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Tuesday, 27 September 2005

we went, we ate, we came back home


The long weekend went by far too quickly, but a good time was had by all. We arrived at the Holne Chase hotel on Friday afternoon, marvelling at the seclusion and beauty of the surrounding area. It was a hunting lodge in a former life, and now provides comfortable accommodation for two and four-legged guests. There is a resident basset hound called Batty, whose bark is almost as loud and deep as Jasper's - she is not a dame to be reckoned with. The hotel receptionists were friendly and extremely helpful (they helped us find dog friendly beaches in the region, for example), and the chambermaids fussed over Jack, which always wins points with me. My mission was to eat as much seafood as possible during this trip, starting that evening. Our room was directly over the dining room so we were able to leave Jack upstairs with the baby monitor on (and Jasper to keep guard) while we ate supper. The hotel doesn't allow children in the restaurant after 7pm, but they provide a special high tea at 6pm for the little ones. We had a three course meal, starting with local mussels in a creamy wine sauce for me. For the main course, I had a grilled filet of sea bass served with sauteed leeks, peas, broadbeans, and potato. For dessert, we both went for the local cheese selection served with a deliciously spiced plum chutney, which was far too rich; I felt like slipping into a coma afterwards.

On Saturday, we headed to Paignton and the beaches of Goodrington. Goodrington is just south of Paignton with a dog friendly beach, but the tide was in while we were there. The dog unfriendly beach was accessible though, and stretched for a couple of miles. We stopped for a pub lunch and it was warm enough to eat outside so we could keep Jasper with us. After lunch, we headed to Paignton. It reminded me a lot of Great Yarmouth, which isn't a good thing - a faded seaside resort town, filled with arcades, tired looking hotels, and tatty shops. On the plus side, it has a fabulous zoo. For £10 (Jack was free), you can easily spend an entire day walking its winding paths. The zoo is divided up into various habitats such as swamplands and forests, with appropriate animals in each environment. No penguins, sadly.

In the evening, we went to our very first "celebrity chef" restaurant, Tanners in Plymouth. Although the brothers did a series for UKTV Food, James Tanner is probably the better known of the two from his appearances on BBC's "Ready, Steady, Cook". We sat in the well room (seen here, our table was the one on the left), with Jack parked by us in his stroller. I was a bit hesitant about taking Jack because when I booked the table and asked about highchairs, I got the sense that I had made some sort of horrible foody faux pas. My fears were completely unfounded as the waiters made sure there was a spot for Jack at our table, and one called him a "little treasure". Bless. Jack slept soundly through our meal, never knowing what he was missing. From start to finish, we were in culinary heaven. We went for the five course menu, which sounds scary, but it was the perfect amount of food. The first course was a small plate of grilled sardine fillets served with braised romaine lettuce. I am not a fan of fish with bones (you eat sardines bones and all), but it was still enjoyable. This was followed by a mound of smoked salmon on a blini for me, and scallops with smoked salmon for Paul. The salmon was the polar opposite of the chewy, slightly soapy tasting variety sold in plastic wrap at Tesco; it was delicately smoked and melted in our mouths. Paul's scallops were cooked perfectly - lightly browned with a creamy, translucent centre. My main course was a filet of John Dory, smoked prawns, and mussels served with spinach and a single oversized ravioli (I think it was filled with a seafood mousse - I could definitely detect prawns). Paul had something else; I wasn't paying attention as I was too absorbed in my meal. All the fish was beautifully cooked, particularly the John Dory which was delicate and tasted of the sea. A "pre-dessert" followed, which was a cleverly assembled dish to cleanse the palate. A real eggshell was filled with unsweetened whipped cream and a mango coulis centre, looking remarkably like a soft boiled egg served with shortbread "soldiers". For dessert, I had the most delicious creme broulee I have ever tasted. The satisfaction of striking a spoon through the caramelised surface is indescribable, and the custard was like silk speckled with vanilla seeds. Paul had a gorgeously light chocolate mousse-based dessert, described on the menu as "Something chocolate??!!" (which indicated to me that they hadn't made up their mind what it would be before they printed the evening's menus, or it was a question posed to the diner). Service was very friendly, with servers attending to us frequently throughout the meal. I assumed that the Tanners wouldn't actually be there - after all, surely they had more glamorous things to do on a Saturday night and a celebrity chef probably doesn't even work in his own restaurant. As I walked through the bar to the toilets, I noticed a plasma screen on the wall. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a live feed from the kitchen with not one but both Tanner brothers cooking up the main courses. "A Tanner has touched our food!" I exclaimed to Paul. Although it sounds pathetic, it did really please me to know that the Tanners were there. For five courses, we paid £35 and thought it was very reasonably priced for what we got - and it was touched by a Tanner, no less.

Sunday was our anniversary and our outing to celebrity chef restaurant #2, The New Angel in Dartmouth. We spent a lovely sunny early afternoon enjoying the scenery by the waterfront. Dartmouth is charming, distinctly lacking the seaside town tackiness often seen along the coast. I stood in front of the restaurant, waiting for Paul to take Jasper to the car while we ate lunch. I peered through the window and saw several tables with highchairs - I was relieved to see that we wouldn't be the only ones dining with a baby. I realised that I should have requested a table downstairs when I booked; the kitchen is open so you can watch the exciting hustle and bustle while your food is being prepared. We sat upstairs away from the excitement, served by several people with heavy French accents. We received a John Burton Race book for our anniversary from Russ and Debs, which we took with us hoping we could get the man himself to scribble on it for us. Much to my disappointment, he wasn't working that day (although we did recognise a few people from the "Return of the Chef" series). I had scallops served with lentils and lardons to start, which were just as beautifully prepared as the scallops Paul had at Tanners. Paul had a wonderfully fresh Dartmouth crab salad, piled high on his plate. We both went for the lobster salad for our main course, which included a surprisingly large portion of local lobster served with tarragon mayonnaise and new potatoes. The lobster was sweet and tender, with a slightly aniseed taste from the tarragon. For dessert I had the creme brulee, with the intent of comparing it to the Tanners version - and Tanners won, in my estimation. Although it was deliciously creamy, the custard was slightly thicker and dangerously close to the scrambled eggs stage. Paul had a spectacular duo of white and dark chocolate mousse, served with homemade ice cream. Jack had his first taste of Michelin starred food by sampling some soda bread while we ate our lunch. I'm sure he was suitably impressed. The food and service were excellent, but somehow lacking the overall enjoyment we experienced at Tanners. It is undoubtedly more touristy than Tanners, due to its waterfront location in a popular holiday town and the fact that the television series brought it to the public's attention. I left the restaurant satisfied, but wondering if that Michelin star meant better food.

After two days of stuffing ourselves, supper was a light bite at the hotel with a bottle of champagne to celebrate our anniversary. And of course I managed to fit in a piece of chocolate tart. On Monday, we gathered our things and began our journey back home via Dartmoor Park. Devon is awash with tiny twisty turny roads that are good fun, especially if you're not the one driving. We wound our way north through Dartmoor past hills, forest, sheep, and cows. We had a pitstop in Exeter for two reasons: to feed Jack and to ensure that we have a cream tea. Clotted cream is like eating unsweetened whipping cream, beaten to the consistency of Nutella. If you put a large blob of clotted cream on a warm scone and top it with another large blob of strawberry jam, you have something special. We scoffed our cream tea, had a bit of a wander around the quay and continued on our way home. The four days flew by, and once again I left Devon feeling like there was so much more left to see.

Yesterday, I had a slice of wholemeal toast for breakfast, cottage cheese and tuna on toast for lunch, and wholemeal pasta with bolognaise sauce and grilled courgettes for supper. I feel virtuous already.

Pictures can be seen here.

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