The Seaside Boarding House, Dorset: “navigate there at full speed”
Seldon Curry and his partner Liberty Wenham used to run Wallfish in Bristol. It was an idiosyncratic little boît that once belonged to Keith Floyd. A neighbourhood place (if your neighbourhood is Clifton) that featured some top-notch creative cooking based on classics and great ingredients.
Then I discovered that, after Wallfish closed, the couple had washed up at the Seaside Boarding House in Burton Bradstock, near Bridport, in Dorset. As it happens, I know the area well. There’s a very popular beach café down there and there is “surf”, for people who go in for that sort of thing. On the clifftop to one side of the beach stands a large Edwardian pile that looks like it has been, in order, the scene of a famously salacious murder, a wartime hospital, a private asylum and a school for the dim sons of mid-ranking army officers.
Fortunately, the only incarnation I can actually verify is the latest: that it was taken over about 10 years ago by the creators of the Groucho Club, clad in white clapboard like an Edward Hopper painting and now enjoys quiet notoriety as a discreet seaside retreat for Soho types. The restaurant occupies a sort of glazed veranda, like the bridge of a liner, facing across the storm-thrashed Solent to Portland, Plymouth, Biscay and Fitzroy.
I regard whipped, smoked cod roe as the parfait de foie de volaille de nos jours — a bit of a cliché but too bloody good to be rid of it. Smoke flavours mellow with age, but here the roe has a fresh, coniferous tang, maybe from a local smokery — one that didn’t get the memo to be safe and stick with oak. It was creamy and invigorating, rich, yet it roused rather than dulled the tongue.
Which was good because there was a twice-baked Westcombe cheddar soufflé on the menu and, as you well know, I’m contractually obliged to order it. It was as glorious as it was supposed to be, and allying it with spinach and hazelnut was novel and welcome.
Just occasionally, I see something on a menu that makes me break into a wolfish grin. I like chopped steak tartare. It’s usually enough to delight me by itself but, when served with bone-marrow fried bread and “Big Mac sauce” . . . I mean . . . that’s not food, it’s bait for a slow-moving, bottom-feeding critic.
I’ve long held that there’s nothing of any interest or flavour in a Big Mac, except the sauce. The bread is the definition of inconsequential. Iceberg isn’t lettuce and the rissole is a gesture at texture. Nothing in the damn thing that isn’t a vehicle for the sauce. There’s no secret to it — ketchup, yellow mustard, chopped onions and pickles, perhaps a little Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, paprika and some dill. Brilliant, huh? And as Curry has cleverly spotted . . . all the stuff you’d put in a well-tempered tartare. It’s a brilliant idea and, tangentially, it’s made me reappraise whatever towering culinary genius dreamt up the Big Mac.
There’s obviously plenty of access to good seafood down here, so it seemed sensible to try the brill. Good God, it’s an inspiring fish, related to the fashionable turbot but slightly longer and less rhomboid. Some people find the flesh mild but, for me, the key thing is that the major muscles are thicker even on smaller fish.
I reckon that makes for a sweeter, subtler flavour, particularly when roasted on the bone. I’m probably deluding myself but, when it’s done so the skin crisps, served in a pool of seaweed hollandaise, it’s bloody lovely anyway. A bunch of rainbow chard, juicy and just a bit astringent, was an inspired finish to a plate that was otherwise so rich it somehow doesn’t pay tax.
The wind by this point was hammering rain into the windows like spent buckshot. This produces a hormone in the Englishman’s brainstem which drives him to order comforting things. Confit duck leg is just the ticket, with a potato and black pudding cake that’s basically an aggressively ambitious hash brown, cabbage and prunes.
Exactly the same hormone means he can’t order a normal salad. It would be madness in what I conservatively estimated to be a Force 7 squall. Once it starts to whip spindrift off the top of four-metre waves, we obviously have to take scurvy into account, so Curry has arranged shaved cabbage, hazelnut, parmesan and truffle, an antiscorbutic you can consume, not only without difficulty but with considerable pleasure.
Salt air in my nostrils instantly raises my personal bar for chips. When you’re in sight of the sea they’ve got to be superlative and these were. There were also fried Brussels sprouts with tahini yoghurt, and dukkah, which reminded me of being catastrophically drunk in the Jemaa el-Fnaa: challenging in many ways, messy, but sensorily unforgettable.
My attitude to desserts is a matter of public record. I find they’re too often ill-considered and underpowered. The Seaside Boarding House, though, should qualify as some sort of sanatorium for the dessert-deprived. Vanilla ice cream came in a ball that would have nourished all of the Famous Five, topped with sea-salted caramel.
It’s fortunate Proust is dead because ginger loaf, toffee sauce, walnuts and clotted cream would have made him question his life choices. And there was a slow-cooked fondant made with chocolate so dark and intense it wasn’t actually sweet, a deficiency compensated for by plums, honeycomb and crème fraîche that was apparently portioned using a mechanical digger.
Wayfinding nerds among you will know that, by a strange and beautiful twist of fate, Magnetic, True and Grid North have recently coincided over West Dorset. I hope this will make it easier for you to navigate there at full speed.
Seaside Boarding House, Burton Bradstock
Cliff Road Burton Bradstock, Dorset DT6 4RB; theseasideboardinghouse.com
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