What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? Do you think about those starched linen experiences, with synchronised waiters? Family gathered around the table on makeshift chairs? Or perhaps those alfresco holiday feasts when inboxes are long forgotten, with beaming freckled faces? Everything tastes sweeter by the shore, so what could beat a meal right in the middle of the sea?
I first heard about River Exe Café four years ago when we moved to Topsham. Rumours rumbled about a floating café, smack-bang in the middle of the Exmouth estuary. This marvellous madcap idea was surely too good to be true. Afterall, this is Devon, not Thailand – how could such a business model be sustained here? Sure enough, the rumours were substantiated a couple of years ago as Michel Roux Jr catapulted the restaurant into public eye through BBC2’s Hidden Restaurants. Together with Head Chef Chris Dayes’ culinary reputation, this floating oasis fast became one of the country’s most sought after places to eat.
So it was with childlike glee that Nick and I booked into River Exe Café, the booking confirmation revealing that we meet on Exmouth Marina prepared to set sail half an hour before our reservation. Our cohort of ten strangers, including elderly guests, a brand new baby, our own small scallywag and a sea-faring dog bundled into our waiting ferry. With a spritz of salt-spray, we skimmed across the bay, spotting unexplored coves and dream yachts. With menus handed out on-board, you could choose your meal at this point. But it would take steely determination to avoid the ever-changing view outside. Hieroglyphic-poised cormorants dried their wings on bobbing boats, while gulls soared in the thermals.
Never before have I arrived at a restaurant with such theatre. In one deft motion, our skipper threw the gnarly rope off the ferry and moored up on the pontoon.
There’s a palpable buzz in the packed restaurant cabin, with spritely waiters bringing silver ice buckets to revellers toasting anniversaries and birthdays. Animated chatter was punctuated with the pop of corks.
It felt like every restaurant experience up until now had been in 2D, and now with the undulating room, flurry of waiters and grilled fish aromas wafting through from the kitchen, we were thrust into exhilarating 3D.
The menu is everything you want it to be. Fish and shellfish rules here; indulgent luxuries like lobster and Devon crab, together with mackerel, clams, squid and octopus.
For Head Chef, Chris Dayes, the restaurant is a deeply personal affair. The menu chronicles Chris’ decades of experience working across the seven seas. Years spent in the West Indies as a personal chef on luxury yachts and lavish hotels shows in River Exe Café’s Caribbean influenced dishes. Here you’ll find roast jerk catch of the day, coconut crusted shrimps with pineapple salsa, fried plantain. These warming spices and bold flavours are at home on-board this floating holiday-land and with 360 degrees of water around you, you could be tricked into believing you’re feasting on an exotic island.
Chris’ talent has long been recognised, coming to the attention of national newspapers and topping ‘The Best of’ lists decades ago. He champions sustainability and extolls the virtues of lesser used fish: seaweed, octopus, gurnard and cockles. Chris even incorporates local catch to the specials menu, buying directly from fishing boats as they pass the café.
The promise of a good meal was encouraging, but as Escoffier said, ‘fish without wine is like egg without salt’ and who am I to argue? I trust in our waiter’s guidance, whose eyes light up as they confidently recommend a glass of picpoul de pinet for its minerality and crisp notes. It delivered on both.
And so to the food. Wanting to enjoy seafood at its purest, we picked off the daily specials menu with a dish of sashimi salmon, tuna and mackerel. The plate arrived as beautiful as a stained-glass window. Pearlescent fish, sliced with samurai precision, lay transparent and gleaming. The fish was accompanied with caviar, poky sauces and a flourish of fragrant micro-herbs.
In complete contrast, our other starter was a bold and gusty Spanish style octopus, chorizo and potato stew. One mouthful and I’m whisked off to the sunny shores of Costa Maresme. It tastes deep and complex, lifted with the sprightliness of vinegar. A generous portion of deep fried baby squid comes shortly afterwards; light and crisp, with a pool of oyster mayonnaise.
Next up, we share half a lobster along with a bucket of fluffy-crispy chips. I defy anyone not to beam when receiving this plate. Our lobster arrives with a mango salad, verdant samphire and a pile of toasted coconut. My fork plunges into the glorious hunks of sweet meat, bathed in melted butter and I am as happy as a clam.
A pear mousse with a decadent butterscotch sauce renders me speechless. It’s velvety and creamy texture is one I’d happily slather over my face at night.
And finally, a glass of vanilla ice-cream arrives, with pedro ximenez sherry to pour over for a seductive finish. It’s perfect in its simplicity and neither of us want to share it.
Heston tried to replicate the seaside setting when he provided guests with iPods at The Fat Duck to listen to sounds of the sea as they tuck into their fish course. The science being that the sound of waves crashing and seagulls soaring evokes childhood memories of relaxed holidays and enhances guests perception of their food. But bound by bricks and mortar, even Heston can’t compete with River Exe Café’s authentic sea-side setting. And it’s true – the sounds, undulating movements and thwack of sea spray from the boat stir an emotional response that no amount of molecular gastronomy can achieve.
And then there’s the fact that no two visits to River Exe Café can be the same. Whether you soak up the sunshine draped across the outdoor benches, or visit during the tail end of a storm (like we did), the elements will no doubt change your experience. And that’s the beauty of it. The shivering anticipation of the unknown makes me want to book a return trip immediately. It’s far more enjoyable than regimented restaurants that concentrate too hard on chilly consistency. There are plenty of standardised chains around for that.
As our skipper arrives to collect us for the return voyage, we clamber aboard the waiting boats and chatter vivaciously amongst our group. Eyes are bright, bellies satisfied and hearts full.
Written for Grow Exeter, November 2019