Salcombe probably, well, definitely holds the number one spot in my heart within the category of important places in the world which mean the most to me. Somewhere which can only be associated with nothing but happiness, fond memories and marginally weaker hayfever symptoms in the summer months due to the glorious abundance of sea. I could go on, however the dormant fatberg residing in the ventricle next door is starting to get disgruntled by my vein attempts at geographic evangelisation.
After a seventeen-year absence from Salcombe, for which I have no excuse for whatsoever, I first returned in the late summer of last year. Much had changed, much had remained exactly the same aside from having collected a few more spatters of seagull expulsion to adorn the sides of the hodge podge of buildings smattered around the town. One thing had had remained steadfast during this exile was which hotels dominated the estuary.
From the 1980s through to the new millennium, I had always stayed at the South Sands hotel, which basks on its own eponymously-named crescent cove further out of the estuary. An establishment that has changed beyond recognition over the years but importantly, still holds the number one spot as the epicentre of aforementioned vacation-based happiness. Now a modern boutique hotel with arguably one of the best seafront views in the country; a rock solid, day boat lunch menu to wash down with some Provence rosé on the sun-soaked terrace is all that is required to make me for one incredibly happy. The wine unlocks the idyllic childhood memories from the same vista. Luckily I didn’t consume enough to stage an expedition to go and forage for velvet crabs, shrimps and limpets (yes, I’ve done it before. Cook in-shell on the grill with some butter, garlic and parsley like you would a snail) for the barbeque from the depths of perilous rock pools and coves further around the Bolt Head.
Another thing which has evolved in Salcombe is the vibe. Square footage on house prices these days are eye-watering; outstripping the likes of Sandbanks. The punters are here, their money willingly and readily able to be reeled in by businesses which suit the wants and needs of this discerning clientele. Alas, in one or two circumstances, we’re still in a period of inertia where some of the local dining rooms are still in the process of catching-up.
It would be no surprise hear therefore that the hotels at peak times reflect this real estate value in their tariffs. Recently I took my mother for supper at the Jetty restaurant which fortunately lies within in the Salcombe Harbour Hotel and not the end of a pontoon. A hotel which represents similar residences like many of the grand seaside hotels in the South West. At around £500 a night minimum for a bedroom at the time of our supper, I had high hopes for at least a solid experience with some decent assortment of the jewels of the ocean or even some fine dining on such a sun-blessed Friday evening in such an establishment.
The welcome was warm and friendly, the bar looking promising and the dining room echoing the tones of what you would expect from a modern luxury hotel-on-sea; various blues, whites and maritime miscellany encased by floor to ceiling windows to soak-up a full basking of the beautiful estuary at dusk. This is also where the sun sets on the happiness of our story.
Anyone who knows me also knows I’m a creature of habit when it comes to pre-prandial libations. A Manhattan, served ‘perfect’ is my whistle-wetting aperitif to toast the evening and fire the starting pistol for the fun and occasional outrage said evening will bring. The cocktail list was stacked with martinis and pseudo-martinis. A pseudo-martini being, for example, an espresso martini; something which contains a non-alcoholic foreign body. Still an undisputedly great drink, however a martini it is not. My point is, I thought a Manhattan would be a safe bet based on this menu, coupled with the fact it’s a classic cocktail which any self-respecting mixologist should have in their repertoire. What I received was something I can only describe as a ‘thing’. This ‘thing’ was a solution, more of an opaque suspension, full of ice and in a tumbler glass to boot. The ‘thing’ tasted sweet, sour and looked a bit like a horror from the depths could dwell within. I still have no idea what it was. For all I know it could have been manufactured and weaponised by a chemist in Russia but having survived the following minutes after a few more sips the terror began to fade.
It was one of those evenings where I wish I’d ordered what my dining partner had ordered and therefore render this tale unnecessary. The menu overall looked decent. A healthy variety of seafood-driven dishes in a brasserie style. In my book, there is no finer variety of menu. It’s not often I see something so good on paper and result in being so terribly shocked in what the resulting experience is going to be. My shellfish bisque to start was limp, thin, loose and bland. It required a slug of vermouth at the least to aid to the poor wee mussels submerged within (and me) embalm ourselves with some shred of comfort and dignity whilst the dish was flat-lining. My mother’s king scallop with ‘Nduja and samphire on the other hand looked like just the ticket. A very handsome, contemporary and dainty wee dish it was.
Fresh fish is (gastronomically speaking) what I live for. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in my view. I was so excited about a thick, juicy slab of cod to forgive the sins of the bisque gone by. It was served with the brown meat from a native brown crab atop the fillet. What it didn’t say, I suppose in hindsight was actually a huge achievement this dish had made and the time taken in its creation. How they managed to convince NASA to ask the Mars rover to excavate and send back some of the red planet’s surface as a sample and put it on a piece of fish for my consumption was very thoughtful and impressive indeed. A shame that’s exactly what the texture and flavour the crust delivered. The cod was overcooked also. I would have been utterly crestfallen beyond repair if it weren’t for the generous dollop of smooth, creamy mash which accompanied it. The bone marrow gnocchi was a side dish which caught my eye on the menu, so the interests of research dictated it be ordered. The end result transported me to the Australian jungle with Ant & Dec grinning maniacally at me out of shot whilst my Bushtucker Trial was revealed from underneath its creepy crawly cloche. An enormous, main course-sized bowl which took up half the table, being a side dish don’t forget, had what can only be described as a company of bulbous, oozy witchetty grubs, bobbing up and down in what tasted like a Bovril reduction. I couldn’t finish it. The rest of the camp weren’t happy with my performance and neither were the public. I was voted out of the jungle shortly afterwards. Again, the fish and chips sitting opposite me looked stupendous in every way.
It’s frustrating to see how it’s possible to get some dishes so right and some others so wrong when coming from the same kitchen. If I was spending that kind of dollar on the accommodation and that was the in-house restaurant experience, I’d throw myself and my credit cards into the begging sea nearby. I do believe some small changes here would make a difference; it’s not like an overhaul is needed. I’m glad Salcombe has become the focal point of the English Riviera; it’s a very special place and hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm. Everything is getting better and better and I can’t wait to go back as soon as I can. I’ll just dine in the great local pubs and bistros. The biggest winner in all of this was my fatberg, who I’m sure was kept happy throughout the experience being placated with that buttery mash.
The Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa, Cliff Rd, Salcombe TQ8 8JH