River Cottage Canteen, Axminster
You would have had to be living under a rock not to have heard of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and River Cottage by now. Hugh, who lives on a small farm in East Devon with his wife and their four children, has fast become one of the best-known foodie personalities on British television. From his base at River Cottage (Dorset) he has been highly vocal in his desire for people to embrace homegrown, seasonal produce and he is an active advocate of sustainable fisheries. As part of his mission to reunite the country with great British food Hugh has opened several River Cottage Canteens throughout the South West. Keen to discover if the Canteen food lived up to our expectations The Devon Foodie team headed down to the town of Axminster to try it out for ourselves.
Hugh gets full marks for the Canteen’s décor. As you enter the restaurant you’re greeted by a well-stocked deli on one wall and a contemporary dining area expanding to the left. There’s a modern country feel to the whole place and a relaxed, bohemian vibe seems to resonate throughout. Having booked in advance, we were taken through to the main dining room and seated at the far end of the restaurant and our hostess was quick to fetch us the Wi-Fi password.
As you’d expect, everything on the menu is designed to showcase the very best local ingredients and is freshly prepared on the premises by the Canteen’s head chef Dan Richards and his team. Dishes are designed around the seasons and change on a frequent basis to reflect what is available depending on the time of year. The lunchtime menu offers a choice between small plates (that are ideal for sharing) and big plates (for those of us who’d insist on having our lunch all to ourselves). So being the greedy Devon Foodies that we are, we naturally opted for the larger plates and a side of freshly baked canteen bread to start (£2.50).
It’s rare that something as simple as a side bread is so delicious that it merits it’s own review but let me start by saying that the Canteen’s loaves are some of the tastiest I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Perfectly crispy on the outside and beautifully soft on the inside, a slather of their slightly salty and deliciously creamy butter gives this bread an almost cake-like quality and I happily wolfed down slightly more than my fair share of the serving..
For mains we opted for three decidedly different dishes: The Ox Liver & Bacon, with mash and onions (£12.50); the Devon Rose Veal Burger with pickles and chips (£14.50); and Grilled polenta, roasted mushrooms and wild garlic (£10.50).
Personally I’m not a huge fan of veal but I am told that the burger was delicious. Unlike some establishments, there was no holding back on the quantity of meat in the patty and the chips were golden and crispy with just the right amount of crunch. However, one of the elements that really made this dish stand out was the fantastic pickled onion it came with. These soft and tender rings of onion had a very delicate pickled flavour that was just outstanding (trust us, you need to try them).
The liver and onions was not as much of a hit as we had hoped it would be. In my opinion you can’t go far wrong with liver and onions, but apparently the Ox liver was a little bit too strong in comparison to say, a pigs liver. The bacon lardons and the rich gravy were both excellent, as was the silky mash, but the thicker parts of the meat had a very strong taste that somewhat overpowered the rest of the dish. Undoubtedly the Canteen chefs get high marks for the provenance and quality of their meat but for our personal preferences this plate wasn’t a perfect ten.
My own lunch was really rather inventive. In case it wasn’t already apparent, I’m not actually a vegetarian but sometimes I like to try the vegetarian options, as I think it can tell you a lot about the skills of the chef. At the Canteen I was not disappointed by the veggie options on offer, though nor did I expect to be. Hugh has earned a reputation for his ability to bring out the hidden flavours of homegrown fruit and vegetables and I expected his culinary team to be just as accomplished in this respect.
The inclusion of wild garlic in my dish was not only a nod to its seasonality but also a brilliant way to add a tonne of flavour to the plate. Garlic and mushrooms are a well-known match made in heaven and this meal was no exception. Along with the perfectly grilled slices of polenta, my plate achieved the perfect balance of flavours and textures. My only small criticism would have to be that there was a tiny bit too much oil used in the cooking and I did find myself having to dab this off my mushrooms on a few occasions. However, overall this was an incredibly tasty plate of food and I was not left wishing I’d gone for one of the carnivorous options.
I also ordered a side of beets with orange and red onion (that same onion I raved about earlier) for £3. These were perfectly cooked. Again, there was perhaps a little bit too much oil for my liking, but the beetroot melted in your mouth and it had an almost caramelized flavour to it that was just divine. If in doubt, order this side because you won’t be disappointed.
For dessert we rounded off the meal with a Rhubarb and Custard Fool. One member of the team felt that this was a lot like a deconstructed rhubarb cheesecake, though I was personally reminded of slightly posher rhubarb crumble. Either way, it was the perfect sugary fix to finish off our meals. Just like those old fashioned sweets we had as children, the rhubarb and custard was tangy, fruity and creamy all at once and I have no doubt that it was made from homegrown or locally sourced fruit. Dessert was quickly polished off and (not for the first time) I was starting to wonder if I had not one, but two extra dessert stomachs, because one of these just didn’t seem like enough…
Overall we really enjoyed our lunch at River Cottage Canteen, Axminster. The service was warm and attentive, the décor was spot-on, and most importantly the food was delicious. What quickly became apparent as we tucked into our meals was the degree of culinary knowledge behind every plate. I experienced flavours and textures that I would have never thought to put together before and I came away with a newfound desire to be more adventurous in my own kitchen. It’s fair to say that it’s not cheap to eat here and most people’s budgets won’t stretch to £14.50 for a burger on a regular basis, but then again you do always expect to pay a little bit more at an establishment linked to a celebrity chef. If you’re happy to pay the prices then definitely give the Canteen a go and I also recommend paying a visit to the deli afterward because it’s packed with very tempting food that you’re bound to want to try at home.