Fish is the backbone of the Michelin-starred menu at this small but perfectly formed Ilfracombe bistro, says Andy Lynes
Thomas Carr caught many industry watchers by surprise in October 2016, when his then two-year-old, 20-cover bistro, set in a back street in the Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe, was awarded a Michelin star.
A quick check of the chef’s CV, however, which included a stint as head chef at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Port Isaac, Cornwall, in 2010, and as executive chef at the Coach House at Kentisbury Grange in Devon under Michael Caines, soon helped explain away any apparent mystery. And since then the restaurant has gone from strength to strength, picking up three rosettes from the AA in January 2017. “After the Michelin star, business went up 30-40%. I needed it – I was getting to the stage where I was thinking, is it really worth doing this?” Carr says. “It was working, but it wasn’t making me any money.”
Carr grew up in north Devon and trained at the Watersmeet hotel in Woolacombe before moving to Cornwall to work at the St Endoc hotel, which was taken over by Outlaw. “I had learned everything I could from Nathan cooking-wise, and it was getting to the stage where a lot of the dishes on the menu were dishes I’d thought of as his head chef. Eventually, you just want to break away,” he admits.
Carr spotted a gap in the market for a restaurant back home in Ilfracombe in north Devon. The site on Fore Street was part of the Olive Branch guest house, and the initial arrangement was for Carr to have access to the kitchen from 11am, after breakfast. But last year, Carr took the lease for the whole building, along with his brother, who now runs the guest house and works front of house at the restaurant. “The aim is, after five years, to buy it or at least put down a meaty deposit,” Carr says.
Carr runs the restaurant with two other chefs and a kitchen porter, and together they offer an à la carte menu (£50 for three courses) and a seven-course tasting menu for £80. There are also two vegetarian options, of six courses for £55 or three courses for £35.
“When I opened I did five starters, five mains and five sweets. When you’re setting out you have to do that because otherwise people will just walk past. Now, because of the star, people want to come and eat my food,” Carr says.
Carr has made the decision to serve tasting menus only on those Friday and Saturday evenings. “You can express yourself on a tasting menu. When I do an à la carte I have this thing that I have to put potato on there and a certain amount of veg. With a tasting menu you don’t have to worry about the carbohydrate – it can just be a perfectly cooked bit of fish, a little bit of sauce and one other garnish.”
Carr is a passionate proponent of Devon seafood and he has a string of small, local suppliers, including lobster and crab specialist Walrus Fisheries in Ilfracombe harbour. “It breaks my heart to see Cornish sardines or Cornish crab on a menu in Ilfracombe. It’s almost a fashion to say that the fish is from Cornwall, but I get fish from north Devon that’s easily as good.”
Carr’s line-caught wild north Devon bass and Lundy crab main course exemplifies his ‘neat and tidy’ cooking style of simple-looking dishes that belie the detailed work that goes into them.
“The crabs come in live and we cook them down and make a lovely stock out of the shells. We use this to make a sauce with fish stock, orange juice, fennel and sambuca. We use the brown crab meat to make a light mayonnaise, seasoned with shallots that are cooked with white wine, salt, vinegar and sugar; it goes like a sticky jam and I always have a pot in the kitchen. We make a terrine by layering potatoes, basil oil and Quicke’s Cheddar, which we cook, press, set overnight, and then fry off.”
The dish is finished with confit leeks and an orange oil that’s brushed on the skin of the bass. “It gives it a lovely flavour without being too harsh. It’s that extra little detail that transforms a dish,” he says.
Carr has plans, not just to re-model the Olive Room, but also to open the Thomas Carr Seafood and Grill on Ilfracombe’s High Street, an endeavour for which he recently raised £15,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. If the ambitious chef’s empire-building continues, it might not be too long before they rename the town IlfCarrCombe.
From the menu
Smoked Devon duck breast, crispy leg, beetroot, spring onion,
Hand-dived scallops, crispy chicken skin, curry, grape, hazelnut, cauliflower
Bream, shellfish bisque, leek and potato, orange, basil, lobster tortellini
Fillet of beef, oxtail fritter, pickled mushroom, potato terrine, cavolo nero
Frozen passionfruit parfait, doughnuts, meringue, frozen yogurt
‘Chocolate chocolate chocolate’, caramel textures, praline ice-cream
All dishes from the three courses for £50 à la carte menu
56 Fore Street, Ilfracombe, Devon EX34 9DJ