the Elephant Restaurant & Brasserie
3-4 Beacon Terrace,
Torquay, Devon, TQ1 2BH
Tel. 01803 200 044
Food type: Modern British
Website: the Elephant
We had to head to Salcombe for a friend’s wedding. Salcombe being a fair trek from where we live, we planned to drive down the day before instead of having to wake up at stupid O’Clock on the day of the wedding. That gave us a great opportunity to seek out some restaurants in the nearby vicinity. Using the ViaMichelin website, two notable restaurants popped up on the search – Treby Arms run by Anton Piotrowski of Masterchef Professional fame (and as of writing the only chef from Masterchef Professional who has actually won a Michelin star) and the Elephant run by Simon Hulstone. I have come across Hulstone’s food once. On a BA Flight to Singapore. Hulstone was tasked with designing the menu to celebrate the Summer Olympics in London. The food would be served to passengers on First and Business Class (Club World). As far as airplane dining goes, it was very impressive and I have been meaning to visit his actual restaurant in Torquay.
So why this long? Well, one of the reason is that the Elephant used to be run over two floors. There was the casual brasserie downstairs and the fine dining ’the Room’ with a Michelin star. All fine and dandy except that because of the lack of traffic during the off-peak season (i.e. when it is cold and grey and no one wants to visit the seaside), the Room would be shut. And for the love of my life, I absolutely hate going to English seaside towns during peak seasons with notoriously bad traffic and overpriced hotels galore. Given the choice, I’d rather spend my money travelling abroad. So, because of a combination of factors, I never visited ‘The Room’. This all changed this year as Hulstone decided to shut ‘the Room’ moving his cooking downstairs, moving towards a casual fine-dining format. They retained their Michelin Star for the 12th consecutive year running.
The one thing that quickly caught my eye were the menu prices. For a Michelin starred restaurant, the menu was remarkably fairly priced. Starters were £8 – £13, Mains £15.50 – £25 and Desserts £8.50. So a 3 course a la carte dinner will set you back roughly £40. A tasting menu is available at £65. Perhaps for the locals at Torquay, this is really the high end of the price scale, but for someone used to London/ Surrey prices, the menu prices struck me as a bargain especially given the effort the chef puts in farming his own vegetables and poultry/ meat. We opted for the tasting menu with a couple of additional courses. No canapés or amuse bouches are offered although you can order small bites/ snacks.
We started with a trio of beetroot ‘Samosas’ – thin slices of beetroot filled with Vulscombe goat cheese and folded to look like a samosa. Different types of beetroot were used here with the pickled beetroot encasing the goats cheese having a earthy, more acidic note compared to the golden beetroot on the bottom,which provided a sweeter note to the dish. Wholegrain mustard seeds and raw batons of green apple provided contrasting textures. This was a plate featuring very classical flavours given a little lift from the unique presentation.
Having driven through Paignton to get to the restaurant, we were really excited to try the crab sourced from this town. The crab is kept fairly simple, optimally seasoned, bound with a little dressing with a soft boiled hen’s egg to provide more lusciousness to complement the crab. The unique element on this plate was the black curry element – a dusting on the plate which provided the perfume of curry without the spicing or heat you would come to expect. This dish was all about the crab which was undoubtedly of excellent quality.
The following course was an add on – mackerel grilled (I suspect it was also blow-torched) and as a tartare with plenty of acidic elements to complement its oiliness. The mackerel fillet had a nice umami note to it, undoubtedly from the curing process prior to being grilled. There was just enough application of heat to char the skin and release the oils from the mackerel without changing its texture too much. Even better was the tartare, boldly seasoned and yet again packed full of umami. This was fine specimen of fish (unsurprising given how close we are to the sea), and when it is handled with this much love, care and respect, it is my favourite fish to eat.
After the highs of the mackerel, we were less excited by the following dish of plaice. By no means was this a bad plate of food. Far from it, all the elements were carefully composed, accurately cooked and plated with a lot of care. The plaice was nicely timed and to garnish beautifully cooked salsify with a little bite, crispy jerusalem artichoke chips (and I am sure they were jerusalem artichoke chips even if the waitress described them as porcini chips), slightly tangy buttermilk horseradish dressing. It is just that the mackerel dish preceding this was so good that anything that followed after would have felt like a bit of let down. You know like when your football team wins 5-0 away at United and only manages to grind out a 1-0 win at home in the next game. It is still a win and it still gets you 3 points. As a side note, my first bite of the fish felt like it was completely unseasoned, but I had no problems with the subsequent mouthfuls. I suspect this had to do with the way the fish was filleted and that the tail end of the fillet did not receive its sprinkling of salt.
The final savoury course was duck with carrots and pumpkin. A nice piece of duck breast, cooked pink with zero leakage of juice (suggesting that it was nicely rested) topped with a savoury granola for texture. I would say the duck was the star of the show, except it wasn’t. Those carrots, cooked in duck fat – boy were they gorgeous. You had pure carrot flavour. Even the raw slices of carrots had amazing flavour to them. Can’t believe that these carrots were grown locally. In England! If Hulstone ever wants to make a dish where vegetables take centre stage ala Alain Passard, the carrots are definitely the first step in the right direction.
Skipping the offer for cheese, we ploughed on with desserts. First a small pre-dessert of chocolate ganache with raspberries had excellent tasting chocolate and the ganache extremely light. From the texture of the ganache, I wonder if this was made without the addition of cream in the same way Heston makes his chocolate mousse with just chocolate and water. The last official dessert on the menu was a lemon and passionfruit tart which had good pastry work, a nicely set curd centre and a brûléed top.
At this point, I would normally be very satisfied with my meal. However there was one item which caught my eye on the menu and that was the chilled chocolate fondant with a runny salted caramel centre – the same chocolate dessert that Simon had designed for the British Airway’s Olympic menu. Of course, the garnish here is different, given the luxury of having a kitchen on the ground with a crisp chocolate tuile and beurre noisette ice cream. This was sinful. This was pure indulgence. This was the perfect way to end our meal. And this is coming from someone who shies away from chocolate desserts at the end of a long meal.
We really enjoyed our meal at the Elephant. Simon’s cooking is clean, simple and delicious. For a man of his size and stature, what I was most surprised with is how feminine his cooking style was. Rather than loud, masculine, ‘in your face’ cooking (e.g. Phil Howard, Tom Kerridge), his flavours were intricate, yet light and delicate. I have read some comments about his cooking featuring unnecessary frivolous garnishes, in particular edible flowers. What we encountered were plates of food which were minimalistic and well composed. Perhaps over the course of his 12 years cooking here, Simon has reigned his cooking style in and adopted a simpler approach. Or maybe that this change in cooking style is necessitated by his decision to make fine dining accessible to everyone. Irregardless of the reason, there was never an element on each plate which felt supernumerary. Each garnish, each herb was there for a reason. This may not be the type of food that pleases the Instagram crowd, but it is certainly the type of food that pleases my belly.