When it comes to some of the best restaurants in the UK, we as foodies will all have the 'One Day' list - one or two special places that you have never been to, but know one day you should - just because. The reviews are rave, the buzz is huge, the plaudits very shiny. As far as Marsala Rama are concerned, step forward l'Enclume, Gymkhana, Sat Bains.
So it is with bated breath that we girder our loins for The Elephant - a two storey michelin-starred restaurant on the English Riviera, manned by the gong-laden self-taught Simon Hulstone. But, as a wise man once said - be careful what you wish for.
This review of the Elephant does need a bit of context - team Marsala Rama had booked themselves a little gourmet trip to the beautiful seaside towns of Dartmouth and Torquay to endulge in Mitch Tonk's two fish restaurants, RockFish and The Seahorse - with the piece de resistance being a final night at the much lauded The Elephant.
Despite a brief appearance on one of the those Great British Menu jobs, we didn't know too much about the chef or the venue - but the buzz about it was enough to decide to push the (fishing) boat out once more. But disaster struck mere hours before sitting down for our first amuse bouche - our mobile phone - our only mobile phone, was left in a shop and subsequently stolen - pics of dishes, ideas, notes, texts and the like gone - as well as and more importantly, family photos and voice messages. Gone forever.
And so it was with heavy heart and a few tears we arrived at the Elephant - disadvantage Restaurant.
The next few minutes though was enough to make a shy boy plan a mass murder - upon arrival, we were told that the fine dining experience, that we had been waiting for (and saving for) was actually closed. No tasting menu tonight. No wine flight. No giggling at superb cooking technique and new flavours.
Our bouches were not amused.
Perhaps it is our own fault - and we have learned thus that any future place, however lowly or highly regarded, should be researched to the Nth degree - because, as we were told "We should have asked if it was open when reserving a table". And to be fair, looking back at the website, it does say that the Room is closed From October onwards.
So another dagger in our wine soaked hearts - you've only got yourselves to blame - it is your own fault.
So a table in the Brasserie is what is on offer - it is late (we like to eat as late as possible). It is November. It is Torquay (we don't know Torquay). We cannot research anywhere else quickly, as our phone is currently changing hands in The Kings Head or similar somewhere in Devon for £50. We can't call a taxi, for all the same reasons. What is a grumpy boy and girl to do? OK - the show must go on.
What a rubbish saying that is. If only we have not been so English and just left. But hey-ho.
A browse down the menu revealed simple, brasserie style staples with the odd intriguing ingredient that we had not tried before - but (in our opinion) set at top end prices. Wine was no different, with some bottles, identical to what had been drank in other venues during the gastro gaunt, at a tenner a-go more.
Back to the food. Starters chosen included salt and pepper deep fried squid with chilli jam (made using Simon's very own fresh produce from his farm, located just up the road), as well as Pigs Cheeks with horseradish risotto and celeriac. For mains, we went for a classic Confit Duck Leg, with Puy Lentils; as well as Hake, with chorizo, gnocci and a mussell foam.
Now up until this point, it must be said that the chap serving us - the very same guy who had to shatter our culinary dreams earlier - was very attentive, very polite and nothing was too much trouble.
Until the starters came.
The star of the show was indeed the Pigs Cheeks - fall apart and melt in your mouth soft, with a celeriac 'risotto' and a buttery, airy foam - it ate very well indeed and it kind of gave us hope that actually, we may be disappointed and slightly angry of the wasted journey - but actually, everything is going to be OK.
But then came the Squid.
Salvation on a plate - pigs cheek with celeriac and horseradish
The problem is that down in these there parts, everyone does deep fried squid. And boy had we had some good offerings of it over the last three days. What we had here was not so much squid rings, but one giant squid ball - all mushed and tangled and strung together with no love, care or attention. The odd ring that was edible was OK enough, but nothing to write home about.
Refusing to be beaten and now mellowing (thanks to the wine) to the fact that OK - we have had a bad day, our expectations were maybe too high, we were tired, emotional and a little angry - the giant ball of squid was not going to be another damp squib - onwards and upwards to the mains.
The hake with chorizo was OK enough. No seasoning was alleviated once we did it ourselves, the chorizo chunks being the wrong side of diced made it feel all too much of a mouthful. The promised foam was a flat sauce that needed some ooomph and the gnocci was, again, OK enough - plain, but OK.
The duck was a real disappointment - the classic Parisian style confit duck taste was just about there, but the skin was drab and lifeless whilst the meat itself was too dry. We would have forgive this if the promised red wine jus accompanying the dish helped the old bird out here - but the lentils must have got rather thirsty along the way as there wasn't any sauce to speak of to help out the dish.
Back to the service - our mistake was to complain. We never complain in a bad way - simply, we just say if we are disappointed, the reasons why. Nine times out of ten, the establishment in question appreciates this - what they don't want (rather aptly, being as we are in Torquay) is the classic Fawlty Towers response of 'Don't worry dear, we just won't come here again'.
This time, the response was to stand back - right out the back - and hope that it all goes away. The same amiable chap, who had to deliver the bad news, was now nowhere to be seen and a new girl - very warm, smiley and geniune - was thrown into the lions den. We felt sorry for her in the end.
Here endeth the rant (and the pics, we couldn't be bothered) as we genuinely don't want to bad mouth and disrespect places just for the sheer pleasure of it - when you boil it all down, the meal was OK. It was fine. Nice. But when you go to a restaurant with an award winning chef and a shiny michelin star to match - you expect a bit better, even if it is the brasserie. Nathan Outlaw can show you a thing or two about how to do that perfectly.
We are pretty sure that Simon wasn't there himself - maybe it was a case of while the cat's away? Maybe the fine dining is only offered to friends or the famous - we've noted other (much bigger and better) food blogs had been given the full shebang three days previous and a few days since.
Whatever the reason, it simply isn't good enough when you pay £135 for four plates of food (three of which weren't finished) that could have come from any half decent gastro pub; and two bottles of wine that have been hiked-up in price.
We can't afford for £135 to be 'OK enough' - let alone leave a restaurant early, hungry.
The Elephant therefore, regretably and reluctantly, still remains on our list. One day, maybe.
Harvester on a plate - salt and pepper deep fried giant (ball of) squid
3-4 Beacon Hill, Torquay, Devon TQ1 2BH
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