Em Marshall-Luck is smitten by a Cornish Hotel
Driftwood Hotel, Rosevine, Portscatho, Cornwall, TR2 5EW
A hotel that could persuade my city-girl little sister to leave the lights of London for a quiet area in the south Cornish countryside? Her recent and surprisingly relocation was, apparently, all down to Driftwood Hotel, and to not being able to bear to live so far away from this establishment. I went with high expectations – it had a lot to live up to.
Driftwood got off to a good start with its rather spectacular location, pretty much right on the Coastal Path on the lovely Roseland Peninsula, set in gorgeous gardens with grassy areas to roam, flower-filled terraces to explore, and a leading path down from the hotel to a little beach below. The building itself has a blue-coloured cladding that perhaps nods to its coastal setting – it is a large, handsome, traditional-looking house, with extensions so sensitively done it is hard to work out where exactly they are.
Approaching in the dark is a magical experience, walking along a pathway lined with candles burning in lanterns, with profuse plant growth creating a luxuriant atmosphere, water bubbling in fountains and birds singing – presumably joyfully; I certainly would be were I a bird dwelling there – from the surrounding bushes. The reception is an immediately warm, friendly and intimate space – setting the tone for rest of the hotel, with plenty of wood (wood, and especially driftwood is, as one might have guessed, something of a theme of the hotel, with key, lamps, and ornamentations all over the hotel fashioned from driftwood). Cream-coloured walls contrast with blue wainscoting, tying in the interior design in with the exterior appearance and creating a sense of unity and continuity. The floors are a light wood colour, and so the hotel is flooded with a sense of light and airiness.
The staff immediately presented themselves as friendly and professional – the type who are always ready to help with a genuine smile, one immediately going beyond the call of duty to help my husband with doors and luggage.
We were taken up to our room, which was up in the eaves of the building, with sloping ceilings. A long, thin bedroom for us, a small and immensely cosy bedroom for Tristan (with a choice of bed or cot, and with a couple of books thoughtfully laid out – plus a tub of Smarties, which were immediately demolished), and a small but perfectly adequate bathroom complete the set. The rooms are again a creamy colour, fairly simple in feel but absolutely none the worse for this. Adornments amount to the occasional wooden boat and piece of driftwood – the resultant air is one of peace, simplicity and overwhelming tranquillity. The bathroom simply has a shower over the bath, sink and loo, but had unusually (and delightfully) large bath towels and Ren toiletries. There are a few patches where presumably damp has necessitated further coats of paints which are rather obvious in the bedroom, and a few corners in the bathroom that could be touched up – but nothing that detracts from the charm of the room.
Young children are not allowed in the restaurant later on (a special children’s menu is offered at an early sitting), so a listening device is very thoughtfully provided. However, the batteries in the ‘parent unit’ were, unfortunately, not in the first flush of youth, and died very quickly. It might be well to refresh the batteries each time the device is issued, both for convenience and for peace of mind.
Going down for dinner, we were shown through first into the lounge, where a log fire burnt in the open and simple, but effective, fireplace. The room has several seating areas with open-weave armchairs and large, comfortable sofas; tables are piled high with books on a range of subjects from travel, interior design, through to books on Cornwall, to, bizarrely, African Ceremonies. A few games are also provided; the hotel seems to encourage guests to actually talk to and interact with each other, rather than burying their heads in laptops, i-pads, phones or other electronic devices – a highly laudable ethos. Lighting is provided by standard lamps created out of piles of driftwood, and by pillar candles in glass lanterns. The artwork here, as throughout the hotel, is mainly modern, but not unpleasantly so, with coastal subjects predominating. The colour-scheme is light (creams, light blue-greys, light browns – the Cornish coast is probably one of the few places in Britain where one can get away with this without it looking like the inside of a fridge) and the open weave of the armchair fabric and the carpet adds to the effect of lightness and openness; this means that the accessories and structures can actually be rather substantial. The same applies in the restaurant itself, which has very pale green-grey walls, and white slatted-back chairs, and this lightness allows for accessories and decorations that might otherwise look rather heavy and over-dominant: chunky lamp-standards and large ammonite fossils, for example.
We were brought the wine list to peruse – this is exceptionally good, with wines to suit all price ranges, from the twenties through to just over two hundred pounds; wines are listed in price order, and some tantalising bottles featured. I was particularly pleased to see some English wines, as well some from Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Greece; there were helpful descriptions for each wine. I chose a Zweigelt 2013 – Weingut Jurtschitsch from Kamptal, Niederosterreich. This was a dark, slightly browny-red colour, with an almost overpoweringly strong nose of tannins, tar and dark forest berry fruits. It needed to breathe – it just slightly thin and sour tasting when freshly opened, but soon flowered into a wine of depth and character, with tangles of dark inpenetratable forests, the chalky crumble of ash and the blackness of tar.
Canapés were brought shortly after the wine list and these immediately set the bar very high indeed – although we were expecting very good things from Chef Chris Eden, who has won Driftwood a Michelin star, especially given his reputation for championing the very finest of local produce. The canapés comprised a playful squid-ink macaroon that had plenty of impact of flavour yet a delicacy at the same time – a perfect balance, with an excellent contrast of texture, the slight resistance of the macaroon offsetting the smoothness of the mousse-like squid; a wonderfully creamy carrot parcel with plenty of freshness of flavour and, again, a subtle yet effective contrast of texture lent by the sesame seeds that were scattered over the outside of the parcel itself; and a steak tartar canapé which was both delicate and flavoursome at the same time, and in which the steak was beautifully complemented by the tomato.
Moving through in due course into the dining room, I was gratified to see two elements too often overlooked in restaurants: firstly, the staff being properly attired (they also addressed us properly as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ rather than the regrettably usual ‘guys’) and secondly, correct wine glasses for the different wines. Full marks before the meal had actually even started.
We were thoughtfully placed at a table next to a socket to plug our monitor into – this was in a corner of the restaurant, with a table behind us displaying a large fossil replica and several small contemporary vases, as well as a large table lamp, two more of which sat at either end of a large serving table opposite us. More nautical-themed paintings adorned the walls, and we were underneath a mirror with its frame also made of driftwood. Windows at the other end of the dining room looked out to sea, and there were plentiful candles in glass vases, whilst other glass jars were full of shells. Tables were properly dressed with white linen, linen napkins and all the necessary cutlery, as well as water glasses, and a little tea light.
An amuse bouche arrived first of all – small chunks of smoked haddock with pureed potatoes and pesto-like swirls: perhaps a little lacking in depth of flavour, but certainly an immediate impact on the palette with the foam-like texture ensuring that any trace of heaviness was avoided – obviously a desirable trait in an amuse-bouche.
Three different breads were also provided – a sourdough that had the proper, chewy, slightly sour taste and texture of a proper sourdough with the typical crunchy crust – delicious; a brioche that was less sweet than one finds, which worked better than a sweeter bread would have done, and a fig bread that immediately gave a powerful burst of fresh fig flavour: a very light bread with a slightly resistant crust with plenty of bite without being tough in any sense. These were accompanied by two butters – a goats’ as well as a cows’ milk butter.
I had chosen the pheasant starter, and this plate included the more typical breast of pheasant, but also – amongst various other elements – a roll of braised pheasant meat that was wonderfully flavoursome and tender, a little parcel of salty, beautifully tasty minced pheasant with something like bulgar wheat – it reminded me of kadinbudu kofte – crunchy pearl barley, and a dollop of parsnip puree so vibrant that it tasted like Christmas in one bite.
My husband’s pork cheek was superbly done: it almost fell apart as soon as the fork was pushed into it, yet there was no hint of flabbiness. The flavour was very present – almost piquant – and was complemented beautifully by the shaved parsnip and very slender rhubarb fillets that accompanied it. The whole was a most satisfying and – incongruous as it may sound – refreshing dish, which dulled the edge of appetite without to any extent sating it completely.
I had opted for the hogget for my main and was presented with another plate full of small morsels – the most substantial elements on my plate were the hogget loin, which was tender and fresh-tasting, if perhaps more on the delicate side than I had anticipated. Also on the plate were a circular-type of hogget scrumpet with tender flakes of meat inside a deliciously crunchy breadcumbed exterior; and a sphere of almost Turkish-tasting meat, full of flavour and spices. We had asked for side orders of pommes purée – which was as salty and creamy as one could have hoped for – and mixed greens – basically different types of cabbage, topped with gloriously crunchy flakes of almond that lent an extra dimension and texture to the vegetables.
Mr Marshall-Luck’s 40-day-aged beef was most definitely worth the £5 supplement levied for this dish. This was a most excellently flavoured beef, fully mature and with a real substance and authority. A rich bone-marrow gravy was the perfect foil, acting to enhance the flavour of the meat without dominating. The braised leg was also superb – deliciously salty and, like the pork cheek, almost meltingly well-done. The pommes puree, in their salty creaminess, complemented the dish beautifully. Altogether a highly recommended main course.
I loved the fact that a rarebit was available on the dessert menu as well as a cheeseboard, to serve as a savoury course, and couldn’t resist this. However, the rarebit itself was rather more disappointing than the meal had been up to that point. The digestive biscuit base didn’t really work – it was too thin and ephemeral to provide a proper base or foil for the rarebit topping, and the topping was not really intensely cheese-flavoured enough: unfortunately, the overall impression didn’t register with enough impact.
This was followed by the pre-dessert – a pleasantly cleansing dish of marmalade cream and rice-pudding foam. It was, perhaps, slightly over-elaborate for its purpose (my husband would have just been happy to eat a bowl-full of the marmalade cream!) but it was extremely light and with a pleasing contrast of texture.
The Driftwood chocolate bar my husband found a little too cloying, but then he had already partaken of two very satisfying dishes, so it might well have been simply that his palate was already sated! This playful and (judging from the number of plates of this passing by us to other tables) highly popular dessert was very well presented, with complementary colours highlighting the different textures, densities and flavours of the various layers of the “bar”.
I had chosen the fig concoction, which was an extremely sophisticated and visually complicated and impressive dessert: the freshness of the figs predominating, and set in a cream that was marvellously light and delicate. It was served with a sorbet that was drizzled with olive oil, which lent a clean, grassy element. It was an excellent close to the meal, being almost cleansing in its open, fresh flavours, and my husband was immensely impressed by this. However, it did cross my mind that it might not be slightly overly elaborate.
We were disappointed – especially after having been delighted to enter our room to find classical music playing (albeit Classic FM) on the Roberts radio (rather than the usual television blaring away) –– to have popular music start up some time during the middle of our meal. The volume wasn’t terribly high, but we still found it irritating and felt that it detracted from the quality of the meal, and from the cultured atmosphere of the hotel.
Breakfast was served back down in the dining room: a buffet was set with a choice selection of pastries, wonderfully fresh fruit juices, breads, yoghurts, cheeses, cold meats and fruit, while a menu offered a lo.vely variety of hot options. It was very noticeable indeed that the quality of the breakfast at Driftwood was actually as good as at dinner – usually one finds a dramatic drop in quality of the breakfast. Tristan was well catered for; he was brought non-spillable mugs of warm milk and an egg and soldiers (although he availed himself well of the fruit salad and the pastries). I went for the smoked haddock with two poached eggs with vibrant orange yolks – the fish ever so fresh and flavoursome; my husband opted (unusually) for the American-style pancake with crème fraiche and blueberries. The fruit in this was almost disgracefully juicy, and the pancake itself deliciously light, with just a hint of crunchiness on the outside to provide an additional interest of texture. The tartness of the crème fraiche was just the right complement to the sweetness of the fruit, making the whole a most recommendable breakfast dish.
Lying in bed in the morning, listening to the sea almost literally just outside the window and the sound of birdsong, I felt I could stay at Driftwood for ever. The whole atmosphere, decor, ambience and ethos of the hotel makes it one of the most relaxing places one could possibly stay; and the thought of long days spent walking the coastal path and evenings by the open fire in the lounge reading books or playing board games – followed by meals of the quality we had experienced – made departure an almost heart-breaking experience. Now, I can better understand my little sister’s move and envy her – even more than before – her new location.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic