Saturday, 28 July 2012

Where to Eat in Falmouth, Part II: The Shack

Indoor picnic tables and picket fencing aren't usually associated with a gourmet meal, but don't let appearances fool you: Although The Shack (9 Tidemill House, Discovery Quay, Falmouth, UK) may look and sound humble, its food is anything but.

It is a family-run establishment that opened in the late summer of 2011, since which time I have visited often; I have never had a meal I didn't enjoy. In a town where, understandably, the seafood restaurants have a very British feel, The Shack is more reminiscent of a traditional New England seaside cafe. Although the menu is heavy on shellfish--lobster, mussels, shrimp (or "prawns," depending on where you are from), scallops--there is always a fish dish, a steak option, and at least one vegetarian meal; in addition to the regular menu, The Shack also features specials that change daily. No matter what the main ingredient, the chefs focus on simple preparations that highlight the natural flavors. It is hard to find fresher-tasting, more perfectly cooked seafood in town, and that is saying something--I've eaten almost everywhere and enjoyed many excellent meals.

During my most recent visit to The Shack, I started with one of the day's specials: seafood broth.


For some reason, I had expected this to be starter-sized, and I guess it might be for some people. For me, though, it was pretty substantial--not that I'm complaining. The broth contained shrimp, mussels, fish, calamari, and samphire--an ingredient I'd never even heard of until I moved to Britain, but now see everywhere. Samphire can be incredibly salty and so it usually needs to be blanched prior to inclusion in a dish; failing to de-salt the plant adequately can result in a nasty surprise for the diner. I really like samphire because I am a fan of greens, and even when cooked, it maintains its flavor and crunchiness. Here, it was a great contrast to the richer taste of the seafood.

I should mention that I'm normally a bit wary of calamari because it can so easily be cooked into a rubbery oblivion. In this instance, though, it was delicate and ultimately very "moreish," as the Brits would say; I could definitely have partaken in the calamari starter that my friends indulged in before my husband and I joined them!

Speaking of my friends, they worked on a bowl of the Fowey (pronounced "foy") mussels mariniere, which are prepared with cream, shallots, garlic, white wine, and fish stock. Unlike some restaurants that give you lots of broth and only a few mussels, The Shack is very generous with the shellfish, as you can see here.

For my main course, I ordered the same thing that I have eaten pretty much every time I've been to The Shack: Falmouth Bay scallops.

I have been told our local scallops are world-renowned, and this dish really shows why--they are tender and sweet and utterly addictive. Also, even though I only ordered 6, I was actually given 7. A part of me wishes I could move on and try something else on the menu, but I just can't bear to pass up the scallops; I just steal bites of my friends' food in order to see what the other things taste like.

The prawns, scallops, and crab all come with a choice of homemade sauces, including garlic butter, lemon butter, sweet chilli dip, blushed tomato, tarragon and caper butter, and aioli. I tend to go for the garlic butter--because, as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as too much garlic--but the tarragon and caper butter is also quite nice. Maybe some day I'll get around to sampling the other options, as well.

My husband is a big fan of lobster, and so he went for what might be described as The Shack's signature dish: the St. Ives lobster (or, in this case, half a lobster). He was even so generous as to offer a taste to one of our friends, who had never before eaten that particular shellfish. I've never been a great fan of lobster, and so I must admit that I abstained. However, he was very pleased.

Our companions opted to sample two of the other shellfish on the menu:

 Razor clams, which look so strange you can't possibly imagine them tasting good;

and shell-on shrimp in lemon butter sauce.

Together, the four of us managed to sample nearly every species on the menu, plus some of the fresh, chewy (in a good way) bread and skinny fries. 

One thing we didn't have, but which I have eaten in the past and definitely deserves a mention, is the restaurant's seafood sampler for two. It includes a collection of pretty much all the shellfish on offer, including (if I remember correctly) shrimp, scallops, crab, mussels, and oysters; it also comes with a bit of salad and some skinny fries. The whole ensemble is presented on a hefty rustic wooden platter and is accompanied by some seriously weighty tools for breaking into the tough shells of the brown crabs (which are much thicker and heartier than the snow and king crabs I am used to from the US). I live 2 stories above The Shack and often hear the loud and unmistakeable "thwack!" of the oversized mallets as diners try to extract their meals.

The nice thing about shellfish is that you work so hard unwrapping your dinner that you are totally justified in having dessert (in case you needed an excuse to begin with). The restaurant makes their own sorbet, and it is incredible. I had lemon and "forest fruit" the first time I went, and this time around the options included raspberry and pear:

I love raspberry, but the scoop of pear really stole the show. You could tell that it had been made with real fruit, and it was just like eating an actual pear--only colder and a bit creamier. Delicious.

Our friends had the lemon tart with raspberry coulis and (obligatory) Cornish cream, which is something else I've always wanted to try. Judging by the speed with which they inhaled it, it was pretty tasty.

Overall, we spent about three hours at the restaurant, sampling our way through various dishes and multiple courses. The staff were quite happy to put up with all our requests and orders, and never once tried to hurry us along so they could close up shop. It seemed to me that they only started each new course after watching us finish the previous one, which was great for our purposes--since we weren't in a rush--but might not work for people who are on a tight schedule; if you have to run to catch a movie after dinner, you might want to request simultaneous preparation of your dishes.

It is also worth mentioning that the menu is very reasonably priced--perhaps not by American standards, but definitely by British standards and, especially, British seaside standards. The largest order of scallops (9) only costs £17.95, for instance, while that massive bucket of mussels my friends ordered only set them back £11.95. The four of us together spend about £100--a tally that includes 2 bottles of wine, 2 bottles of water, starters, mains, desserts, and coffee. I suppose this is a pleasant economic side effect of ordering from a menu that features locally-sourced items--something that is also beneficial from an ecological perspective.

If you are in the neighborhood--perhaps visiting the Maritime Museum that is also located in Discovery Quay, or going shopping at the venerated Trago Mills--you should definitely stop by The Shack for lunch or dinner. If you see someone on the third-floor balcony, that will likely be me or my husband, so you can give us a wave and thank us for recommending such a fine restaurant.

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