We took advantage of our week’s holiday in Cornwall to see one of our best-known and longest-standing customers, Rick Stein, and to have dinner at his new-look Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. Rick has included our Chateau Bauduc Bordeaux Blanc as one of his ‘special selections’ on the front page of his wine list since our 2000 vintage, and the label sports his signature next to the Bauduc logo.
I had a brief chat with Rick, who was fully immersed in filming a one-off Christmas show and another series for the BBC with his old sparring partner, director David Pritchard. They’ve worked together for donkey’s years, and I first met the affable, Rumpole-like David when they were filming Rick’s French Odyssey series during their Bordeaux pitstop in 2004. He calls me Greg, for some reason, but, in his defence, he does meet a lot of people on their travels together. Rick and Dave’s third BBC series exploring food and cooking outside Britain, having covered South West France and then the Mediterranean, will be set around Asia.
The day before our dinner at the Seafood, Jill Stein kindly came to see me while I was with Rupert Wilson, the General Manager, who generously gave up half a morning to show me around. Jill is the creative force behind the recent refurbishment and, like Rick whenever he’s in town, has always made a point of saying hello whenever we’ve been over, which is nice. She has a lower profile than her ex-husband, of course, although she now has a page on Rick Stein.com, promoting her interior design work. There can’t be many celebrity ex’s who have a prominent entry on their former spouse’s website (at least, not in a positive sense) but this is a hugely successful partnership, and Jill plays a key role in the enterprise. An extraordinary enterprise it is too: most people know that there are umpteen establishments in the Stein empire within this small seaside town – restaurants, a cookery school, a deli, a bakery, a café, and so on – but even the most observant visitor might not realise that they have 40 beautifully decorated rooms around the town, and over 280 staff.
On my guided tour behind the scenes it was clear that no expense has been spared on getting things right. ‘Jill’s got great taste’, I said to Rupert. ‘Very expensive taste’, he muttered as we glanced around another new bathroom, with the air of a man with targets to hit.
Rumour has it, and don’t quote me on this, that the refit of the Seafood Restaurant, most of which was completed in just four weeks in January 2008, cost upwards of £2 million. The walk-in fridges alone must have soaked up a tidy sum and it was an eye-opener to witness the colossal investment behind the scenes. It certainly feels good to be involved as a supplier, safe in the knowledge that the fruits of our labour are being showcased in the best possible taste.
But what of the new look restaurant as returning customers? We’ve had scores of great meals at The Seafood with family and friends over the last 20 odd years, so I was a touch apprehensive that a complete makeover might have washed away some of the charm of this famous quayside diner.
I may be biased, but the new design is, quite simply, brilliant, with slick replacing hick in all the right ways. The grander entrance is now on the left and the extension for this was excavated from the rock that holds up the old, grey Metropole hotel on the hillside above. From the impressive new reception with it’s amazing, huge all-white fish chandelier, there’s still the option of having a swift sharpener in the conservatory at the front as you browse through the menu, or the wine list. This seating area next to the quayside is largely unaltered, and once inside the restaurant, the same paintings as before carry over some of the ambience of the old place, along with a splash of colour and drama. Aside from the pictures, though, the visual impact is dramatically different once you step inside. The new layout and interior is stunning. A stylish central bar area, where the full menu is served to those seated all around it (no prior reservation needed if you want to chance it), provides a new focal point for the far more spacious dining room. Pale beechwood floors and ceilings mix with white walls and light wood tongue-and-groove panelling, beautifully set-off under carefully orchestrated lighting, and the tall, elegant banquette seats around the outside walls face the comfortable, creamy leather, wooden-backed chairs. We were immediately converted – it’s elegant, spacious, modern, comfortable and original – and has one of the best atmospheres for enjoying good, fresh food and a chilled glass of wine that you could wish for. My vote would be to go as a group of six or eight and ask for one of the round tables.
There’s so much that’s new and different that it was re-assuring to see some of the old favourites on the menu: the classic warm shellfish starter, roast troncon of turbot with hollandaise, and many others. There are plenty of recent creations too – a couple of delicious sounding fish curries and a tasting menu – and we’ll no doubt see more Asian influences once the BBC series begins. I chose the warm shellfish to start, and the two Mrs Quinneys and I all went for the lobster for mains, grilled with fines herbes. Both courses were absolutely delicious, with the lobster timed to perfection under the grill.
Choosing the same main course may be unadventurous (and a real treat as far as the price is concerned) but it makes the wine selection easier, and this where our friend Roni comes into the picture. Roni Arnold, who many people don’t realise is Jill’s sister, has been the head sommelier at the Seafood for as long as I (or she) can remember, and it was to her that I took my first bottle of white wine eight years ago. After all, I’d worked my way through much of the wine list as a customer in the fifteen years before that, so it seemed only fair for Roni and Rick to taste it. (The man from Del Monte said no to our first vintage, the 99, but gave the thumbs up to the white from our first full season the following year, after he had come to Bordeaux and looked around the vineyard).
Roni has stayed at Bauduc and it was really good to catch up on all the news, although we probably distracted her from her duties, leaving second-in-command Jason to run around even more than usual. We drank Pieropan’s Soave Classico 2006 with the starters – my suggestion at £26 – and although it was sound and dry, we found it a bit limp and unexciting. The 2006 Chardonnay from Hamilton Russell, a vineyard in Walker Bay, near Hermanus in South Africa, where I visited years ago, was a much more enjoyable affair and perfect for the lobster. For a reasonable £41, it had the right balance of richness and racy acidity to cut through the creamy flesh and butteriness, without being cloying or overpowering.
One of the next door tables was drinking Chateau Bauduc Bordeaux Blanc, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask them if they were enjoying it, or to triumphantly claim that I had grown the grapes and made the stuff. Perhaps I should have done – it can’t happen that often – but they seemed to be having a good time without any need for interruptions.
Our wine would certainly work with many of the dishes at The Seafood Restaurant- but not the curries – and for £19.50 (come in Wine Number 3), it’s a bit of a steal in one of Britain’s greatest restaurants. But, then again, I would say that.