Fifteen - Cornwall - Watergate Bay
I have always found Jamie Oliver to be charming and adorable. When I met him a couple of Summers ago, his first words to me were "Awright, sweet pea, ow yer doin'?" and I think I almost swooned. Susceptibility to cheekiness in a man is one of my weaknesses and Jamie is a master of cheek. Although his career had already taken off by the time I left Britain in 2001, his star was still on the rise and at that point he was known for little more than being the Naked Chef, a cheeky young chap with an upbeat, popular tv cooking show.
I have kept half an an eye on Jamie Oliver's career ever since and I have been rooting for him as he has ventured away from the kitchen and into the community where he has been putting the power of his success and fame to use for a greater good. After one too many lunchtimes spent trying not to gag on gristly meat or lumpy banana custard I could certainly empathize with Oliver's attempts to improve the quality of meals in British schools. And although I missed the accompanying TV shows, I was encouraged to hear about the work he was doing with his Fifteen project, helping disadvantaged young people to get hands on experience in a working restaurant kitchen.
Recently we booked a last minute 2 day getaway to North Cornwall, the wild landscape of all my happy childhood holiday memories. We managed to get a room (albeit one that had not been remodelled), at The Hotel in Watergate Bay, for an absolute steal, and when I learned that Fifteen Cornwall was only a minute's walk away I jumped on a reservation for dinner.
Fifteen takes the upper floor of a building nestled on the periphery of Watergate Bay's stunning sands. At the far end of the beach side car park the dark grey of a slate monolith, branded with a neon pink fifteen, beacons you towards a wave of worn wooden panels that drift you further towards the entrance, down the steps and to the front door.
Inside the restaurant it's pretty, loft-like and open-plan with distant views into the kitchen. The pitched roof is held up with white pillars swarming with pink butterfiles and dozens of warm lights drop down from the centre of the ceiling like bulbous teardrops on strings. For those sat next to the window, as we were, harsher white LED lighting takes over from the softer golden globes and with all the reflection bounced back at you in the panoramic bank of windows, when it is dark don't actually expect to see anything at all of the sea outside.
The menu is set at £50 per person. For this you will get five courses, or six if you count the bread and "the biggest green olives from Puglia" you are given when you sit down to peruse the menu. If you would like a wine pairing (of course, we did), it will set you back a further £40 a head.
First up were two each of four little porcelain soup spoons, one bearing a mouthful of Scottish girolles, aged pecorino and that world-weary accompaniment, the truffle oil and the second a honey roasted fig that had been dabbed with a little Vulscombe goats cheese and anointed with 12 year old balsamic. Whilst these tiny tastes were pleasant, they did nothing to really whet my appetite.
The next course, a self-described "Fantastic salad" of mozarella di bufala, prosciutto San Daniele and "Newlina's funky leaves" (salty and perfectly dressed) was hindered by the addition of a large char-grilled and decidely yellow-looking "Italian white peach" whose overbearing sweetness knocked out the salty appeal of the other ingredients. I pushed my peach to one side, concentrated on the savoury elements and felt my satisfaction level rise as I did so. At this point I am wondering about the trainee chefs whose skill set so far seems to amount to little more than the assembly of ingredients.
Thankfully they got cooking during the next course where we were given a choice of a standard vegetarian Ricotta gnocchi with tomato and pesto which Fred ordered and the Cornish Seaside risotto which was my preference. The menu claimed that my dish contained monkfish, tuna, cod, sole and cockles (just the one). The seafood didn't really have its chance to shine because of the pungent presence of whole fennel seeds in the pangritata, a crispy breadcrumb topping. Swimming with the fishes, underneath the crunchy surface, was a thin, spicy tomato sauce studded with a meagre number of separated grains that were more like orzo than rice. Despite all of that, it pains me to say that this was the most interesting dish of the evening.
When the main courses arrived and I dipped my fork into the 'Crispy line caught john dory fillet, crushed charlotte potatoes, Rob's tenderstem broccoli and salsa rossa cruda' and took my first mouthful, I suddenly became acutely aware of the tedium of eating a meal at Fifteen Cornwall. Everything on my plate was bland and uninspired. The line that caught the fish must itself have been crispy, because the skin of the fish, soggy, unappetizing and as grey as the slate lining the rugged cliffs nearby, certainly was not deserving of a description suggesting any kind of crunch. The salsa tomatoes sitting on top of my little aquatic friend were tired and lackluster whilst the potato mush he was sitting on - don't even get me started on that pile of absolute boredom. I could make better crushed potatoes with my eyes shut from the spoils of a fridge that hasn't been shopped for in almost five weeks. Fred didn't fare much better with his lamb, which although in itself was a tasty piece of slow roasted shoulder, wasn't helped any by its rustic presentation and the undercooked vegetables accompanying it. Have you ever tried eating a raw, save for the chargrilled outer leaf, whole leek? No. Not possible is it?
If a la carte had been an option, we would have left the restaurant, probably, but instead we soldiered on to dessert since we'd already paid for it. Fred didn't want anything further except a coffee, so I ordered the two sweet options just to try. You can't get much more pedestrian sweet choices than a chocolate thing or a lemon tart thing, but that was all they had. So I removed the creme fraiche from the chocolate torte and replaced it with the glob of Cornish clotted cream that was meant to partner the lemon tart. I toyed with nibbling on the advertised stars of the show, but mainly just ate the clotted cream. There is never anything wrong with clotted cream. Like the rest of the meal, the problem with dessert was that it was median, middling and any manner of other m-words meaning mediocre. This restaurant has no soul.
I am so glad Fred ordered coffee, because they served it with some vanilla fudge which, of course, I took possession of immediately. It was fantastic. The best fudge I have ever eaten in Cornwall (and, yes, I do have a rather long history of experience in that department). As we paid the horrendously huge bill which I believe might have contained a 4 and a couple of zeros if it were ever to be translated into the American $language, I remarked to our server how much I loved that fudge. "It's the best thing I ate all night" I blurted out, somewhat enthusiastically given that by adulating it, I was also relegating the status of everything else we had eaten to less interesting than candy. Minutes later I happily listened to him telling the Chef who made it how much I loved it and hence they gave me a couple more pieces that I wrapped up and took home for
Fifteen is well meaning. Everyone we met was lovely. When I asked to purchase a bottle of sparkling water to take home with me, they kindly gave it to me for free. Our waitress was a sweetheart, familiar and friendly. The place felt comfortable.
But Jamie, I hate to have to say this to you, Fifteen simply isn't good enough. You are asking your customers to drop fifty quid for a meal, and those customers are more than just charitable souls, they deserve some tasty tucker. Apart from that fudge, nothing your students served was utterly delicious when ideally every mouthful should have made us swoon. Almost everything we ate tasted like it had been made by a less than proficient home cook doing a not very good job of following of your recipe books. It all seemed so amateurish. Jamie, I love the idea of Fifteen - but what is the point if you aren't showing these youngsters how to create food that is capable of tasting truly fantastic. They need to know how it feels to shudder with joy as nirvana passes their lips. And your supporters deserve that too.
This review was a first impression and I'd like to think it was a one-off bad night, but I'm not sure I am buying that theory.