EATING out is the answer to eating in as one gets older. As my confidence in my own cooking wanes, and as it takes me longer to organise, invite, shop and cook for an entertainment which lasts only a very few hours, I look with gratitude at all the eating-out possibilities we have around us.
Once upon a time going to a smart restaurant took some nerve. You had to get past the booking system, often supercilious, then you had to dress accordingly (smart casual had yet to become the norm and ties were de rigeur, with a skirt, heels and pearls for the other half). Sitting down took the poise of royalty, daring yourself to trust the waiter who pulled out your chair that he hadn’t pulled it out further than you had expected. Then came the flourish of the menu (no prices for the guests, so you didn’t know how to choose tactfully according to the means of your host. Best avoid truffles – unless it was Daddy) and the agony of wanting to have the fish but knowing that what the host often wanted was to show off their knowledge of clarets and burgundies.
Now we cheerfully meet our friends in the latest gastro-pub, which we have booked online, and which has a short, snappy menu which allows you to pick two starters and a pudding, or a main on its own. You can drink what you like (nobody minds if I choose the latest craft beer, in which I have developed an interest which often leads me down some odd byways, just because it has been brewed in a back room by the publican’s grandson), and at the end you go Dutch and couples pay half the bill each. If you are a nice, thoughtful person, the fact that you have chosen all the most expensive things on the menu does mean it is only right to make up the difference at the end. Of course your friends don’t let you do that, but it is right to offer. Odd numbers involve sums.
So for my birthday earlier this month, we went up to Bath to see our youngest granddaughter and take her out to lunch. This is where you know going Dutch isn’t an option; May is financing her way through university by working at H&M at weekends, and is running a car as her digs are the cheapest, but four miles out of town. So grandparents pay all.
I asked the foodiest of our friends where to eat, somewhere which didn’t just feature mashed avocado (May, usually omnivorous, announced an attack of vegetarianism at Christmas, which still persists) as this does not, to my mind, constitute a birthday treat. Quick as a flash he suggested Acorn, a name which didn’t at first seem appealing, being too reminiscent of the bad old days of ersatz coffee.
May was thrilled, she’d been longing to go there she said, but hadn’t been able to book. Monday lunchtimes are not busy, so we were lucky. Acorn is tiny, down one of Bath’s narrow lanes, and set in one of Bath’s beautiful rooms, all height and panelling and stairs up which waiters had to toil with the food.
The menu was intriguing – smoked potato? Melusine cheese? Beetroot was ever-present, of course, in this case in several shades from palest pink to the usual darkest red. My plate of gratin dauphinoise (that Melusine cheese, an unpasteurised goat’s crottin) came dusted with black ash. It lifted a rather colourless plate to the realms of fantasy.
It was all delicious, and not particularly expensive, and my craft beer of the day was properly brewed and the wine drinkers were pleased with their choice, but best of all was the totally indulgent, rich and amazing chocolate ganache with a coffee mousse and a drift of cocoa and crushed pink peppercorns. It was all the better for not having been given the flavour de nos jours, salted caramel. I’ve had that up to the eyebrows, thank you. Pink peppercorns for me, for the time being at any rate. This was all good, and we left a delighted granddaughter, and told our friends about Acorn, some of whom have followed up on this, have been, and have been similarly delighted.
Ten days later we met friends in West Bay, to try out their new find, a railway carriage moored on the defunct station. Remembering happy family holidays in things called camping coaches, I was intrigued to see how you could fit in enough people to make a restaurant viable, but the narrow shape makes it intimate and so we could hear our friends speak, which is often not the case, partly because some of us refuse to wear hearing aids, and partly because of a mania to floor restaurants in echoing substances such as slate, and give chairs metal legs – I could go on and on.
The menu here, among fake flowers and lots of bits and pieces, is a meat menu. I think there was a veggie option somewhere, but it didn’t present itself with much gusto. The pork, the lamb, the excellent beef, were all partnered with truly seasonal vegetables, simply and perfectly cooked. The mash was slightly overworked, but that meant it held its shape – it tasted good anyway, and lapped up the very good gravy (not a jus, as that implies there isn’t enough, and it wasn’t a sauce either). We rounded off the lunch with rhubarb crème brulee, perfectly cracklingly topped cream, soft and sharp fruit.
It’s brave to do no fish in West Bay, but welcome. We have lots of fish at home, but being only two of us we very rarely have joined-up meat, and this was meat at its very best. All the animals involved had had happy lives, had been butchered properly and cooked with respect.
After the vegetarian meal at Acorn, The Station Kitchen was a fascinating contrast. We will go to both again. We are lucky to have them, and so many others in this part of the world.
We go to Brittany next week and fear we will not eat anything like as well. And there will be lots of salted caramel, too.
Acorn, 2 North Parade Passage, Bath BA1 1NX. The Station Kitchen, West Bay, Dorset DT6 4EW
Pictured: Vegetarian delights of Bath’s Acorn; a far cry from the grim drama of Broadchurch, The Station Kitchen at West Bay.