In 2010 Jamie and I went to Padstow for the first time together. It was our first time camping together. We packed up the two-man tent that we’d bought for the occasion, made plans for fish and chips on the harbour wall, and imagined romantic evenings strolling around in our fresh flush of love in the perfect place. It would be the stuff of dreams.
With our accommodation costing the princely sum of £17, we’d decided to splash the cash on dinner at Rick Stein’s famous seafood restaurant. It was to be the ‘poshest’ restaurant we’d been to as a couple, and undoubtedly the most money we had parted with for a meal too.
It rained, we got drunk and tried to cycle the coast path (don’t do that – way too many stiles and trying it dehydrated is no fun), and on the night we went to Rick Stein’s I spent more time worrying about what people would think about my sensible footwear and waterproof jacket after tramping across fields from the campsite into Padstow than enjoying the food itself. Yet somehow it was perfect.
On that same trip we wandered past Paul Ainsworth at No.6. It had opened the previous year, and while Ainsworth was slightly less well known then than he is now, I knew who he was. “One day,” I gabbled to Jamie, “we’ll eat there. Even if we have to wait until we’re old.”
I’m a woman of my word. It took over a decade, but 11 years after that moment we walked through the door of Paul Ainsworth at No. 6. The run-up to the meal was as unconventional as it had been for our first ‘special’ Padstow experience, complete with last-minute search for a dog-sitter after being let down as well as a jog into Padstow in our finery because yet again we had left it too late. Par for the course for the Mannings.
I won’t make you wait for the verdict. You already know it was brilliant. Far better people than me have said so, and will continue to say so. Plus those people at Michelin, who awarded it a star in 2013. From the minute we walked through the door, sweating and over-excited, to the moment we left, sozzled and smiling, I’d say perfect isn’t a step too far in describing our afternoon.
I could give you a blow-by-blow account of each course, each element each ingredient, but I can’t help but feel that I might ruin some of the magic for you. The menu at Paul Ainsworth at No.6 isn’t so much a collection of dishes, but a love letter to the Cornwall he and his chefs love, and part of that story is conveyed in the telling. The mystery of some of the titles, the anticipation of the dish arriving, and the explanation as it’s served.
The menu may advertise four courses, of which you can choose from several options for each, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is it. This is a celebration, complete with all the little treats and surprises that make the best celebrations.
There are the same Porthilly Oysters that captured our hearts on a trip to Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant and have never left Jamie’s head. They’re precise in presentation and flavour yet somehow wonderfully simple. That’s the theme for everything. It may have been prepared, cooked and plated with a surgeon-esque accuracy, but it never detracts from the ingredient itself, whether that’s a locally-caught scallop, home-grown veg or wine or cheese produced down the road.
A surprise cheese scone with cultured butter created right here is a revelation, and has possibly ruined cheese scones for me forever because none will ever be as good again. It comes with a map showing where each ingredient is from, while the butter is their own cultured butter, made from Guernsey cow cream and hand rolled and aged.
It’s in this course that the storytelling behind the food here is most apparent, but it runs through the whole experience, making this about far more than what you put in your mouth.
Birds liver with carrot ketchup and smoked eel is intense yet refined and addictive enough to have me fighting off Jamie’s fork, while his cod is more delicate. Despite that, it bursts with texture courtesy of the seaweed quaver and caviar that top it.
Any restaurant that has a main course in two parts gets my vote, and these aren’t any ordinary main courses. ‘All of the pigeon’ is, as you’d expect, impressive with Japanese umeboshi bringing sweet, salty and sour all at the same time. Think duck with cherries but on crack. In a nice way.
Fillet of beef is proudly simple, with the indulgence provided courtesy of a bearnaise laced with bacon. With the option to choose your dishes from each course, there’s no set wine flight here. Instead, sommelier Liam Evans will recommend his latest finds to accompany each course – an experience that probably shouldn’t be missed even if, like us, you’re no wine expert.
A pain au chocolat filled with black pudding is a thing of naughty joy and brings salacious thoughts to mind, despite the setting. Again, it’s probably ruined the more conventional version for me forever. But I’ll take that in exchange for the feelings that tearing into that pastry and taking a first mouthful inspired.
In a meal made up of stories, it would be churlish to miss out on one of the more famous ones – Paul Ainsworth’s foray into the world of Great British Menu. A finalist in the 2011 series, ‘A Fairground Tale’ takes the two-part main course idea and knocks it out of the park with the promise of a three-part dessert for two people.
It’s every bit as theatrical as you’d expect, but we get to eat it fresh and hot rather than cold after 9,476 takes on camera. If the playful appearance doesn’t make you smile, the moment your waiter or waitress cuts delicately into that coconut souffle and drizzles a steady stream of the most refined of custards into it will.
Failing that, the monkey bread doused in butterscotch sauce will make you either giggle in pure joy or, for the weaker among us, cry at how you’re going to fit in any more food. The claim by some that tasting menus at fine dining restaurants ‘never fill you up’ is inaccurate at the best of times, but I defy anyone to make it of this menu.
The special touches aren’t limited to the food. We leave clutching a goodie bag filled with souvenirs from our story-filled afternoon. Chocolates, coffee, a link to the playlist that will now always evoke such happy memories, and copies of the menu because yes, they get that for some of us, stuff like this absolutely isn’t the everyday, and is something that I’ll want to reminisce over in a blog post in 10 years time.
The service is impeccable from start to finish, with the perfect balance of accuracy, restraint and refinement and humanity that we’ve all missed so much. The kitchen shows the same balance, with Chef de Cuisine Chris McClurg leading his brigade with uncompromising focus – undoubtedly aware that all eyes are mesmerised on the activity behind the windows that look out onto the restaurant. Yet simultaneously that focus doesn’t prevent him from stopping to say a cheery hello as he passes our table.
The cherry on the cake is the personalised email we receive the next day from Loren, who looked after us. No copy and paste job, it refers to conversations we had as I bored her with my own anecdotes, and somehow makes me feel that despite the hundreds of people they must welcome every day, we’re all seen as real people and not just another customer.
It’s not a cheap meal. In fact, in the same way 11 years ago that Padstow meal was the most expensive we’d had at that point, this lunch now occupies that spot. But as ever, it’s about so much more than some posh food. It’s about fulfilling a silly little dream of a decade ago. It’s about celebrating every single little thing that we can do after 18 months of not being able to. And it’s about appreciating the loveliness in life – especially when it’s done so well. One for a special occasion maybe, but well worth the wait.
We paid in full at Paul Ainsworth at No. 6.