This article about West Cornwall is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Update 26/7/21 – added details of follow-up visits to restaurants and eateries in Penzance, Newlyn and Fistral/Newquay.
It may seem incongruous for me, as a London-based restaurant reviewer, to have my first indoor catered meal post-lockdown in a bed and breakfast in Cornwall. To be surprised by that though, you’d have to assume two things. First, that I’m so keen to dive back into the much-missed world of restaurants that I’ll blindly trust both the Government and the public to do the right thing when it comes to furthering the collective interest during a public health crisis (spoilers: I don’t).
Second, it assumes that I entirely base my holidays around where and what to eat. If you thought that I inevitably spend my holidays louching around gastronomic hotspots such as San Sebastián or Tokyo wearing nothing but a bib and a credit card, then you wouldn’t be the first. Most of my dining companions and non-food obsessed friends assume the same. But rather than prioritise eating out above all else, I choose whatever activity or location I want to experience and then try to eat well as best as my destination allows. Which, I suspect, is how most people approach eating out while on vacation.
Cornwall has an outsized reputation for high quality produce, but hiking the South West Coastal Path from St Ives to Falmouth isn’t necessarily the best way to appreciate its bounty. Social distancing requirements meant that many countryside gastropubs had restricted menus and an even more restricted number of tables that were hard to come by on a last-minute holiday. While hiking from village-to-village and town-to-town can help build up a ferocious appetite, some settlements literally only had one or two places to choose from – and often with none to write home about.
Which is why – as a general rule with few exceptions – I’m not going to write about the lone wolf eating options in the various out-of-the-way villages I passed through. Without spending more than a night or two in each one and doing proper reviews, I don’t see the need to stick the knife in the sole pub or takeaway of several successive Cornish villages and hamlets. When faced with limited options, if you can travel to the next village along and its more bountiful options then you will. If you can’t, you’ll lump it and like it as I did.
What follows then is less a series of reviews and more a blog in the old school sense of the word – a vaguely thematic series of reveries that are just as much for me as they are for you.
There’s just one full-on proper review as a result of this trip. To be notified of new reviews and articles on this website, sign up for email notifications via the homepage, subscribe via RSS or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.
The Searoom, St Ives
While the Searoom does indeed offer sea and beach views, it’s not an especially large establishment. If you’re still feeling hesitant about dining indoors without much elbow room or breathing space, as I am, then the Searoom also offers takeaway.
If you only order one thing from The Searoom’s takeaway menu, then make it the mussels. As if the very idea of having takeaway mussels wasn’t wondrous enough, they were also worth digging in to with wild abandon. The l’il molluscs not only had a firm bite and a plump, fleshy follow-through, but also came swimming in a richly buttery sauce. These weren’t just delectable for takeaway mussels, these were easily the best mussels that I’ve had in a long time.
The Thai hot dog wasn’t very Thai and not much of a hot dog. The grainy sausage and excessively chewy bread had to be rescued by the combined moreishness of the relishes. Even this was relative though with the undistinguished melange of relishes less than the sum of their parts.
Spiced crispy squid was barely spiced and more light and fluffy than crispy. That texture was still mouth pleasing though, despite the floppy squid underneath, especially when dredged though the excess buttery run-off from the mussels. The included srirarcha-ish mayo, on the other hand, made the damp squid a damp squib.
I’ve been unimpressed with London’s attempts at poke. While Searoom’s version was oddly deconstructed, it did benefit from buttery salmon which blended neatly with nutty sesame, savoury edamame and the nutty sweetness of sweet potato. The small-grained rice could’ve been fluffier, but this was still nonetheless one of the few pokes I’ve tried in the UK that was actually pleasing.
If only everything I had from The Searoom was as superlative as that tub of mussels.
Average cost per main dish: £10
Cornwall has a couple of native ice creameries, the most eclectically named of which has to be Moomaid of Zennor. In terms of sheer mouthfeel, Moomaid’s ice creams were among the luxuriant I’ve had this side of Rome with a lusciously thick creaminess that was nonetheless refreshing. It’s therefore a real shame that both the pistachio and vanilla flavours were muted, while the salted caramel and honeycomb was excessively sweet.
Roskilly’s ice cream wasn’t anywhere as thick and creamy as Moomaid’s. It was not only a bit too wispy in places, but had the occasional crunchy ice crystal too. While both the gooseberry and vanilla flavours had little to say for themselves, the Cornish cream tea flavour was reasonably evocative of the source material. Its creamy folds came layered with seams of strawberry jam and studded with soft and scone pieces that came across a bit biscuit-y.
Fish and chips
I’ve long been unmoved by fish and chips, failing to see the attraction in stodgy fish and flaccid potato soldiers. Judging from the battered cod from Jeremy’s in St Just (the one in Penwith, not Roseland), it’s entirely possible that it’s been London’s fish and chips that have done a disservice both to me and this genre of fast food.
Jeremy’s feather soft batter, moistened by an application of salt and vinegar, was not only moreish in its own right but encased flaky, moist and meaty cod that had been cooked just-so. The chips were still unimpressively floppy though.
Although the cod from Smuggler’s near Lizard Point was a bit too mushy for my liking, the batter was remarkably, evenly crisp – more like a crunchy shell or carapace than batter. The chips were also crunchy, which almost made up for their often hollow/billowy interiors and the stubby, smaller chips which verged on brittleness.
It should come as a surprise to no-one that supermarket Cornish pasties are a pale imitation of the many pasties available in the peninsula itself. All but one of the pasties I tried had pastry that was far sturdier than the supermarket standard – more robust than puff pastry, but not quite as dense and crumbly as most shortcrust pastry shells. All but one also benefitted from a feathery pastry underlayer that neatly led into the sticky gravy.
The pasties from St Ives Bakery, the branch of Warren’s in St Just (Penwith) and the Porthcurno Beach Café were almost more winsome for their fillings of sweet and starchy diced turnip and potato than the steak. While tender and moderately tangy in the pasties from Warren’s and the Porthcurno Beach Café, the steak was still nevertheless outshone by their vegetal stablemates. The steak in the St Ives pasty was barely deserving of the name, while the Porthcurno pasty suffered from pastry that was just a bit too greasy. On balance then, the Warren’s effort was the best of the lot I tried.
A special place in culinary hell is reserved for the pasty served by the Five Pilchards pub in Porthallow. The stodgy pastry verged on hard, while the mysteriously mulchy filling was more like the sodden and muddy Coastal Path itself after a heavy downpour than something enjoyably edible.
Located a very short jaunt away from Porthleven’s main drag, Landed is a seafood-only takeaway that serves a rotating menu of several inventive dishes alongside the usual fish and chips.
Some of them are pescatarian versions of carnivorous dishes, which is either an eye-rolling exercise in tired marketing tricks or an inventive sleight of hand depending on your point of view. Thankfully, the pulled skate ‘brisket’ was more of a middle class filet-o-fish than a misconceived barbecue homage with gills. The bun stayed out of the way, allowing the moist, hefty strands of ‘pulled’ skate to take centre stage. Sweet pickles and a surprisingly pleasing and tartare-esque cheesy mayo provided the flavoursome counterpart to the meaty mouthfeel of the fish.
While the curled whirls of Southern-style batter were perfectly and evenly crunchy without a hint of oil, its toothsome charms arguably obscured the bouncy meatiness of the monkfish they cocooned in all but one instance. The chipotle mayo was nothing of the sort, while the pickles were far too sweet with a cloying presence not helped by the addition of dill which is a herb I usually enjoy. Despite the many disappointments in this carton, the textural snap and crackle of that paprika-hued batter will live long in my memory.
In a similar vein to the deep-fried monkfish, the crunch of the wee noodle-like deep-fried batter nest arguably detracted from the creamy oyster it encased.
The crustacean in Landed’s lobster roll was served at room temperature and the bread roll stayed out of the way. While mostly firm, the lobster’s mouthfeel was nonetheless compromised by unevenly sized chopping – many of which were too weeny. The thick crimson-hued mayo, while eye-catching, added little. There’s the core of a good lobster roll here, just waiting to be unleashed.
My takeout meal from Landed was an uneven affair, but there’s clearly a great deal of promise at this unassuming takeaway.
Average cost per main dish: £9
My time around the coast of West Cornwall may have been generally uneven and perhaps even undistinguished gastronomically. And yet the peninsula has tantalised me so on multiple levels. I’d be very surprised indeed if this first visit ends up being my last.
Summer 2021 update
I hadn’t intended to return to West Cornwall quite so soon after my walk around the occidental extremity of the South West Coastal Path. Nevertheless, a brief trip for the day job did give me the opportunity to sample a few more restaurants and eateries in this eminently picturesque and windswept part of the UK.
Rick Stein Fistral, Newquay
I was underwhelmed by celeb chef Rick Stein’s London outpost, but I had a vague hope that one of his Cornish restaurants might prove to be at least somewhat less risible. That hope was dashed by his fast casual joint on Newquay’s Fistral Beach. While the lilliputian portion of battered hake shimmered in the summer evening’s golden halo, it was just a bit too damp to be enjoyable. The hake underneath was reasonably moist and meaty, but there just wasn’t enough of it with most of the calories here provided by several shovel loads of flaccidly floppy chips.
Reasonably peppery and umami strips of chewy jerky-esque fish dotted the ‘Asian’ mackerel salad, but there wasn’t enough to go around. The bulk of this salad consisted of sharp, punchy red onions and what I’m pretty sure was astringent lemongrass. There was so much of it, the overpowering aftertaste lingered well into the morning after the night before.
Rick Stein Fistral does have views of the eponymous beach from many of its windows and outdoor tables. Even so, it’s rare for me to feel this egregiously mugged by a restaurant.
Average cost per main dish: £10
Lewis’s is not only one of a handful of eateries in the fishing town of Newlyn, it’s now the only fish and chip shop as well.
Although I prefer my batter crisp and crunchy, if you’re part of the soft and supple camp then you’ll enjoy the thin, seamless batter here. The cod underneath was a moist and flaky affair. The chips were whole slices of potato rather than reconstituted mash, but were soft and floppy – perhaps my preference for crisp batter and chips is unlikely to be met by most of the nation’s fish and chip parlours.
Curiously, Lewis’ does serve up a crispier, crunchier batter as part of its battered burger. Although the patty underneath was thin, it did have a beefy tang to it.
Don’t be tempted by the ‘lemon and pepper’ cod. The eponymous citrus and spice was fleeting – at best – in the soft and seamless batter. The cod underneath was dry and even chewy in places. When a fish supper has more in common with chewing gum than it does other seafood dishes, then something has clearly gone wrong.
Lewis’s is no match for Smugglers on the Lizard, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Average cost per main dish: £7-8
Artists Residence, Penzance
This hotel restaurant is an attractive-looking space, but the service was embarrassingly slack, raw and green on my evening visit. Post-lockdown labour shortages are probably at fault, but so is insufficient training.
Despite being a tad overcooked, the mussels were reasonably fleshy and buttery but the mildly tangy sauce was a milquetoast affair compared to the efforts from The Searoom St Ives and the nearby Blacks.
Scallops were relatively firm and springy, but whatever character they may have possessed had been drowned out by the oddball sauce which seemed to combine sweet chilli with a mayo-style concoction. There are worthy but unsuccessful experiments and then there’s whatever the heck this was supposed to be.
The heads of the shell-on prawns were slurpable enough with a reasonable level of saltiness akin to that of an out-of-tune but still enjoyable sea shanty cover on TikTok. The overcooked bodies verged on the mushy and bland though, with the punchy garlic and parsley dipping butter picking up a lot of the slack.
It was a similar story with the half lobster. The relatively firm meat wasn’t quite springy enough and was almost mushy in places. Both it and the accompanying coleslaw leaned heavily on garlic butter for flavour. Poor.
This may be an Artists Residence, but there’s precious little artistry going on in the kitchen.
Average cost per main dish: £17
Blacks of Chapel Street, Penzance
Blacks has an uninspired décor that’s best described as 90s wine bar ‘chic’. Diving into some of the seafood dishes on its small but varied menu, however, revealed cooking of uncommon skill.
The meatiness of the plump mussels found a fine partner in a thin yet tangy and moreish sauce. Truly scoffable mussels such as these are far harder to find in West Cornwall than I would ever have thought.
A precisely trimmed starter of monkfish was not only picture perfect, but an illustration in how a kitchen can help bring out the best in a fish. A wafer thin yet crisply brittle crust gave way to reveal a firm, meaty follow through. That textural double act was the perfect conveyor for the citrusy crunch of samphire. Little cylinders of rhubarb initially seemed out of place, but their tartness made for an effective palate cleanser after the relative meaty richness of the monkfish.
The smooth and delicate flesh of lemon sole soaked up the rich moreishness of shrimp-dotted butter to stunning effect. The punchy tang of capers added another layer of deliciousness, while yielding baby potatoes and wrinkly, mildly bitter kale provided contrasting hits of ballast and texture.
The chocolate and strawberry tart was, disappointingly, a miniature tart rather a slice of a bigger whole. Putting aside my insatiable lust for indulgently sized desserts, the sugary sweet strawberries needed a better partner than the wallflower chocolate chosen. Although thin, the reasonably buttery pastry snapped apart easily enough. On the side was smooth raspberry tart with a sweet tartness reasonably true to the fruit, although the biscuit crumb scattered on top added little. A disappointing end to an otherwise winsome meal.
Of all the restaurants that I’ve visited thus far in West Cornwall, Blacks is one of the few I’d eagerly visit again.