If you’re the type of chap, or lady, who reads newspapers you’ll be aware of something called the credit crunch. If you’ve not come across this catchy piece of alliteration before, essentially it means there’s less cash floating around so we all have to recycle our socks, make do with stickyback plastic rather than gaffer tape, use cardboard boxes for shoes, give up at least one child for adoption (or else risk them getting repossessed) and take our holidays in Blighty.
I’ve just booked my first holiday abroad for around ten years. I clearly don’t read newspapers enough.
But while I’m busying myself saving money by attempting to make a guide book out of string, let me throw the recommendation of Devon for a holiday at you. It’s rather picturesque, the locals aren’t as backwards as some would make out, and generally it’s all a bit pleasant.
And having grown up there – and returned for a brief period of time – it’s safe to say there’s a great variety of restaurants around the county. And if there’s one thing I’m passionate about, it’s social media food. Really good food.
Should you find yourself in God’s own county, here’s a few recommendations – all sampled, and returned to, lovingly, over the years.
86 Longbrook Street, Exeter
As a teenager in Devon’s capital city, Harry’s was viewed as the height of sophistication. It was where you took a girl if you wanted to impress her without going overboard on price or poshness, and if things didn’t go well, at least you knew you’d always have a good meal. It was also close to a few pubs that never checked ID, which was an added bonus.
Fast forward to today, and my tastes may have changed since those teenage years but Harry’s still remains a favourite. It won’t break the bank, the portions are generous, the service is friendly and the food is first class.
The menu benefits from a wide range of familiar meals from around the world that sound simple on paper but are a world away from standard pub grub. The burgers – which include Ostrich – and most meat dishes come from local producers and are completely traceable, while there’s a comfort food for every fussy eater.
The pizzas tingle with flavour, the Mexican dishes are a cut above your standard tequila-joint and the salads are enough to tempt away any hardened steak-lover. For dessert, there’s Harry’s Heart Attack, which my friend Jemma refers to as Harry’s Heart Breaker – essentially a dish that’s ideal to leave your girlfriend with after you’ve split up with her over the main course. Chocolate brownies, marshmallows, chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, flakes, fudge and hot chocolate sauce all together in one huge glass. Four of us couldn’t finish one.
Harry’s also has celebrity connections. During his time at Exeter University, Will Young worked as a waiter in the restaurant and we were once lucky enough to be serviced by the singer, although in a strictly gastronomic sense only.
The Cricket Inn
The first sign that we’d stumbled upon something quite special was when my mother – a notoriously fussy eater – announced that she could eat practically everything on the menu. And faced with a blackboard of fresh, locally caught fish dishes that made your tastebuds salivate just reading the description, it was difficult to argue.
The family had picked a gloriously Sunny Devon day – the type that makes you never want to leave the county – to explore the coastal paths around Start Port, one of the most southerly points in Devon. The plan was to wonder up to a nearby hotel, grab a spot of lunch and wander back, except the hotel was closed, so we decided to take advantage of the fantastic weather to walk until we reached food. The Cricket Inn was food.
The bar menu, listed on their website, was tempting enough. But it was the specials board with fish pancakes, fisherman’s pie, salmon, bream, bass, scallops and mackerel that was just too good to resist. Even my father – no great lover of seafood, unless it’s beer-battered cod and chips – conceeded it would be a shame to pass on the temptations of the menu and ordered what he proclaimed to be some of the best mackerel he’d ever tasted in his life.
Sat on the seafront tables, the fisherman’s pie was no less beguiling, with a creamy sauce that melted in your mouth and a real sea-freshness in the taste, while the seafood pancake – with prawns, cod, scallops and crab in a creamy sauce – got a rave review from my mother.
Quite how you get to The Cricket Inn is another question, given the surrounding roads barely fitted a Citroen ZX down them, and road-signs are few and far between. Just find a place to dump the car, and walk to build up the necessary appetite that will do justice to such perfect seafood.
3 Cathedral Yard, Exeter
Apologies, if I may, for starting with a spot of name dropping. At an event launch I blagged my way into was sent to cover during my days as a journalist, the audience got to take part in a general food Q&A with Michellin-starred chef Michael Caines, after his treated us to a mouth-watering cookery demonstration.
During the discussion Michael (if I’m name dropping, I may as well use first-name terms here) expressed his disappointment that Exeter’s new multi-million pound shopping development, Princesshay, was packed with chain restaurants.
Casting around, he has a point. Ubiquitous stomach-roulette chain Nandos has an obligatory presence, Wagamama’s is inevitably there, while Strada, Cafe Rouge and La Tasca are a decent class of chain restaurant, but ones I can visit wherever I am in the UK. Perhaps the police may wish to consider it as a theory for the failed bombing of the Giraffe chain – militant foodies resort to extreme action in middle-class shopping centre.
Princesshay is impressive and smart enough to warrant several seriously good mid-to-high end restaurants, but it’s to a much older part of Exeter – the Cathedral Green – that anybody after a good meal should turn to.
Assuming you’re not planning on stopping by Caines’s own Abode restaurant at the Royal Clarence Hotel (which, in fairness, does a very reasonable and mouthwatering lunch menu), then al-Farid on the other side of the green is a treasure worth exploring. There’s the option of a more formal dining setting upstairs, but to get the true flavour of this Moroccan, perching on one of the many poofs or sofas while picking at their meze menu is the way forward.
Many of the meat dishes were scoffed without a second thought, while I very nearly decided to eat nothing but their humus and flatbread had the other dishes not looked so tempting. The cous cous and tabuoleh was spot on, while the stuffed filo rolls were so tasty, we ordered several more rounds before our bellies could take no more, and the waiter bagged up the remainder for lunch the next day.
The plan was to hit a club after the meal, but none of us could move and after a very slow amble towards a bar, two drinks were enough to send almost all of us off to sleep while all around us got down to a loud and vibrant jazz band.
The Duke of York
Iddesleigh, nr. Winkeigh
A confession: as a child, later a teenager, predictably I was embarrassed by my parents, regardless of whether the embarrassment was merited or not. I have now, however, learnt to live with and appreciate my father’s hobby of Morris Dancing. This was, also predictably, not the case when I was younger.
There are memories – still scarred into my conciousness – of being dressed up in Morris kit as a young child in the centre of Exeter whilst classmates stood looking in open disbelief. It was not something a ten-year-old easily lives down; it was kept quiet at my next school.
But there were not-so-hidden upsides, mainly the pubs. My father has probably visited the majority of country pubs in the county with a younger version of myself in tow. At first, there was reluctance, but once I realised Morris Men usually got free food after dancing, my protests became as much of a show as the Upton-Upon-Severn stick dance.
The Duke of York was one pub I would never dream about protesting, pseudo or otherwise, about visiting. Iddesleigh may be a tiny village a way of the beaten track, but the fact the pub is packed most lunchtimes and evenings is a testament to its qualities.
It is what you would call a proper pub. It retains a homely glow all throughout the cosy, if a tad cramped, bar, which comes complete with a low beam and a dartboard that nobody can ever get to. The service is unfailingly friendly and if you close your eyes, you can quite easily picture yourself in a BBC period drama, alas minus the corsets.
When the Morris Men danced, the landlord, Jamie, would bring out a steaming vat of one of the most delicious curries I’ve ever tasted in my life. We’ve returned many a time, with no bells or hankies attached to my father, for Sunday lunch. It is a lunch worth savouring.
As a pub expert, dad has had his fair share of Sunday roasts and this one ranks near the very top. Their vegetarian options vary, but are always inventive and highly edible. I would mention the desserts, but I may start salivating and I don’t want to dribble on my Mac.
21 Cathedral Yard
Go on, guess the address in Exeter.
One of the welcome additions to Exeter’s cultural scene over the past decade has been the establishment of the annual Exeter food festival, largely instigated by Michael Caines. Around this event comes a week or so of restaurant offers to tempt the travelling foodie into an extended Devon break. And the oiks like me who gaze longingly into the expensive restaurants but may need to amputate a limb and donate to medical science before I could afford meals on a regular basis.
You may have guessed by now that 21 Cathedral Yard isn’t cheap, although during the day it functions as a much more affordable cafe. Evenings are a much more expensive proposition, especially for an underpaid journalist and his low-earning friends.
But if there’s enough loose change rattling around your sofa, Andrew Shortman’s minimally-decorated restaurant is worth a visit. Exeter Cathedral makes a stunning backdrop and the service is some of the friendliest – and most patient – I’ve come across. The food is a bit better than not bad either.
The menu’s changed slightly since my visit, but the layered vegetables and goats cheese sticks in the memory, while the fish looked as if it had been lifted straight from the cover of a glossy Sunday broadsheet food supplement and, according to reports, tasted even better.
But the real praise was reserved for the duck breast. Months after the meal, just a passing mention of the bird was enough to send all who ate it into near-orgasmic raptures. Tender to the point of melting on your tongue, came one description, while another was just limited to a small moan of delight.
If Harry’s was the place to go to impress a potential date, then on the basis of this meal, 21 Cathedral Yard should be a foregone conclusion for a marathon 8-hour sex romp, probably involving cream, strawberries and champagne, that only exists in Hollywood melodrama.
Who needs Viagra when you have duck breast with cassis berry sauce?