Nick reports on a meatless week in the far south west of England. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Until relatively recently, it was the locals who provided the attractions that drew the crowds to the higgledy-piggledy, narrow streets of Port Isaac on the rocky coast of north Cornwall.
The men went fishing, principally for crab and lobster, while the women prepared the filling breakfasts in the numerous bed and breakfasts and baked the scones that accompanied the jam and the clotted cream for the traditional Cornish cream teas.
Then Kent-born chef Nathan Outlaw arrived and via his two restaurants, within a mile of each other, single-handedly put this beautiful fishing village on the culinary map. Below is the view from the house we rented for a week, to give you some idea of the scenery.
Both Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen, pictured above right, located right on the harbour within 20 metres of the tiny fish market and so small that one former chef I met cocked his head to one side to give an impression of what it is like to work inside this picturesque building, have quite rightly been widely recognised.
Next on the scene came the London-born actor, Martin Clunes, who plays Doc Martin in the long-running ITV series of the same name that is filmed here. The current series brought over 130 crew and actors and many more hangers on.
More quietly, and benefiting from both the Outlaw effect and the many tourists lured via the tv series, has been the Scottish-born Callum Greenhalgh, pictured below, who for the past 17 years has joined the ranks of the crab and lobster fishermen of Port Isaac.
It was the love for his wife Tracey that brought Greenhalgh to Port Isaac where her father had been a fisherman. He now works his own boat, the Mary D, which not only supplies Outlaw’s restaurants but also their own café, the aptly named Fresh From The Sea.
This café, situated at the top of the village, has to be a magnet for any fish lover. Their specialities are crab and lobster sandwiches, filled generously and priced sensitively at £9.75. and £12.50 each respectively. They provide not just a taste of the sea but also the fruits of this couple’s hard labour. On several visits to their simple café I found it difficult to resist one of their homemade cakes.
That the Greenhalghs have ended up here is due to an accidental conversation 10 years ago with a neighbour who was on the point of selling what had been his delicatessen. The combined income from this café together with what Greenhalgh earns from his fishing is more than enough to keep them afloat and they can remain one of the four crab and lobster boats, a figure that has reduced from 15 a decade ago.
Climate change has brought different challenges. There has been a significant fall in the number of crabs, to a certain extent made up for by a rise in the number of lobster. 'There is more skill required to having your lobster pots in the right places', Greenhalgh explained over a cup of coffee, 'whereas crabs are more like sheep. And there has definitely been a sharp increase in the amount of cuttlefish landed here.'
Whatever he lands, Greenhalgh knows that as long as the quality is right, he will find a home for his fish at either of Nathan Outlaw’s restaurants, a situation that obviously suits both parties. Greenhalgh admitted that he had had his fingers burnt when supplying other restaurants in the pre-Outlaw era while Tim Barnes, the head chef at The Fish Kitchen, can know with certainty that no chef can match him for freshness or proximity to the catch.
The fifteenth-century fisherman’s cottage that has been Outlaw’s smaller restaurant since 2015 seats no more than 20, as you can see from the picture above. With half a dozen different dishes on offer depending on the day’s catch, the menu concentrates on fish and shellfish, as does the restaurant’s interior. It is probably easiest to plump for the set menu that is offered at £50 per head and comprises three cold and three cooked fish dishes.
We began with an excellent rendition of a smoked mackerel dip that was enlivened by diced pickled cucumber on the top and some sourdough toast. This was followed by perhaps the most exciting dish of all. Thin slices of brill had been cured with ginger and then topped with fine slices of spring onion, the whole lot under several swirls of acidic yoghurt (pictured). Then came cubes of sea bass spiced with mango and radish.
Our three cooked dishes included the freshest breaded plaice with a side dish of Cornish potatoes, lemon sole topped with an herb sauce, and a grilled fillet of John Dory with asparagus. The fish had been so judiciously cooked that there was no trouble in taking it off the bone equitably. We finished with a delicious baked Alaska and a bill of £150 for two that included four glasses of wine.
The finesse of the fish cooking here augurs well for the London opening of Outlaw’s newest restaurant, Siren, which will be housed within the Goring Hotel in Belgravia and opened on Wednesday.
Whether the crab or lobster at the Goring will taste quite as fresh as at Fresh From The Sea is debatable. For these, the sea air, the views across the small harbour of Port Isaac where the crab and lobster fishermen put out to sea, there is, I am afraid, nothing to compare with a trip to north Cornwall.
Fresh From The Sea 18 New Road, Port Isaac, PL 29 3SB; tel +44 (0)1208 880849
Outlaw's Fish Kitchen 1 Middle Street, Port Isaac PL29 3RH; tel +44 (0)1208 881183