After a false start with his Champagne and Oyster Bar, Rick Stein has rebranded the Falmouth restaurant into the Seafood Bar and installed Paul Ripley as head chef. Michael Raffael reports
Rick Stein's Falmouth expedition has turned out well. His Fish & Chips restaurant packs them in and across the square at Discovery Quay, overlooking the harbour, his deli has created its own niche.
Only the Champagne and Oyster Bar above his chippy suffered teething problems. It was too posh for both locals and tourists. Enter Paul Ripley. After running his own Michelin-starred restaurant and the St Kew Inn, Wadebridge, Stein's head chef for 11 years has rejoined his old patron.
"When I started working for him in 1989, there were five of us. Now there are about 400," Ripley says. He and the boss have soft-focused the Falmouth and Fowey oysters, air-brushed the "Champagne" and rebranded the first-floor space as the Seafood Bar.
Waterfront view, white ceramic-tiled walls, half-a-dozen tables: the decor hasn't changed. The black marble-topped counter where customers perch dominates the room. Behind it chef Ripley performs a one-man show, cooking with a pair of induction hobs and an eye-level grill, while chatting to customers: "It feels like a demo," he says.
His menu, more Padstow than San Sebastian, borrows from pintxos culture. There are no toothpicks, no piles of food for customers to snaffle. "Health and safety," he says "would never allow it." Instead, curly guindillo peppers and chorizo are served with grilled scallops (£6.95); pimenton-spiked ali-oli accompanies fried squid (£5.60); and Serrano ham partners celeriac rémoulade (£7.50).
Spanish customers would relate to tapas-sized portions, the grazing-sharing concept. The emphasis is clearly "bar" rather than "restaurant" but, says Ripley, "People still come here for three courses." It's good for profits, he admits. He's not knocking it, but they may be missing the point. The ambience is ideal for cramped, noisy eating. A space for leisurely dining? "No!"
Main courses feature classic Stein recipes: grilled whiting and brown shrimps with capers (£10.95); wild sea bream with romesco sauce and a Little Gem salad with garlic and sherry vinegar (£12.75); or a whole lobster with herb butter (£32.70). Ripley gets an assist from the downstairs fish and chip restaurant, which has a (Spanish) Josper, barbecue oven. From it comes his best-selling charcoal-roasted hot shellfish with olive oil, chilli, garlic and parsley (£12.75), typically comprising scallops, oysters, razor shells, mussels, carpet clams, whelks and sometimes cuttlefish or grey shrimps. The Josper also supplies his whole roasted bass, lemon sole and a 10oz rib eye steak (£19.90).
Desserts change daily, posted on the blackboard below the specials, and Ripley ships them in from the Padstow central kitchens. They include cheesecake with poached quince (£5.60), sunken chocolate cake (£4.85) or treacle tart (£4.60). The key to working in a visible, limited space is simplicity. He arrives early, does his basic prep and stays all day. "I live an hour-and-a-half away and it's not worth going home," he says. Alongside him, he has a waiter-barman and one assistant and between them they handle up to 45 covers in a service.
If the Seafood Bar has a subtext, it's a tie-in with Spain, Rick Stein's latest cookery book. It's tailor-made to showcase his Iberian treasure-trove. For the moment, creamed leeks, smoked haddock and pickled walnuts on toast (£6.50) still fit snugly on his menu. How long, though, before it gives way to bacalao al pil pil. Ripley admits he has been mugging up on crema catalana.
Sample dishes from the menu
6 Fowey Oysters with chorizo, £10.50
Grilled mackerel with mustard and chive potatoes, £5.60
Gremolata prawns, £6.50
Cuttlefish in curry spiced tomato sauce, £6
Red Mullet with Greek salad, £6.50
Wild Sea Bream with olives, capers, rosemary and sun-dried tomatoes £12.75
Apple tart with crème pâtissière, £5.60
Vanilla Ice Cream with Pedro Ximenex, £7.50
Arroz Con Leche £5.60
Rick Stein's Seafood Bar Discovery Quay, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 3XA
Tel: 01841 532700