Rockfish and Beachhouse, Devon
A trip to the seaside equals fish and chips, no questions asked – a conditioning that stems for childhood holidays. Growing up in semi-rural Waiuku, every few months we would navigate winding roads, bearing east to the Miranda Hot Springs. Our visits would inevitably conclude at Kaiaua Fisheries, a little bungalow by the beach that had once, perhaps twice achieved the ‘world famous in New Zealand‘ accolade of being voted the country’s best fish and chips joint. I have strong, distinct memories of those meals despite being no older than eight at the time, memories that the taste and smell of fish and chips continue to evoke today – something of a Pavlovian nostalgia. The mild, sweet, buttery taste of lemonfish, the scalding heat of battered pineapple rings, and the ‘only-in-New-Zealand’ monstrosity that is a battered, deep-fried sausage on a stick are prominent landmarks in my history of comestibles.
On emigrating to the UK I discovered that fish and chips come with an equally intriguing accompaniment in mushy peas, and that here, too, there are the equally illustrious National Fish and Chip Awards. This is one set of foodie awards where I don’t envy the judges – there are certainly terrible imitations of fish and chips, to be sure, but to pick winners from the thousands of chippies that occupy the space between John O’Groats to Lands End? To be able to distinguish the perfect batter surrounding the perfect fish accompanied by the perfect chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce from this, the near-enough national dish of Britain? Needless to say, I couldn’t do it.
Mitch Tonk’s Rockfish, perched harbourside in the picturesque Dartmouth, was awarded the title of Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant of the Year in 2013, and so it was to Rockfish we headed when the Devon sea air stirred those primeval fish and chip cravings. This venue opened in 2010 with the tagline ‘tomorrow’s fish are still in the sea’, and indeed the menu highlights locally-caught seafood where possible, with cold water fish such as haddock and cod being sourced from sustainable Norwegian stocks. On the Saturday night we visited, Rockfish was bursting at the seams, the beach-hut decor enhancing the cosy family feeling that is the true essential accompaniment to comfort eating of fish and chips.
Starters here feature peel-and-eat prawns (£7.95 for 1/2 lb) and freshly shucked oysters (£12 per 1/2 dozen) amongst other classic seafood delicacies, but we opted to dive straight in with a cod and chips each (£11.95 for large, £8.95 for regular), accompanied by battered pickled onion rings (£1.95), mushy peas (£1.00), bread and butter (£0.95) and tartare sauce (£0.75). Our fish and chips arrived in baskets, and did not disappoint – a light, non-greasy batter encased a slippery, succulent fillet and allowed the flavours of the steaming interior to shine after the first crisp crunch. The chips were traditional in style, neither writhing in oil as triple-cooked incarnations often are, not soft and floppy like the variants you get from a van at 1 am on a Friday night. I can report that they made an excellent chip butty. Of the accompaniments, the tartare sauce was an absolute standout, a cacophony of dominant herb, garlic and pickle flavours that had me eating it straight from the pot. Mushy peas were given a welcome kick with plenty of extra seasoning, while the sweetness of the exemplary pickled onion rings completed the party. The knickerbocker glories (£4.95) invoked too much nostalgia to pass up, and Bazley decided to opt for the vodka-laced ‘adult’ version (£6.95). We struggled to detect the alcohol amongst the cream and berries, even when the waitress obligingly supplied an additional shot, but otherwise these towering beauties served their purpose as salt antidotes admirably.
Rockfish boasts a much more extensive drinks menu than your average chippy, with a particularly interesting and international list of beers (including Bazley’s Anchor Porter, £4.95 and San Franciscan in origin). As might be expected, the wine selection is focussed on whites, and a ‘Rockfish Sea Cider’ rounds out the alcohol choices. The shakes and floats looked all rather enticing, but as the designated driver I opted for the classy soft drink option, a Fentiman’s Ginger Beer (£2.75).
I wouldn’t know where to start with picking the best fish and chip restaurant in the UK, but I’d most definitely concur that this atmospheric venue is up there amongst them – both Bazley and I agreed that we were served some of the best fish and chips in our collective memories. Nostalgia and hunger sated, we wandered back through the narrow streets of Dartmouth with the setting sun, mentally bookmarking Rockfish for the next time the sea air summons those familiar cravings.
8 S Embankment
Total for two people, including drinks but not service: £45.15
About a month ago The Times published a list of the ‘Britain’s 30 best restaurants by the sea‘ (content behind paywall), the full extent of which I duly copied down into my little black book of food in the hope that an opportunity to visit a couple might present itself in the future. A Devon holiday was just the opportunity this list had been waiting for, and so guided by iPhone we wound our way down through the South Hams district to Beachhouse at South Milton Sands. The route to the sea in this part of the world involves those narrow, claustrophobic country lanes that instantly separate the locals from the tourists – expert reversing skills and a certain devil-may-care approach to blind corners are necessities if you wish to reach your destination in any reasonable length of time. Our rental car, a drastically underpowered Fiat 500 with an alarming propensity to leak what appeared to be soil every time the passenger door was shut, was at least limited in girth, ensuring that my stress levels remained just below boiling point as we slowly fought our way towards lunch.
There is nothing more to South Milton Sands than a few houses and a giant National Trust carpark ruled over by a character who can only be described as a cross between a portly English professor and a camp pirate. Parking issues overcome, we wandered down towards the coast to find a glorious stretch of sheltered sand, above which is perched the tiny shack and takeout window that constitutes the Beachhouse. As might be expected, the eat-in menu here is short and sweet, being focussed on local seafood and chippy classics. An additional list of daytime and evening specials adds further variety, and it was from this selection that I choose a herby crab salad, while Bazley opted for the cod goujons and chips.
It’s been sometime since I last had crab, but my meat was milder than I remembered it to be – certainly not a complaint – and was a subtle, pleasant addition rather than the standout star of this well-balanced salad. My enjoyment was sadly marred by the presence of several pieces of shell amongst the crab meat, but Bazley fared better with his crisp, robust goujons and skin-on chips. Indeed, we thought the quality of the latter enabled them a worthy place in the upper echelons of chip-dom, being free from grease and hearty in flavour thanks to the presence of the potato skin. Another excellent tartare sauce completed his meal, this variant being laden with the clear, green flavours of dill.
Tempting as the Salcombe Dairy ice-cream looked, we decided to escape the aggressive wasps and repair to the beach to paddle and debate whether or not to sign up to direct debit the RNLI £5 each month (we decided yes; I got a blue supporters lunchbox). This is a gorgeous cove, one which obliterates any previous misconceptions I had held about the British seaside – piers, arcades, candy floss and puppeteers are thankfully absent – and thus Beachhouse is worth visiting on the strength of location alone. That the seaside staples on the menu are fresh and well done makes navigating those treacherous lanes down to South Milton Sands a necessity for even the most nervously-dispositioned drivers.
South Milton Sands
Total for two: I lost the receipt, but mains are around £10, with simpler options around £6 (pasties, sandwiches etc)