Last week, the doors of middle class rural idylldom were thrown open to urban sprawl. River Cottage meet the city of Plymouth. A brave move and a welcome injection of provenance pedigree to a city that is upping its gastro stakes and in desperate need of some celebrity tender loving care. Cue Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his band of male helpers, often in need of grooming and always up for a public school boy challenge.
The River Cottage Canteen & Deli opened 15 November. We booked for 6.30 two days later and the place was heaving by 7.30, complete with Tim from the 3 Hungry Boys on the table behind us. The location is dramatically un-Plymouth, hidden away in one of the few surviving pre-war areas of the city on the harbour front in Royal William Yard. Inside this chunky ex-Naval heritage building, River Cottage have been hard at work building on the success of the Axminster canteen and creating a space that is both warehouse and barn, intimate café and buzzing dining room.
The food? Exciting. So exciting that our waitress described how she had twice knocked into the deer carcass that Tim had bought in and was butchering yesterday. It was a no-brainer for the venison as my main, and I went with kale, chorizo and egg to start. My guest went for beetroot and cumin soup and red wine mushrooms with polenta.
The homemade chorizo put the industrially produced red sticks in the supermarkets to shame. It was pink, salty, tasty, mis-shapen. The wood-roasted venison loin was meaty, gamey, as tender as it could be and accompanied with crispy onions and chips on the side. Dessert - yoghurt panacotta, refreshingly tangy after the venison, followed by a shot of Burrow Hill three-year-old cider brandy, taking me straight back to my childhood on the Somerset levels.
I left with the sensation that I'd had a dining experience and that is the reason for eating out. Any establishment can give you food, but can they give you the extras that make paying for it really worthwhile? Immaculate and knowledgeable service, a sense of drama and a smug feeling that the meat is truly ethically sourced not just battery farmed pig with the farmer's name slapped on it. There were no shouting labels: LOCALLY-SOURCED or SEASONAL because that's what River Cottage do, it's what the Italians do and they don't shout about it, it's just the reason for good, nay excellent food and that is what River Cottage Canteen Plymouth is all about.