Although we would probably have been quite happy feasting on local fish and chips for a whole week, we made a family decision before we arrived in Woolacombe to try out Noel Corston’s fine dining restaurant, NC@EX34, which sits quietly on a side street just off the beach.
It seemed odd to find a Michelin-recommended establishment in a family beach resort: you could be playing crazy golf one minute, slurping on ice cream the next and then, round the corner, the most perfect little restaurant welcomes you to taste some superlative cuisine.
Noel Corston’s dream was always to own a restaurant where he could work with local farmers, fishermen and foragers to create food which was in harmony with its surroundings. His gorgeous 16 cover restaurant in Woolacombe is in the heart of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the North Devon coast and offers a fixed tasting menu, at one sitting, four nights a week.
The simplicity of the chalk board menu shows how this talented chef chooses ingredients which are seasonal and local. There is a little more information provided for each diner but Noel still keeps everyone guessing as to how each dish will be put together. ‘Duck’ on the board, for example, was revealed to be ‘duck, mash and gravy’ in print. But we had no idea it would be a heavenly soup of creamy potato, served in a stoneware bowl, hiding tender chunks of meat within its buttery pillows. I know I’m coming over unnecessarily Masterchef here but I really did feel like Goldilocks, tasting Baby Bear’s porridge and declaring it ‘just right’.
I’m not usually one for taking photos of food as the end results look nothing like the original dishes but I did manage a reasonable stab at the hake course and, thankfully, Noel snapped a couple himself that night and uploaded them to Twitter – so I have borrowed them, seeing as they were seconds away from being on our table anyway.
Dougie decided to choose the wine flight and was served a small glass of specially chosen wine with each dish. I had a rhubarb Bellini as an aperitif then made sure I took a sip or two from Dougie’s glass with each course so I could share in the taste sensation but remain compos mentis. We had intended just to go for the seven-course tasting menu but the food was so amazing, we plumped for all nine whilst we were tucking into course number four. This meant Dougie was given some Icewine from Ontario, Canada, to accompany the sea buckthorn and was able to regale Juliana with our anecdote concerning two bottles of Icewine and a rucksack at Montreal Airport.
The website states “There is no dress code, we live at the beach” and that gives you some idea of the warm, relaxed atmosphere at NC@EX34. Noel, greeting us as we arrived, had a fresh, healthy glow, as if he had just spent an afternoon on the surf, parked his board round the back and slipped into his chef’s whites.
His lovely wife, Nora, our waitress for the night, was attentive and friendly and you could see her Mexican influence in the décor: colourful artwork from local artist and friend, Conor Wilson, adorned the plain white-washed walls. We ended the evening with a café de Olla, ‘a traditional Mexican coffee slowly brewed with muscovado, cinnamon and a little chocolate, served black in a stoneware beaker.’ It really did feel as if we had been entertained in the Corston’s own home. We were seated at a comfortable table in the main restaurant but a group of six can choose to sit up at the Chef’s Counter and watch Noel as he cooks and talks them through the process.
It’s little wonder Noel Corston’s enterprise has been picking up so many restaurant awards. Having experimented with brasserie style food, his new multi-course tasting menu showcases his talents perfectly and his dream of harmonising cuisine with the local environment has been realised.
From the amuse-bouche of cauliflower velouté, the brown paper bag filled with slices of freshly made soda bread, the melt-in-the-mouth lamb and finishing simply with Xocoátl (chocolate), this was a meal made for memories.