At this harbourside restaurant, traditional and avant garde dishes tussle for menu supremacy. Lee Williams reports
Restaurants in transition often have an interesting story to tell, but rarely is that narrative written on the menu like it is at 36 on the Quay. The 45-cover restaurant with rooms is set in a 17th-century building on the quayside of picturesque Emsworth Harbour in Hampshire.
It is the setting for a culinary drama, with the source of tension being the shift from the classically informed French and British cuisine of owner and former head chef Ramon Farthing to the Nordic-inspired cooking of new head chef Gary Pearce (pictured below right with his team including Ramon Farthing, far left).
The transition began three years ago when Pearce returned from the continent to the restaurant where he had trained under Farthing 12 years before. Soon it was decided that Pearce and his partner Martina would take over running the restaurant, allowing Farthing and his wife Karen to take more of a back seat.
However, the transition to Pearce's new style, with its emphasis on preservation, wild foods and offal, proved a step too far for some. "Straight away, to see the different style was quite a shock to customers," says Pearce.
Unfortunately, the new approach was a step too far for Michelin as well. In September 2014 the restaurant lost the star it had held for 18 years. "Michelin don't like change. It's something we knew might happen," Pearce shrugs. You can see the disappointment in his eyes, alongside a steely determination to press on.
His style was forged during his time as a sous chef at Belgium's Michelin-starred In De Wulf. It was here he learned food preservation techniques like salting, curing and fermenting. Despite staging at Noma in Denmark, it was from his earlier four years as a sous chef at Le Champignon Sauvage in Gloucestershire that Pearce learned more about foraging.
And it was another stage at Magnus Ek's Oaxen Krog in Sweden where Pearce picked up his final influence: offal. He talks wistfully about a pig-snout dish that Ek used to serve: "You'd look at it and think, it's just a nose, but you'd eat it and it was absolutely fantastic." You can sense the balancing act between what Pearce wants to cook and what his customers are willing to eat. "I'd love to be able to use â¨a lot more offal," he says.
Crispy chicken skins with honey mayonnaise
Pearce and Farthing hope to resolve this tension by turning 36 on the Quay into a destination restaurant for adventurous foodies. You could certainly see it working - the setting is postcard-perfect and the local produce provides a draw of its own. Pearce's beloved foraged ingredients come in the form of sea beet, sandwort, Alexanders and sea aster from the coast, as well as chanterelles, girolles and cep mushrooms from the nearby South Downs.
Seafood is a speciality with quality cod, brill, turbot, halibut, mackerel and bream all coming from fishermen based in the harbour or from just down the road in Portsmouth. These find their way onto the menu as cod poached in butter with sautéed parsnip or brill fillet with ceps and onion marmalade. There are wild ingredients in many of the dishes, with sea veg even making it onto the dessert menu. Sea buckthorn forms the centre of a dark chocolate délice served with burnt butterâ¨ ice-cream - a dish that is one of Pearce's innovative triumphs. "At first it was a bit hit and miss," he says, "but now it's probably one of the biggest-selling dishes on the menu."
Roast brill, sauerkraut and hazelnut gnocchi
It's this acceptance of change that Pearce hopes will eventually extend throughout the menu, but for the moment the balancing act between old and new, traditional and experimental, culinary vision and commercial success, continues. "We've got to balance," says Pearce, "which for the past two years has been the biggest learning curve for me."
Whatever happens, Pearce and Farthing intend to press on with the transition. Whether the customers will ultimately buy it is the great unanswered question.
From the menu
- Seared Scottish scallops, cauliflower panna cotta, coconut crumble, lime and lemongrass gel and a honey and soy dressing
- Roast loin of fallow deer, spelt risotto, game bolognese, wild and smoked garlic, salt-baked swede, oat crumb, game reduction
- Aged beef sirloin, roasted, puréed and pickled pumpkins, wild mushrooms, toasted pumpkin seeds and a rich beef sauce
- Dark chocolate délice with sea buckthorn centre, burnt butter ice-cream, caramelised milk powder, citrus ice-cream
All dishes are from the three-course dinner menu inclusive of pre-dessert refresher and homemade bread, £57.95
Meadowsweet rice pudding
36 on the Quay
47 South St, Emsworth
Hampshire PO10 7EG