If you don't have access to UK TV, you may not know who Rick Stein is. The conscious, TV-watching part of Great Britain would find this amazing, because he's been ever present on the foodie channels for over a decade, haranguing them - in a most affable way - about their lack of awareness of their own food treasures. He's an unlikely celebrity chef, lacking the brassiness of an Anthony Bourdain or the Mockney charm of a Jamie Oliver (not to mention certain assets gracing some of the female chefs on US TV). He simpers and he is rather coy with his little white dog, Chalkie. But I tend to agree with him when he goes off on a rant about the fact that the UK exports tons and tons of delicious fresh sardines every year, while Brits call them pilchards and refuse to buy them at a dozen a penny. So I knew a little about the man when I came across his name in our Rough Guide to Cornwall this summer. In the entry for a little seaside town named Padstow, there was a recommendation to try the casual Rick Stein Café. As we were on holiday, with no access to familiar babysitters, this sounded perfect: a gourmet outing that might just accept the messiness that is a Toddler at the Table. I called and confirmed that they accept children (and had high chairs - thank heavens!) and made a reservation for six the next evening.
When we arrived at the main parking lot of Padstow near the harbour, we had our first inkling what kind of a phenomenon we had stumbled upon. "Hmmm...Stein's Fish & Chips...wonder if it's anything to do with Rick Stein?" I mused aloud as we passed a long line of punters waiting for their batter fried takeaway dinners. Then we passed Stein's Deli, which also seemed a bit of a coincidence.
As we started down the road to the center of town, we saw Rick's Seafood Restaurant, a very elegant not-neccessarily-toddler-friendly place.
The trend continued in town as we noted the presence of Stein's Patisserie...
...and, next to our destination, Stein's Shop, selling jewelry and decorative household items. We were starting to feel like we had wandered onto a TV set for one of Mr. Stein's shows: charming cobbled seaside streets and his name on every corner.
When we arrived at the café, we noticed that according to the menu the restaurant only opened at seven p.m. However, we were reassured by the number of people loitering outside the door (mostly, like us, with a small child in tow) and indeed at six promptly the doors opened and the staff started sorting out who had which reservation.
Inside, the café is simply but beautifully decorated: soft pine tables, blue fabric furnishings and painted white boards. I was particularly impressed, when we arrived at our table, to discover that the high chair was the Rolls Royce of the toddler world, a Stokke Tripp Trapp. (I considered getting one for the boy but was put off by the 170 euro - on sale - price tag.)
We eagerly scanned the short menu, looking for some delicious fish dishes. And there were a couple. But for the menu of a fish-oriented celebrity chef (author of Rick Stein's Complete Seafood, Rick Stein's Seafood, Rick Stein's Fruits of the Sea and Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey) it was a bit weak. Still, it was his low-end café, geared towards simple dishes you might find in a provincial French café.
The issue that really interested me, though, was how he would treat children's food. Before we embarked on the ship of parenthood, I remember friends of ours lamenting the awful food available in the UK for children. Brigitte (French) and Julian (English) told us how relieved their children were to escape back to France and get away from the endless round of fish fingers, chicken nuggets, pizza, beans and peas. After three days in the UK with the Boy I knew how they felt. The Boy liked peas coming into that holiday but I haven't dared serve them since we got back to France. And Rick's take on a child menu? Fish and chips or sausage and chips, pretty much what you can find on any pub menu in the country. Granted, the fish was crispier and tastier than what you'd find at your local chippy. But. It was still a choice of fish and chips or sausage and chips.
And our dinners? Very tasty and a reasonable cost, to be fair. The Critic had prawns with a kind of Thai influence and I had a lovely piece of cod on a bed of garlicky white beans. The service was impeccable and the waitstaff very patient with a loud, impetuous (albeit very cute) toddler. Next time, though, I think we'll book a sitter and try the Seafood Restaurant, which only had fish and looked well worth the pricier menu.
For more information on Rick Stein, his shows, his publications and the vast array of businesses with which he single-handedly runs the Padstow economy, you can consult his web site: http://www.rickstein.com/home.htm
He even includes a few bed and breakfast establishments in his empire, in case you really don't want to leave Ricksteinville for a single moment. (According to Wikipedia, the locals have dubbed the town "Padstein", but I didn't know this until after I had started this article with my own name. Either will do in a pinch; I'm sure anyone in a 100 mile radius will be able to direct you there.)
[And as an aside, if you are looking for a good place to take your toddler in Cornwall where he or she can eat something tasty, I highly recommend Sam's Other Place in Fowey (pronounced "Foy"). The downstairs is a take-away fish and chip shop but upstairs they have a much more sophisticated menu, including a delicious side dish of steamed seasonal vegetables which is perfect for a healthy toddler. We fed the boy scraps of fish from our own main dishes and nicked the snap peas from his (for some Toddler Obstinacy Reason he refused to taste them, though he likes both peas and beans) and enjoyed a beautiful view over the harbour. Although the place looked elegant enough for a Saturday night date, at six-thirty it was filled with the cheerful chatter of many small children and admonishing parents; obviously we were not the only ones to find it a good compromise for family dining.
Sam's Other Place
41 Fore Street