous than a restaurant being stingy with its bread is to plop a meagre two slices on a miniature chopping board. The slice of white was well past its prime, leaving to the walnut-studded slice of brown to pick up the slack. Its nuttiness meshed well with the fruity banana-like flavour of the olive oil.
Scabs of very mildly pickled mackerel and oddly sweet rhubarb were served in little scoops of lettuce. The crunchiness of the latter obscured both fish and vegetable, negating whatever charm this additional snack might have had.
A fish and shellfish soup, apparently Provence-style, tasted more of tomatoes and bell peppers. With no extant fish and shellfish chunks present, it was dependent on its bisque-like qualities. But this was faint at best and even then it receded more quickly than a middle-aged geezer’s hairline. The sawdust-like grated parmesan on the side should’ve stayed at home. The portion size was at least large, but when the most pleasing thing about it was the sharp, onion-punctuated rouille on the side then something has clearly gone very wrong.
The highlight of this meal, by far, was the dover sole à la meunière. The smooth, light and pearlescent strips of fish flesh had a pronounced butteriness and an occasional hit of citric sharpness. At a high £34, it’s easily one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. That’s about twice what a whole dover sole would cost at retail, but the generally high quality of the preparation, cooking and tableside deboning makes it worthwhile.
Tender leaves of baby spinach were dressed in a fruity olive oil and parmesan that was somehow less offensive than the stuff served with the soup. The generous helping of pancetta heaped in was very meaty though, lacking both fat and smoke.
I ordered the smashed liquorice meringue with berries and chocolate mousse against my better instincts. I don’t really like liquorice, but that wasn’t the problem in the end. Despite all the elements that made up this dessert – meringue, fruits and mousse – the resulting effect was a startling resemblance to a bowl of Weetos. Y’know, that crunchy, vaguely chocolatey, hoop-shaped, child-pacifyingly sweet cereal. I have little time for Weetos, but I’d have enjoyed an actual bowl of the stuff more than this waste of energy – it would not only have been cheaper, but I’d have gotten to drink the sweetened puddle of milk at the end – always the best part of any cereal.
Going back for seconds
By far the most successful of the ‘bar snacks’ I ate at Rick Stein Barnes had to be the salty salmon-ish mousse on a crispbread.
Although the not most embarrassing savoury dish at this seafood restaurant (that dubious honour goes to the soup), the sashimi left a lot to be desired. Putting aside the odd knife work and weak wasabi, the four-fish selection left little hiding room for error. The salmon tasted surprisingly bland, while the tuna had any character chilled out of it. The scallop, with the roe still attached which is uncommon when it’s served as sashimi, had an odd grittiness which detracted greatly from its already muted butteriness. The best of this bumbling barbershop quartet was the gently buttery sea bass.
The Indonesian curry, almost certainly based on gulai, used well-prepared bits of seafood known more for their texture than their taste. Firm then crisp prawns were joined by flaky sea bass and taut squid tentacles and carapace. All of that would’ve been fine, but for the underwhelming curry. The very mild sauce, with its flat and simple flavour profile, tasted of coconut milk and not much else. This was a missed opportunity as the neutral-tasting seafood could’ve been used as a conveyor for a rich, complex and nuanced sauce. Instead I got this sop.
Even the accompanying green beans were timid and uninspired, sprinkled with a dressing that had a modest hint of garlic, a very muted sharpness and the slightest of umami bumps from the scattering of dried shrimp.
One might make some allowances for a so-so curry, given that it depends on a juggling act of spice selection and pan work. No such lenience can be permitted for a sticky toffee pudding that’s the very antithesis of the rich and unmistakable indulgence that it should be. This brown coloured sponge in a thin, anaemic sauce, that wasn’t even very sticky, doesn’t deserve the name. The soothing sing-song of brown sugar, cream, butter and syrup melded together was entirely absent. Dreary, drab and dismal.
Three isn’t the magic number
The ‘bar snacks’ at Rick Stein Barnes really do need a radical rethinking. Especially when they’re as deeply unimpressive as this – sharp onions and stodgy, crunchy, stale-tasting bread obscuring whatever qualities that the flakes of tuna may once have possessed. Rather than tantalising and titillating, it spoke of cost-cutting, meagreness and slap-dashery.
Given the lacklustre sashimi, I wasn’t expecting much from the fruits de mer. The mussels and scallop initially appeared to confirm my worst fears with their lack of character due to excessive chilling. Things soon picked up though. The razor clam was a tad too chewy and hard, but only a tad. Firm winkles and cockles were then followed by a meaty, substantial whelk. A claw and head meat from a crab impressed with its unexpected and pronounced buttery sweetness. The highlight had to be the langoustine though – milky and gently sweet with a startlingly clean, pure aftertaste.
Milky and gently flaky fillets of halibut were cooked just-so in a sauce that adeptly balanced a hit of dill with creaminess and a gentle umami.
Panna cotta had a reasonably strong taste of vanilla, but its odd texture verged on the gooey and gummy. Strange enough in its own right, it was made downright unpleasant by the clashing mouthfeel of the bizarrely chewy dusting of pistachio. I’ve rarely been more tempted to send a dish back.
If you stick to pan-fried white fish at Rick Stein Barnes then you’re in for smooth sailing. Opt for anything else, however, and you enter far choppier waters. There’s some good produce on offer, as evidenced – for example – by the fruits de mer. But the dishes that incorporate them are often staid and unexemplary, as with the Indonesian curry. Or they’re an embarrassment to the soil and sea that gave birth to them, as with the sashimi, the soup and all the desserts I tried.
Even though Rick Stein Barnes has a menu, decor and locale distinct from its sister restaurants, as a whole it feels like a cookie-cutter by-the-numbers franchise operation designed to milk the wealthy locals for as much as they’re worth. And while I’m far from adverse to paying for superlative seafood prepared to a high standard, the prices here gnaw at me – with 14 restaurants under the Rick Stein umbrella, lower prices thanks to economies of scale seem to be missing-in-action. When other London restaurants are doing brilliant, mind-expanding things with brill, sea urchin and fishes I can’t even identify, Rick Stein Barnes just isn’t good enough. Not good enough at all.
What to order: Dover sole; Halibut; Perhaps the fruits de mer
What to skip: All the desserts; The soup; Sashimi
Name: Rick Stein Barnes
Address: Tideway Yard, 125 Mortlake High Street, Barnes, London SW14 8SN
Phone: 0208 878 9462
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.00.
Average cost for one, including soft drinks: £65 approx.