Question: how does a flying visitor with a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall culinary mancrush fill two spare hours on a rainy day in Plymouth?
Simple; he heads 10 minutes out of town to the impressively swish Urban Splash development at the Royal William Dockyard, gets thoroughly soaked wandering around looking for directions and then finally stumbles across Hugh F-W’s cavernous River Cottage Plymouth Canteen and Deli.
Having done zero research in advance, I’d expected something a little more homespun, and along the lines of the original Axminster River Cottage Canteen but this on a grander scale altogether. From the first step through the door of this Grade 1 listed former Naval Brewhouse the feeling of space is overwhelming with triple height ceilings, a single industrial sized dining room and an open kitchen creating a feeling of well, yes, as the name suggests, a huge canteen.
Having said this is clearly an upmarket, thoughtfully designed and sympathetically converted canteen. But then this IS an Urban Splash development after all. Huge windows set in metre thick granite walls provide distractingly panoramic views towards Plymouth Sound, floors are stripped, fittings are industrial, furniture is artfully distressed and yes, of course, the acoustics are terrible.
Being a wet, weekday lunchtime in January no booking was needed and barely a third of the tables were occupied so, as would be expected under the circumstances, service was prompt and efficient. Perhaps I was just feeling overly damp and grumpy but my waitress’s enthusiasm grated a little but then again maybe she’s ok when she has more punters to share it with or maybe she just thought this sorry solo diner had been stood up?
Foodwise, well it’s Hugh isn’t it? Local is the watchword whether it’s the Portland crab, locally caught mackerel, West Country meats, hearty sounding seasonal vegetables or Cornish blue cheese. Everything on the menu sounds as though it could’ve got here on the bus at a push. Just how it should be- lecture over.
From a short but varied menu I went for the Spicy Pork Balls with Asian slaw and chilli sauce served on a flatbread. Oh and yes, go on, I’ll have fries too. And, oh, is that Cornish Orchards cider? Well, yes, I got a taste for that down at the Porthminster Beach Café last year so I might as well.
And on a day like this it hits the spot. A nice mix of comforting spicy pork with the crunch of the slaw combined with the double carbohydrate hit of flatbread and fries and a really decent cider seems suitably West Country; thoroughly local and just enough for a wet and hungry visitor looking for a no-frills lunch. Well, enough when a panna cotta with warm spiced apricots is thrown in for good measure. I tend to treat panna cotta as a pudding for warmer weather with the ubiquitous summer berries but this winter version with a little heat and spice works well and at around the £20 mark for a small main, a side, dessert and a decent cider I don’t feel hard done to.
And, being on a tight schedule, with the aim of being in, out and on my way within the hour I guess my waitress’s enthusiasm and attentiveness is no bad thing. With a little well-timed eye contact I’m settled up and on my way with 10 minutes to spare.
So what can I say? Good luck Hugh…..if this is the next step in developing the River Cottage brand into a wider chain then it’s a good start. Locally sourced well cooked food, a daily changing menu and a genuinely interesting setting. If the rest of the canteens are like this and there’s no compromise on the River Cottage principles, I’m with you all the way.