There's something about seaside restaurants that lifts the soul, even on a grey winter's day. But it's not just the view over the little South Coast harbour of Christchurch that puts diners at Gary Rhodes's new restaurant, Rhodes South, in a good mood it's the sleek, sophisticated dining room itself - lots of natural wood, clean lines and sinuous window frontage - and the food.
The restaurant opened at the end of November in the grounds of the Christchurch Harbour hotel and is still in the process of finding its feet, but the kitchen - under the watchful eye of Rhodes's group executive chef Wayne Tapsfield and Rhodes South's head chef Andy Snoddy - seems to have got off to an encouraging start.
Just two weeks into proper operation, the 72-seat dining room has a lively buzz at Friday and weekend lunchtimes and evenings, with full capacity already the norm for the evenings and average spends up on what was budgeted in business projections. "It's early days, and we haven't done any real marketing yet," says Tapsfield. Rhodes was down for the launch and is a frequent presence in the kitchen, depending on his other commitments.
Helping to kick-start business are extremely competitive opening menus for the type of food the restaurant is putting out. These include a three-course or two-course lunch deal for, respectively, £24.50 or £19.50, plus a plat du jour menu (also £19.50), while à la carte evening mains are capped at about the £16 mark.
Essentially, the food at Rhodes South is brasserie-style modern European with classical roots but, as you'd expect, there's a good showing of the Brit dishes that have made Rhodes famous, often presented with a dash of front-of-house theatre. Steak and kidney pie (£15), bread and butter pud (£6) and jam roly-poly (£11 for two people), for instance - the last brought to the table in parchment, cut, then with a strawberry jam sauce poured over. The jam is sourced locally from an artisan producer in the nearby New Forest. "It's absolutely packed with fruit," enthuses Tapsfield.
Sourcing locally is something that Snoddy and Tapsfield are working on and want to highlight at Rhodes South. At the moment, quality vegetables and fruit are proving a sticking point, but locally caught fish and duck are coming up trumps. Sweet, juicy scallops - "some of the best I've ever seen" says Tapsfield - pop up in a classic surf'n'turf starter, seared and with a pleasing crunch, accompanied by crispy pork belly, a dash of creamy parsnip purée and crisp deep-fried shallot rings (£8.50).
Also among the starters is wonderfully light pistachio gnocchi served with a dash of creamy goats' curd cream, watercress sauce and a flavour-packed pistachio and rocket pesto, a remarkably well-balanced dish with its roots in Rhodes W1 in London. The curd is local, supplied by Wrights Dairies in Poole. "We just heat it very gently on the stove and then plate it," explains Tapsfield. An obvious ladies' dish, it sells surprisingly well with blokes, too. "There were four big lads in for lunch the other day - and two of them had it. It's a good, strong dish."
Like pretty much everything on the Rhodes South menu, the brill dish is cleverly sophisticated comfort food, ideal for colder winter months. And therein lies its strength, as early customers - a mixture of local residents, hotel guests and local businessmen - are demonstrating by opting for dishes across the board.
You can't really go wrong with a meal rounded off with a steam pud, chocolate or crumble option in England, can you?
â" Rhodes South, Avonmouth, 95 Mudeford, Christchurch, Dorset BH23 3NJ. Tel: 01202 483434. www.rhodes-south.co.uk
What's on the menu
â- Salmon bisque soup with steamed smoked salmon, £5.80
â- Duck liver terrine, roast wild pigeon, beetroot and cranberry salad, £10
â- Oxtail faggot, roast potato, caramelised onion gravy, £8.50
â- Tournedos of chicken, soft ham raviolo, cèpe mushroom cream, £14.50
â- Steamed paupiette of lemon sole and Dorset crab with Champagne sauce, £16.50
â- Roast sea bass, lobster champ potatoes, lobster sauce, £16.50
â- Vanilla risotto rice pudding, Cognac golden sultanas and toffee ice-cream, £6
â- Iced white chocolate chiboust with poached rhubarb, £6
â- Apple and almond sponge with burnt honey syrup, Bramley and Russet apple crumble with custard, £6