Saturday, 7 July 2012

Where to Eat in Falmouth, Part I

One of the great things about Falmouth is that even though it is not a large town, it has lots of good dining options. Despite living here for almost three years, I still haven't been to every restaurant--and, in fact, there are some I hadn't even heard of until recently (even though I pass them every day on my walk home from school--how is that possible?). I would eventually like to sample our entire selection and write a review of each place, but it appears that summer is not a good time to start such an odyssey, since the regular influx of tourists keeps all the restaurants busy and makes it hard to get reservations. Last week I had to call three restaurants before I could make a booking for Sasha's birthday dinner, and we encountered a full house this week when we took our departmental seminar speaker out to eat. I blame it on the rich yachters who are in town for the Pendennis Cup. Still, our two recent outings are a good place to start my new series, Where to Eat in Falmouth.

Amanzi, located at 38 Arwenack Street, is a rebranding of the old Clark's Restaurant. I only ate at Clark's once, and found it to be serviceable, traditional British fare. The menu at Amanzi is quite a change of pace, since it is inspired by African cuisine but is made from locally sourced ingredients--including not just seafood and meat, but also veg and dairy products. We've been to the new restaurant twice, and I've enjoyed my meals both times. Unfortunately, service was a little slow during the second visit, but the restaurant was pretty full at the time so I guess that's understandable. I noticed that two people from the table next to us had to send back their meals because they found the beef to be undercooked; however, it's hard to determine whether that really reflects a problem in the kitchen, since "doneness" preferences are so subjective, and a gourmand's idea of "medium" may be quite a bit bloodier than the average diner's.

During our most recent visit, on Sasha's birthday, our group opted to start with a couple orders of biltong, a South African dish that is a type of spicy, cured, jerky-like beef. Three-quarters of our party have actually been to South Africa and eaten "real" biltong, and to their palates the Amanzi version was a bit "soft-core." However, it was still given the thumbs-up and quickly consumed.

I was going through a vegetarian phase at the time, so I opted to skip the beef and instead start off with a bowl of the crab bisque (okay, so a crab bisque isn't exactly vegetarian, but it's certainly less meaty than biltong). The soup came with a side of garlic mayo and a piece of crusty French bread. The whole thing was really delicious; the bisque had deep, smoky flavors and tasted great by itself or sopped up on a bit of the bread.

I assume it was made from the meat of edible crabs, which are the most common variety in restaurants around here. To me, these taste very different from the king and snow crabs that are popular in the US; if all crabs were parts of a chicken, then king and snow crabs would be the breast, while edible crabs would be the thighs and wings. I'm not normally a thighs-and-wings kind of gal, but those types of flavors seem to work well in a bisque, where they can be tamed a bit by the other ingredients.

Two people opted to share an order of the salt and pepper squid, which was served alongside a soy, ginger, and honey dipping sauce. The squid were found to be tasty but a bit heavy on the pepper; however, the sauce was given four thumbs up, and the combination of the two flavors was ultimately a winner.

Perhaps the most exciting main course delivered to our table was this kebab, which was topped by a large dollop of herb butter that melted down the skewer and flavored the meat and veggies. Definitely a four-star presentation.

Also getting points for looks was this spicy beef dish that is kind of a South African version of chili. (I couldn't remember the name for this until reader Mark Ribbands wrote in to say that it is called potjie--and is, in his words, "jolly good"). Someone has ordered this dish both times I've been to the restaurant, and it always seems to go down well.

Sasha ordered the same thing that I got during my first visit to Amanzi: fresh Newlyn sole. His was accompanied by rock samphire, which is a tasty (though salty!) green that can easily be foraged along the shoreline in our area; mine was accompanied with fresh asparagus that had been grown in a local allotment. Both versions were great, because the chef at Amanzi really knows his/her way around a fish: The meat of both versions was tender and moist and perfectly cooked.

As I said, I was in the mood to eat vegetarian, and so I chose to order a dish that I almost got during my last visit to Amanzi: roasted root vegetable and grilled halloumi stack, polenta chips, balsamic reduction, and mixed leaves. It was a really colorful and pretty plate, but ended up being more appealing to my eyes than to my taste buds. One problem was the polenta chips; they had lovely stripey grill marks, but I prefer my polenta to be more fully seared, so that it has a crispier crust that contrasts with the softer texture inside. Likewise, the halloumi was soft rather than grilled, and so didn't have that firm, squeaky texture that generally characterizes the cheese. The entire dish was also a little under-seasoned. The balsamic reduction was tasty, though, and I did get quite a hearty portion.

I took my leftovers home and had them for lunch the next day, at which point I added salt, pepper, and a good dose of Parmesan cheese. This pepped up the dish considerably, and I ended up enjoying it more the second time around. So, I think it is a meal that has lots of potential, but needs a bit of tweaking before reaching it.

The one thing that I find a little disappointing about Amanzi is their dessert menu. I'm not really a big dessert eater, but every now and then I am in the mood to indulge--and a birthday meal is a perfect time for that. However, there isn't really anything on their list that intrigues me. There are lots of rich/creamy/heavy options, such as fudge tart and creme brulee (pardon the lack of accent marks, which seem to confuse Blogger greatly), but nothing light and fruity. Given that it's summer, and the menu is seasonal and weighted towards local produce, you'd think that there might be something with berries or plums or the like. But, to be honest, I was probably better off ordering a pot of mint tea, which came with a little biscuit that satisfied my sweet tooth without leaving me feeling too full. Everyone else ordered the creme brulee and seemed quite happy with their choices.

The bottom line: I know I had a few little complaints about our most recent Amanzi experience, but ultimately I still feel pretty positive about the restaurant. The staff are very accommodating, the decor and atmosphere of the restaurant are attractive and welcoming, and the menu offers lots of options that you can't find anywhere else in Falmouth; plus, they frequently update their specials menu. I am especially beguiled by their lengthy list of tasty-looking appetizers, and I love the number of vegetarian--or vegetable-heavy--choices. I'd like to go back and try more of what they have to offer; this includes their lunch menu, which features several options that are not common to the evening menu.

The Hut has long been a favorite of University of Exeter folks because it is conveniently located (at 2 Quay Street) next door to the Chain Locker; it is easy to take visiting academics out to a drink at the "Chainy," then walk next door for a seafood dinner at The Hut. I've participated in just that scenario many times since my arrival in Falmouth, though until last week I hadn't been to the restaurant for probably almost a year. 

The first thing I noticed was that they had changed the menu since my last visit. Judging from the choices available, they had become more focused on seasonal specialties; their appetizer menu, for instance, listed a delicious-sounding potted ham with mustard and sage that was described as being "an old-fashioned recipe that is just right for summer."

Unfortunately for The Hut, our party was fairly large--I think there were 13 of us in all--and even though we had placed a reservation earlier in the day, they weren't exactly prepared to serve quite so many people. It took the waitress a while to come take our order for drinks, and even though we requested the option of also ordering appetizers at the same time, she made us wait. As a result, we didn't get our appetizers until about 45 minutes to an hour after we'd arrived (though they did bring us some amuse-bouches to tide us over), and we didn't get our meals until about an hour after that.

For my starter, I ordered the grilled goats' cheese salad, which is a favorite of mine. I was so hungry that I forgot to snap a photo beforehand, so you'll just have to trust me when I say it was pretty. My only complaint was that it was very generous with the goat cheese (delicious), but stingy on the salad; as a result, I wound up with extra cheese at the end and no greens with which to pair it. Several people started with the steamed Cornish mussels, which smelled lovely. Those portions were also quite generous, and I suspected that a person could easily make a meal out of that dish and a side salad.

My main course was the Falmouth bay scallops--actually another appetizer. The restaurant offers you the option of doubling any starter to make it main course-sized, which I think is a pretty handy thing to be able to do. I, however, just stuck with the regular-sized version for my meal.

Whatever else you might say about The Hut, you have to acknowledge their prowess with seafood. Falmouth--and, indeed, Cornwall and even Britain in general--has an abundance of seafood restaurants, which means that it is not easy for any particular establishment to stand out. The Hut, though, consistently serves delectable food. My scallops were simply done in garlic butter and chives, but they were incredible. It was nice to have the bread to soak up the juices left in the shells.

The most popular dish of the evening was the Falmouth bay scallops and Cornish gurnard; I think eight or nine different people ordered that for their main. I kept expecting the waitress to come back from the kitchen and tell us that they didn't have enough ingredients on hand to prepare that many portions of the same dish, but she never did. When the plates arrived, the reason for this was clear: In order to stretch the gurnard out across all 8-9 people, the chef had simply reduced each portion size. One person had a hunk of fish that was barely bigger than a scallop.

As you can see above, it was an attractive plate, but one that didn't contain much. Considering how long people had been waiting to eat, there were lots of empty bellies, and these portions just weren't going to fill them. There was a lot of quiet grumbling, but only one person actually complained to the waitress; the chef offered to throw in some additional fish (of a different variety), but the damage had already been done.

We all decided that the only benefit to this mishap was that it left people with enough room to comfortably indulge in dessert. I was excited to see lemon granita on the menu, since lemon is my co-favorite dessert flavor (next to apple-and-cinnamon).

I received quite a large portion, and it was very refreshing and well-balanced--not too lemony, not too sweet, not too icy. I wish more restaurants offered this sort of dessert, because it's much more pleasant to fit that into your belly than a huge hunk of chocolate cake. But, the Brits love their tarts and cakes and custards, so I won't hold my breath for the popularization of icy citrus things.

Another popular dessert choice was the sticky toffee pudding, which any seasoned traveler will recognize as being one of the most popular "pudding" options in the UK. Judging by the speed with which this was inhaled by everyone at our table, The Hut produces a nice version of this rich and indulgent dish.

The bottom line: Most people would probably list The Hut as one of the best restaurants in town, and, based on their menu and their expert preparation of seafood, I'd say that's probably fair. There were a number of things I was tempted by, both in terms of appetizers (fishcakes, smoked salmon, chorizo stew) and main courses (lamb tagine, gnocchi with broccoli and cheese sauce, catch of the day); plus, they have a nice variety so that you don't have to eat seafood if you don't want to, even though they are essentially a seafood restaurant.

I have to mark them down on service, though, because that's an important part of the experience. Since they knew that a large party was coming to dinner, they might have thought to call in an extra waitress for the night--especially considering that we're in the middle of Pendennis Cup week and they were packed full of other patrons, as well. They could have ordered extra supplies so that they wouldn't run out of portions, or, at the very least, they should have kept portion sizes consistent and simply offered a limited number of each menu option. I think people would probably be less disturbed by getting a full portion of their second choice than by getting a half portion of their first. Perhaps most importantly, the waitress should have taken our food orders as soon as possible so that the kitchen staff could have gotten to work on our meals immediately. We ended up sitting in the restaurant for three and a half hours for a three-course meal; I didn't even spend that much time eating my 7-course meal at Nathan Outlaw's restaurant!

One novel thing about The Hut that deserves mention is their decor. The restaurant is subterranean but doesn't feel that way thanks to a backlit faux window. The orangey glow that it fills the restaurant with makes you feel as though you are sitting out on the beach, or, at the very least, like you are not sitting in a basement. It makes for a very pleasant, cozy dining experience.

Follow the links for more information on Amanzi and The Hut.

No comments:

Post a Comment