From Venice to Istanbul, and now to Poole, where Rick Stein opened his sixth eponymous restaurant (10th in total) on Sandbanks at the end of last year. It’s only his second outside of Cornwall, and the local buzz around this opening was deafening; for a county that’s home to so many fantastic producers and an area that’s not short of a couple quid, the restaurant scene still leaves a lot to be desired. The hype is understandable, but does it live up to it?
The space is split into two, and the décor (designed by Stein’s ex wife Jill) is light and airy with a worn, coastal feel (there’s even a wreath made of mussel shells). There’s a casual bar area downstairs, and a more formal dining room upstairs, which, while maintaining the coastal colour scheme, adds crisp white linens and banquette seating. It’s in a prime location, with floor-to-ceiling windows giving views over the action of the harbour to Poole Quay and Brownsea Island. It’s been extremely popular since opening and there was a sizable queue when we arrived for our late afternoon booking, which made everything seem slightly chaotic but staff were welcoming. Although it’s a big room with a lot of light, it doesn’t feel like the space has been used to its full potential with a few parties of three squeezed onto tables of two with their backs to that view.
Rick’s culinary travels have been well documented, and the vast menu – split into hot and cold starters, shellfish, The Seafood Restaurant Classics, meat and ‘our daily fish’ – caters to diners hoping to get a taste of that. The cold starters have a heavy Asian influence, with dishes like crisp smoked mackerel with Thai green mango and papaya salad, sashimi, and sweet Cornish crab wakame with a cucumber and dashi salad and a gentle kick of wasabi mayo. Seared scallops were cooked perfectly with the bright, briny roe still attached, and served with meltingly soft Serrano ham, although there was a lack of punch from the sherry vinegar.
For main, we forwent the meat dishes in favour of what Rick’s famous for: fish. There’s a selection of Stein classics such as turbot hollandaise and lobster thermidor, but we chose Venetian-inspired pan-fried John Dory alla carlina in a tomato and caper sauce, and whole close-cut lemon sole with roasted red peppers from the ‘our daily fish’ section (which sadly didn’t feature any daily specials). Although both fish were cooked perfectly, the caper and tomato sauce served with the John Dory had had a heavy hand when it came to seasoning, and the lemon sole, while complemented by the sweet red pepper sauce, was unremarkable. Both dishes clocked in at £24 and were pleasant, but you’d expect more from the Rick Stein stable. A side of kale with confit garlic was disappointly soggy.
Desserts faired better with a well-flavoured passion fruit brûlée and an indulgently rich chocolate pavé with salted caramel ice cream. Personally, I would have preferred a saltier kick from the ice cream to cut the richness but nevertheless it was devoured in minutes.
The restaurant was packed and it’s clear that this is currently the place to be seen, but, for us, it didn’t live up to the hype. Everything was cooked well and staff were efficient and courteous, but the room lacked any real atmosphere and, at the prices being charged, with a well-regarded chef’s name above the doors, you expect more. There are some promising touches, so we’re marking this down to teething problems (the restaurant had only been open a month at the time), and keeping our fingers crossed for improvement once it has bedded in.