I'll say upfront that I don't have the budget to eat out like this that often, but I had to see what the fuss was all about at Fifteen at Watergate Bay. I do cook, I like to think I'm not too bad at it either, I can even knock out a couple of courses, but everyone can still learn, right? So when a friend said that she had booked a table and that Michael Caines was guest cheffing, I jumped at the chance to go. I can always have beans on toast the rest of the month I guess.
To kick the evening off, the canapes were every bit as complex as you'd imagine, lobster on handmade fennel biscuits were out of this world. The fontina and coppa on polenta was a revelation, if I could ever get polenta to taste like that it might not still be languishing in a storage jar in the kitchen. The burrata (mozzarela made with full fat cream, I had to ask what it was) and fig salad with honey dressing was light and very moreish indeed. Next came the crab tortellini with a lemongrass and ginger infused vegetable reduction. I cannot describe well enough the perfect bite in the pasta into gentle and succulent crab filling, the flavour in the broth clearing your palate for the next bite. It was far more exciting to taste than I've made it sound here and the recipe is in Mr Caine's new book, if I get brave one day I'll have a go at that. The Cornish duck course was next and came with some vegetables that I've never heard of, did you know about white beetroot? It has a peppery and soft flavour, perfect with a fatty meat like duck. I have to point out here that it was in tiny cubes amongst more tiny cubes of the more taditional red beetroot and it made finding them fun - and it made very singe mouthful from the plate entirely different from the last. The last course was our dessert, it was almost too pretty to eat. Well, we thought that for a minute then dove in. On the most artfully filled platter in front of us (and the other 200 diners in the place that were also served within the last 10 minutes, all so very impressively and quietly done) included not one but three different raspberry desserts on a plate - with a bit of popping candy. My inner 8 year old was ecstatic and my outer *cough* year old tried to look cool and gently amused. The coffee, which I shouldn't have had that late, came with half a dozen beautiful, tiny handmade truffles, I don't even know what they were but I still want more of them now. You might think that's a lot to get through in one sitting, but the portions are perfectly sized, you're left feeling replete but not overstuffed. Had we another £45 a head to chuck into the pot, we could have had the wines that were picked especially to go with each course, but I stuck to fizzy water and didn't feel too left out. My companion had a couple glasses of a local wine we'd never heard of, suggested to go with the crab course particularly, called Knightor Madeleine Angevine. We've since found out it's available at Constantine Stores and is really very well worth finding, it's nice to find a new, local, totally delicious thing.
So, is it worth the just over £100 per head price tag? Well, grudgingly, yes, it really is. Even though I'm proud of my own cooking, I don't blanch ginger three times in different vegetable stocks to flavour and soften it. There is a point at which the knowledge of flavours and how they'll mix stops being cookery and starts being chemistry, the combination of seasoning or textures will make a thing you're familiar with into something you've never tasted, bitten or smelled before and that there, that brand new experience is what you're paying for. I'm not totally convinced that I'd have noticed if the ginger had only been blanched twice, but there you go, it showed me a totally new perspective on an ingredient that I thought I knew inside out. And I've realised it's not just the cheffy affectation I thought it was when I read recipes, it makes a difference. Similarly, I don't go to the trouble of making just three tortellini but that too is worth it, it's a tiny taste of something so out of this world that it changes your palate, it's made me think differently about what food can be - and that something has nothing to do with appetite and everything to do with sensory indulgence. The staff are so warm and friendly and not in that faintly dead-eyed "Hi I'm Jocasta and I'll be your server tonight" sort of fashion either, they're truly pleased if you ask them questions about the food, it gives them the chance to show their expertise and knowledge, of which they're rightly proud. The ingredients themselves were clearly well chosen, it was all amazing, but I've not had raspberries that tasted like that since I was a child, there's real care and attention here. Really, not one single thing to criticise, it was just the loveliest night.
I'd go again, I might have to save for a while, but at last I get the idea of cheffy food, it really is that good. The front of house staff make a good experience into a super one by being so gently attentive, it's never, ever hard to catch someone's eye, you're never made to feel foolish for asking questions, they make it a very comfortable place to be with smiles that go all the way up to the eyes. And the experience that those apprentices are getting really is the very best available, the pressure in the kitchen was palpable (what with them working with a proper celebrity and all) so it's a very worthwhile thing that's happening right on our doorstep. You may not be an enormous fan of the Fat Tongued One and frankly nor am I, but what is completely without doubt is that he can teach those kids to cook, very well indeed.