The Old Coastguard hotel in Mousehole, near Penzance, has a setting most chefs would die for. Not far from the Cornish fishing port of Newlyn, you can almost smell the fresh fish coming off the boats in the morning - a blessing for anyone serving fish on their menu.
However, when storms batter the coastline, the fish disappears and a chef has to "ride the waves", as the Coastguard's head chef, Stephen Frost, is the first to admit. He gets round the problem, in good old boy-scout fashion, by being prepared. "I don't let the weather ruin the menu. I always have a back-up prepared and ideas in the pipeline," he explains. "Everything that goes on the menu is the end of a long process of experiment and preparation."
Frost took over at the Old Coastguard in July 2006 after stints as head chef at the Lamb Inn in Burford, Oxfordshire, and the Greyhound Inn in Staple Fitzpaine, Somerset, and quickly set about overhauling the menu. Calm seas last summer meant bountiful seafood supplies, so he did the logical thing and focused on fish. Dishes such as roast fillet of cod with a pine nut crust, braised Puy lentils, pancetta and a red wine reduction (£18.50) and roast fillet of monkfish wrapped in local smoked bacon (from a supplier in Stithians, 30 miles from the Old Coastguard) served on grain mustard and olive oil mash, with asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes and a sorrel cappuccino (£18.50) were immediate hits.
The menu offers seven starters, seven mains and seven desserts. Frost admits that his ideal split for the mains would be three fish dishes, two meat dishes and two vegetarian dishes, but circumstances mean that this often isn't possible. For most of December the only fish available was cod and sea bass, the latter of which he put out grilled, served with baby spinach, olive oil-crusted potatoes and a ratatouille sauce (£18.50).
Stormy winter weather, though, has its compensations, as it enables Frost to bring meat and game options to the fore. One of the most popular of these is his trio of lamb (£19.50). The dish features a braised shoulder (shredded and layered with potato and some lamb stock before being cooked, pressed, cut up and served with pea purée), pan-fried chump (served with Savoy cabbage), and a two-bone rack (accompanied by carrot and cumin purée).
While the menu moves with the seasons, there are never wholesale overhauls, rather a slow evolution as produce becomes available. The starters, in particular, reflect the time of year, with current options including a seared breast of wood pigeon on fondant potato, beetroot jam and blueberry jus (£7.50) and a terrine of wild rabbit wrapped in Savoy cabbage and served with macerated grapes (£7).
Desserts tend to stick with great comfort classics given a modern edge things like a mulled fruit crumble in a sweet pastry case with Cornish clotted cream (£6.50), or lemon grass-infused crème brûlée with orange roasted fig and tangerine sorbet (£6).
Frost hopes that the future will bring a second AA rosette. "We've got an inspection in the early new year and we're doing everything right, all the way down to baking our own bread for toast," he says. The way the last six months have gone, it's a fair bet that even the weather couldn't ruin those plans.
What's on the menu
- Warm tartlet of tomato compote and chargrilled Mediterranean vegetables with a buffalo mozzarella and basil cream, £7
- Pan-fried scallops on hog's pudding with garden herb risotto and orange buerre blanc, £8.50
- Tian of crab layered between avocado salsa and crème fraîche, with lemon and parsley dressing, £7.50
- Ravioli of goose foie gras with pear, walnut and chicory salad and raspberry and sherry vinegar dressing, £8.50
- Pan-fried breast of pheasant with braised leg, smoked bacon bubble and squeak, red cabbage confit, fresh cranberries, chestnuts and root vegetables, £19
- Crottin of Capricorn goats' cheese on chargrilled polenta with cherry tomatoes, Parmesan wafer and rocket pesto, £13.50
- Pan-fried fillet steak on dauphinoise potatoes with tomato stew, red wine shallot and Madeira jus, £19.50
- Glazed lemon tart with mixed berry compote and crème fraîche, £6
- Dark chocolate marquise with cinder toffee ice-cream and cracked caramel, £6.50
- Bread and butter pudding with saffron brioche, caramel sauce and vanilla, £7
The Old Coastguard Hotel, Mousehole, Penzance, Cornwall TR19 6PR. Tel: 01736 731222. Website: www.oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk