New Mitch Tonks menus on the First Great Western Pullman Trains - reviewed by Tom Parker Bowles:
You won't rail against this train fare: Is First Great Western on the right track with its Pullman dining car revival?
PUBLISHED: 22:00, 2 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:09, 2
When the train's running well, there's no way I'd rather travel
Paddington to Penzance.
For me, it’s the greatest of English railway journeys, a high-speed escape from London’s fumes and fury, a voyage that takes in suburb and sea wall alike.
This is a train where the diesel fumes are scented with nostalgia, the well-worn carpets stained with joy.
Three hundred miles of track, just under six hours of travel unencumbered by roadworks and responsibility, customs and concentration.
All you need do is lean back and drink it in… The dunes of Dawlish Warren. That great expanse of sea and red rock just past Teignmouth. And the precipitous wobble from Devon into Cornwall.
Forget seat belts and sat-navs, strip-searches and stale air. When the train’s running well, there’s no way I’d rather travel.
OK, so once the rose-tinted goggles are off, the downsides are obvious.
The ‘on-track incident’ that sees the train sit still for hours, without explanation.
The salesman glued to his mobile, emitting a deadly combination of business-speak and smuggery.
And the food… well, it’s hardly a match for the landscape flashing past.
Even that bit between Paddington and Slough seems attractive when compared to the wan insipidity of the average cup of coffee.
Smoked salmon with soda bread
Sure, things are a little better than a decade back. I have a sneaking lust for the cheese-and-ham panini, with its painted-on grill stripes and tongue-blistering core. And the wine is always passable.
But as I sit back in my chair, munching on a bag of Quavers, my mind turns to the good old days of rail travel, when ornate, even ostentatious Pullman cars served up fresh cooked breakfasts, complete with proper bacon and grilled kidneys.
When the wine list ran to a dozen pages, and tablecloths were snow-white and thickly starched.
Bone china plates bore the train-company logo, and crystal glasses had a satisfactory heft.
You could enjoy potted shrimps and sole meunière, a mixed grill and jam roly-poly. And a glass of brandy or three to wash it all down.
But over the years, it all disappeared, a victim of ever-tightening budgets and half-baked focus groups.
Freshly prepared fillet steak
It was nearly two years ago when the last dining car was pulled into the sidings and left to rot. The end of an era, the last puff of railway glamour.
Now, though, the Pullman is back. On that First Great Western line I so adore. When I heard the news, my heart leapt into my mouth with excitement. But then I started to worry.
Another overambitious menu from some Michelin-starred maestro that would work fine for a few weeks. Then sink, slowly, into a mire of mediocrity. On second thoughts, I’d rather stick to my microwaved bacon roll.
Then I found out Mitch Tonks, the man behind the brilliant Seahorse in Dartmouth, was in charge.
Tonks knows his fish, and he has little time for fickle culinary fads.
‘I’ve always bought the freshest and finest seafood from fishermen I know well, and let the produce speak for itself.’
Mitch Tonks (on right) in the Pullman's kitchen. He was the man behind the brilliant Seahorse in Dartmouth
He’s a good friend, but his food is up there with some of the finest I’ve ever eaten: simple, unpretentious and generous.
His seafood stews and deep-fried local prawns linger in the memory long after the plate’s been licked clean.
‘This is a passion project,’ says Tonks as we sit down in the Pullman carriage. It’s the first day of proper service, and the linen tablecloths and napkins have yet to arrive.
'But there are plates embossed with the Pullman logo, and proper cutlery and glasses too.
'It’s not about me or my ego; rather, providing fresh, local food that you really want to eat.’
He takes a bite of scallop so fresh it smells of nothing but sea breeze. He nods and smiles.
‘We need less breadcrumbs on top,’ he says to one of his team, ‘and just one scallop per shell. So you get softness and crunch.’
I take a sip of ice-cold Albariño and grin. Heath and Safety might not allow one of his beloved charcoal-fired Josper ovens on board, but one mouthful and I’m in love.
Dinner is served. For now, there are just two lunch services from Plymouth, and two dinners down from London
‘All the fish is delivered daily from Brixham onto the train. So we have total control over quality.’
He smiles again. ‘It’s going OK, so far. I was rather dreading this tasting being a total disaster.’
But it’s Tonks at the helm, and despite his laid-back charm, when it comes to cooking he’s entirely serious.
‘It all started when Phil (Edgerton, head of marketing at First Great Western) came into The Seahorse for lunch. And Iz, my daughter, walked in with a bucket of fresh prawns she’d just caught. I fried them up and put them in front of him.
'And after eating them all, he said, “Why can’t we do this on the train?” It all moved on from there.’
For now, there are just two lunch services from Plymouth, and two dinners down from London.
‘I wanted to do old-fashioned dining, nothing too complicated. But it’s always been a challenge to cook good food on trains. So I worked within the limitations.’
A huge plate of smoked salmon, sweet and subtle, arrives next, from Brown and Forrest in Somerset, with soda bread and a fierce cornichon pickle. Tonks takes a bite of the latter and grimaces.
‘Too tart,’ he says, shaking his head.
‘Keep it simple.’
A tomato-and-burrata salad is plonked down, the cheese from Jody Scheckter’s Laverstoke Park, oozing and gently lactic. Food you actually want to eat.
By the time we pull into Exeter we’ve made short work of gurnard with a walnut-and-mint sauce (again, the fish is astoundingly fresh, falling into fat white flakes).
Then comes a fillet steak, cooked just under medium rare, with a good whack of bovine depth.
And Keen’s Cheddar, and a rich chocolate nemesis cake. We sit – eating, sampling the wines, gossiping – until night draws in and London draws close.
‘We wanted to bring back a little of the glamour of train travel,’ says Edgerton as we pull into Paddington.
We’re 15 minutes late, but for once I’d have liked a proper delay.
Sure, I’m sitting with the chef himself, which always makes for a better experience. And the real test will be to revisit in six months’ time, or a year.
'But with Tonks at the controls (and a charming crew on board), I have faith. This Pullman is one train that will run and run and run.
Mackerel De-Listed by MCS- Mitch's response:
So now we need to protect mackerel when only a year ago you could enjoy it in a bun as a sustainable alternative, maybe it's the focus we put on this humble fish that has caused the issue, we are going the same way with gurnard too. Telling people to eat one thing and not another is not the way forward in this very complicated issue of fisheries management the answer has to be eat across the range of species, enjoy some of our most popular species like cod & haddock from sustainable MSC certified fisheries like those in Norway as well as our more local diverse catch.
Mackerel up to know has been a plentiful fish, one that we fell out of love with and then back in love as big name chefs championed it as the " sustainable alternative". I think we have also discovered how good it is to eat as more and more restaurants put it on the menu largely driven by it's superb eating quality but also it's cheap price which no longer exists. Only a few years ago I could walk around the auction at Brixham and see it fetch 80p a kilo now you would see it fetch up to £5, this is partially the effect of the TV exposure this humble fish has had but also because demand in other countries like Eastern Europe is particularly strong where the fish is popular and cheap. I have also long been alarmed at the sheer size, and how state of the art, some of the modern mackerel vessels are, millions of pounds of vessel built just to pinpoint electronically, catch and take out whole shoals of fish, so say being selective, and not harming other fish stocks. I can see now that fishing on this scale is not sustainable especially coupled wthe the complications of sharing quota with other nations and also the gross misconduct of a very small minority of fishermen who were fined millions a few years ago for illegally fishing the specie beyond the sustainable levels that were recommended. I'm not surprised it has come off the list of safe to eat - a mixture of factors affecting the fishing of mackerel like that. Like the many issues the industry has to face I have no doubt it will act responsibly and react in the right way to ensure we will have mackerel for the future but there are a few lessons learned here starting with balancing the communication on what is right to eat across the whole spectrum of fish rather than putting one specie in the limelight.
One fish that we really don't eat enough of is herring and most of the fishermen I drink with say it's not worth catching because there is no demand. That means there is an opportunity for fisherman and diner. I think people have avoided herring simply because of it's fine bones and not the taste. you can easily get around this by getting your fishmonger to do all the work including removing all the fine belly bones or just learn to navigate around them, its part of the fun !. As an eating fish it's probably one of the best, grill it with a little oil and salt and the skin will blacken and crisp to reveal inside a creamy delicious meat or fry them gently in butter and a few spices like cumin, turmeric, mustard, ground ginger and chillli for a perfect spicy devilled dish. Perhaps my favourite way of all is eating them pickled, simply cover some herring fillets in a 50/50 mixture of sugar and salt ( you can flavour the cure with lemon, ground coriander, star anise.. the choice is yours ) for an hour, rinse of and dry then bring a small pan of white wine vinegar to the boil with a good handful of sugar to create a lovely sweet, sour taste, add some finely sliced onions and fennel and some aromatics of your choice, allow to cool then pour over the fish and leave overnight - serve with a spoonful of the pickling juices and the vegetables, some blood orange or lemon segments and a drizzle of olive oil - pickled herrings in your fridge for a week, wonderful, and whats more any fine bones left in the fish will dissolve to nothing in the acid of the pickle - even more perfect.
A fish we all know better than the silver darling is the very humble sardine and pilchard. There are tons caught in Cornwall and all they need is a lit fire some salt and olive oil and this simplest of fish becomes something truly magnificent, herrings and sardines really are a plenty, they are not the new sustainable alternative yet but eating them a few times a month rather piling into one specie will do a lot for sustainability and of course your diet as both are packed full of all the good stuff we need.
Mitch Tonks to open RockFish restaurant in Plymouth -(from ThisisSouthDevon.co.uk):
FORTY jobs will be created when a celebrity chef opens a £500,000 seafood restaurant at the National Marine Aquarium.
Award-winning food writer, restaurateur and fishmonger Mitch Tonks will bring his RockFish brand to the Coxside attraction.
A planning application has been submitted to create the 200-seater RockFish Plymouth diner in the building, formerly used by architects LHC, next-door to the aquarium.
The development represents an investment of about £500,000, the NMA said, and will create an estimated 40 jobs for city people.
The RockFish brand already operates successful restaurants in Dartmouth and Bristol, and Mr Tonks’ other Dartmouth venue, the Seahorse, won Best UK Restaurant in the Observer Food Magazine awards and Best Seafood Restaurant in the Good Food Guide.
Mr Tonks, described as “a legend” by TV chef Jamie Oliver, is the latest high-profile chef attracted to Plymouth.
The city is already the base for Chris and James Tanner, who have two restaurants and have appeared on TV, and now another telly personality Gary Rhodes is due to open his Rhodes @ the home restaurant this month.
RockFish also follows a slew of established chains gravitating to Plymouth, with more arriving too including Le Bistrot Pierre, Wagamama and Las Iguanas all planning to open at the Royal William Yard this year.
RockFish will specialise in serving seafood, most of which will be “sustainably sourced” and certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), with much coming straight from city-based fishermen.
Dr David Gibson, managing director at the N MA, said: “We are delighted Mitch Tonks has chosen to open his latest RockFish restaurant here in Plymouth.
“His message of sourcing only the best sustainable seafood is something we wholeheartedly support.
“Mitch has dedicated his career to ensuring that people not only enjoy the best quality seafood available but also that the fish he serves in his restaurants are caught using methods that cause as little damage to the marine environment as possible – helping to keep fish stocks at healthy levels.”
Mr Tonks, author of Fish Easy, said: “We are excited to be opening RockFish in Plymouth. It’s a fantastic site and somewhere where we feel we can make a real impact.
“It’s great to have the support of the NMA, as our key ethos of encouraging marine conservation is so closely matched by the work that the aquarium does both here in Plymouth and further afield.
“It’s going to be a unique partnership, and one which we are very much looking forward to developing over the coming months.”
The development is also supported by Sutton Harbour Holdings plc, with Charlotte Malcolm, marketing manager saying: “It is a ringing endorsement for Plymouth and the harbour that a chef of Mitch Tonks’ calibre has chosen this site for his latest restaurant.
“It will be a great asset in promoting the city to the national visitor market and encouraging residents to visit the waterfront.
“The RockFish restaurant will reinforce Plymouth’s reputation as a leading marine city, as well as reinforcing the NMA’s credentials as a leading authority on marine conservation and sustainable fishing.”
Seahorse outguns big name London restaurants winning Best Restaurant in OFM Awards:
The Seahorse bagged one of the most sought after accolades in the food world, Best UK Restaurant in the Observer Food Monthly Awards, beating some 15,000 restaurants including Heston Blumenthal’s much lauded Dinner, who won last year, and the innovative and hugely popular steak restaurant Hawksmoor, which in a nice little twist has just collaborated with Mitch Tonks in bringing seafood to their menu at their latest opening in November on London on Piccadilly's Air Street.
This award is the 4th the team at The Seahorse have taken in just 2 months, adding it to Best Seafood Restaurant in the Good Food Guide, Best Restaurant in the South Devon Hospitality awards and in the top 100 Best UK restaurants.
"For us it is the exhilaration of preparing really fresh seafood simply that stands out every time when we reflect on our experiences and decide what to cook each day", Mitch says,”The secret in what we do is that we have the best fish in world landed right outside our window, our work is almost done for us."
Allan Jenkins, editor OFM, said “The Seahorse is the sort of brilliant seafood restaurant you hope to find in Italy, France and Spain, and never do. It has a great room, great service and great cooking from Mitch and Mat. With an intensely loyal local following, it made us at OFM very happy to see them outgun the big-money, big-ticket, big London places."
Mitch Tonks and Mat Prowse, The Seahorse, said, “We love what we do and run the Seahorse as the type of place we would like to eat in, for us, and our team it's a lifestyle. Awards are really special, particularly when they come out of the blue and at such a level. This award is a huge achievement for the small team we work with at The Seahorse, especially as it is voted for by our guests; to be voted at the very top nationally makes it really remarkable, we owe a huge thanks to them all - so if you voted, THANKS, it counted!”
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