Shortly before my wife Lisa’s birthday in April, she hinted that she might quite like to visit Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s beach-front restaurant near Newquay in Cornwall, which she informed me had been created for a reality TV show where a bunch of former ne’erdowells and no-hopers had the chance to train as chefs. Since we were due to be staying in a cottage just down the coast in June, I understood this to be not so much of a hint as a ‘guiding shove’ and duly went online to book a table, figuring that another few quid on the mounting credit-crunch credit card bill would make little difference to my ailing finances.
Now I’ve never been a big fan of Jamie Oliver. In my 2001 comedy song “Serial Media Whores“, I referred to him as “Sainsbury’s motor-mouthed gimp” (although that was before his reality TV transformation from ‘fat-lipped twat’ into school-dinners supremo and social entrepreneur). Neither am I much of an aficionado of fine dining – given the choice, I’d rather have pub grub than foie gras any day. But the online sample menu promised a mouthwatering selection of fresh local produce cooked to the highest standards and I was cautiously hopeful.
And so it was that last Tuesday evening we pulled up at Watergate Bay, a glorious stretch of surf-friendly sea and sand just up the coast from Newquay. Fifteen nestles in the cliff-side overlooking the bay, and is accessed from an inauspicious set of concrete steps at the corner of the beach car park. As we descended, I whipped out my Flip video and iPhone to document our visit. Unfortunately, Lisa does not share my enthusiasm for geeky gadgetry and was understandably miffed that she might have to spend one of our rare nights off from the kids playing second fiddle to a smartphone, twiddling her thumbs while I Twittered with mine. After all, this was supposed to be her birthday present.
Rightly chastened, I promised to power down all technology until the end of the meal, but my insensitive and wholly inappropriate behaviour (for which, incidentally, I hereby publicly and unreservedly apologise to my other half) made for a decidedly frosty start to the evening.
After seating us, our waitress served up a couple of slices of freshly baked bread, a saucer of sumptuous, peppery olive oil and a bowl of delicious Puglian green olives. Sadly, that was as good as it got. Among the lowlights of the mandatory £55-a-head, five-course ‘taster menu’ was our main of sea bass fillet (a single, paltry sliver trimmed into a square), which arrived on a bed of what I can only describe as barely-cooked chickpeas mixed with chopped herbs and peppers. Although the fish (what there was of it) was fine, the veg looked and tasted more like the kind of unappetising slop served up by dreadlocked hippies in a Glastonbury tent caff than the gustatory masterpiece of a Michelin-starred chef.
For dessert, we both plumped for a white and dark chocolate tart with cherries. Another mistake. First, the waitress informed us the restaurant had run out of cherries so the dish would instead be served with raspberries. I’d been looking forward to cherries, but raspberries were good too, so no big deal. However, we were expecting something that was at least chilled, firm and chocolatey. What arrived was more akin to a Lidl own-brand cheesecake that had been left on a sunny windowsill for a couple of days. It consisted of a thin crust of what seemed like crushed Oreos, filled with a runny, slightly warm, cream-coloured goo. To me, it invoked a melted Milky Bar encased in grit and infused with concentrated essence of tramp’s feet. The raspberries fortunately helped rinse away the cloying, cheesy tang that clung to my tongue after my two ill-advised mouthfuls of tart.
It might simply be, of course, that my unsophisticated palate was incapable of appreciating the subtle combination of textures and flavours presented, but I doubt it. I’ve seen enough episodes of Masterchef to know a chocolate tart shouldn’t emit a rancid funk. And Lisa, whose palate is far less plebeian than mine, was equally unimpressed. Not that we told our waitress what we really thought, although our frequent gagging and wincing probably gave her a clue – that and the fact we returned two barely-touched courses.
Yes, I probably should have complained, but to be honest I was slightly wary of offending the waitress – who was attentive almost to the point of stalking. I was even more worried she might tell the chef (who, for all I knew, could have been some ex-care-in-the-community case – just one customer complaint away from a frenzied knife attack). Besides, in spite of the food, we were enjoying the waterfront vista, the funky pink graffiti and the cool lights, which hang from the ceiling like giant suspended droplets of sea-spray. And I didn’t want to put even more of a downer on Lisa’s supposed birthday treat by getting into protracted quibbles over quality and price with the staff. I figured we’d already drawn enough attention to ourselves with our earlier domestic set-to.
Notwithstanding, it would be fair to say the whole experience was a bitter disappointment. Before the meal had even begun, we’d already been made to feel like miserable paupers by the sommelier. After quizzing us on what we liked, she asked how much we were thinking of spending on a bottle. We said somewhere around the £25 mark. She paused, looked us up and down in what we both felt was a disdainful manner and informed us that all the restaurant had in that price bracket was the house white at about £20 a bottle.
Then there were the toilets, to which I paid my first (and fortunately only) visit just before our parting coffee . The gents in Fifteen looked more like the sort of facility you might find on the A15 – dank and dingy, complete with a basin full of dirty, soapy water, drips all over the floor and leaky urinals. Now this I did manage to get on video, so you can see it for yourself here.
All in all, then, I don’t think we’ll be returning to Fifteen Cornwall in a hurry, though I certainly think there’s some more reality TV mileage in the venture – Gordon Ramsay should include it in the next series of Kitchen Nightmares. And I’m beginning to hope Oliver doesn’t get his mitts on my kids’ school lunches. On the basis of the dining experience he gave me, I reckon they’d be far better off sticking with turkey twizzlers.