Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

James Duckett at the Old Custom House

My relationship with Barnstaple isn’t particularly strong, nor is it beautiful, but I’m the kind of open-minded person (I like to think I am anyway) that never says never. Having worked for a relatively large advertising agency with it’s head office in Barnstaple (strange, but true) I had only ever experienced the kind of practical eating that included nipping out for a sandwich to M&S or popping to the nearest pub chain offering in between meetings. On that basis, I definitely didn’t consider Barnstaple to be the home of haute cuisine. I also had rather horrid memories of driving along the A377 between Okehampton and Barnstaple on dark winter mornings and evenings cursing every truck, tractor and pootler in North Devon. My recent trip to James Duckett’s restaurant at the Old Custom House has completely altered my view of Barnstaple which was no mean feat.

In the last few years I have become very taken with train travel, and cost aside, find that getting around the West Country using this mode of transport can be both relaxing and incredibly convenient. Having been to Totnes on a few occasions by train I was quite keen to try other destinations. When my BFF (Best Food Friend herein) suggested a trip to Barnstaple along the Tarka Line I was more than happy to agree and super keen to find us a great lunching location if at all possible. Given my previous, afore-mentioned ‘tastings’ of Barnstaple tidbits, I didn’t hold out much hope, but it only took a couple of clicks on the computer to find the Old Custom House and renew my faith in the potential of the North Devon food scene. James Duckett opened his restaurant back in 2008 and has steadily been building himself a very good reputation both locally and further afield. Trip Advisor currently features 26 reviews for the restaurant with 19 of those rating it excellent. I would completely agree.

After a very pleasant, but wet walk about the town centre and down the foodie haven of Butcher’s Row, we sought refuge in the restaurant. Not only was the rain pouring down, but it was incredibly humid. A bad hair day like you wouldn’t believe. BFF was getting a little faint with hunger and dehydration following a night of revelry and I wasn’t going to say no to a glass of wine and a sit down. The Old Custom House building is a very pretty sight and apparently one of the oldest buildings in town, situated on the Strand running parallel to the river. I can’t remember having been to that part of town before, but it’s the perfect location for a spot of lunch. The décor is a great mix of old and contemporary with exposed brick, wooden beams and natural materials aplenty. Low ceilings and an intimate, but not intrusive arrangement of the tables, makes for a cosy and relaxing atmosphere. BFF and I sat in one of the window seat tables, where unfortunately the humidity and intermittent sunshine made me feel a bit like a bug under a magnifying glass, but that sure wasn’t the fault of the restaurant. It was, under normal circumstances, quite a nice table.

We were immediately greeted by our very friendly waitress who was attentive and consistently helpful throughout our service. Both BFF and I can be rather annoying customers on occasion, asking questions and making awkward requests and whilst we were on pretty good behaviour this day, nothing seemed to be a problem for her. The appetiser was brought out, consisting of a variety of breads - white with rosemary, brown with smoked paprika and a lavash - with an olive oil & balsamic vinegar dipping sauce as well as olives, and BFF seemed a very happy lady. I don’t tend to eat much bread so I was happy to watch her oohing and aahing for a few minutes, whilst I nibbled on the very good olives. I ordered a glass of the La Courtine, Colombard, 2008, whilst BFF opted for a soft drink in a bid to combat her post-Friday evening alcohol blues. I realise that French wines can be absolutely wonderful as I’ve had a number of great examples in France, but I am always dubious about ordering any in UK eateries as the poor old French wine has had a terrible showing in pubs and restaurants for years. Unsurprisingly I tend to drift towards New World whites as the climate and resulting wines agree with me more often than not. This Colombard was very good though and I could easily have had another if it was the evening. Humid days and late afternoon hangovers aren’t a great match.

Feeling in an adventurous mood after our beautiful train trip up, I opted for the Casserole of Market Fish. Being in North Devon I suspected fish was probably a good choice. Also, as JC doesn’t eat seafood and we don’t tend to have it at home, when I see a decent seafood option on a menu I often like to choose it as a treat. Monkfish and scallops are my favourites, but for some reason I was drawn in by the use of the word ‘casserole’ in relation to fish. Once again, my weakness for a bit of decent marketing was blatantly at play. If it had of said ‘stew’ I would have completely ignored it. Stew says overcooked vegetables in flavourless water to me, whilst casserole hints at moist, flavourful meat in a rich sauce – much better. BFF ordered from the specials, going with the chicken and mash which also sounded terrific. I toyed with the idea of ordering the Gnocchi with wild mushrooms, shallots and parmesan, but the fish sounded lighter and perfect for a late summer lunch. At £14 for 2 courses and £17 for 3 courses the prices are very good, competing easily with a decent pub lunch on value. BFF and I were sticking with 2 courses. We had already spotted our dessert choice which is always a good sign.

My fish casserole was beautiful and I don’t use that word loosely either. It arrived in a miniature red casserole dish complete with a lid which tickled my fancy immediately. The lid was whipped off by our waitress to reveal little chunks of shelled mussels and pollack in a sauce of saffron, tomato and butter. The flavour of the sauce was balanced, without the overpowering taste of saffron that sometimes goes hand in hand with use of that particular spice. Personally I’m not a massive fan of too much saffron, but this may be due to a lack of contact with high quality versions. The buttery sauce offered a creaminess to the dish without taking over and the ratio of sauce to fish was also perfect. I certainly didn’t feel as if I had been deprived of my advertised seafood, swimming around towards the end of the dish searching for morsels. Whilst the casserole dish was not huge, the portion was generous and the ingredients plenty. BFF had the same view of her chicken dish, which came beautifully presented in a similar portion size and without the ludicrous serving of mashed potato that you often feel obliged to wade through long after you have finished the meat element. The chicken was served with a balsamic vinegar and honey dressing and mixed leaves. I've just spotted that the wet weather and seaside location have clearly influenced my last paragraph here, as I’ve made mention of both swimming and wading.

Dessert turned out to be an easy decision too with both BFF and I unanimously opting for the apricot sponge and vanilla ice cream. I have a real thing for stone fruits and apricots are probably my favourite of the lot, with plums a close second. The sponge tasted as if it contained some wholemeal flour and/or ground almonds although I can’t be sure of this as I forgot to ask. In any event I had already asked too many questions so this was for the best. The sponge was nutty and had more character than the average sponge which is why I suggest this. It was huge, but didn’t beat me. The cooked apricots sat atop of the slightly warm sponge with home made vanilla ice cream completing the stack. It had an almost wholesome vibe to it and given that it was from the new Autumn menu it all made sense. Both BFF and I were pleased we had not given way to pure greed and run with the 3 course menu, as this dessert may have finished us off. I mused once again on the value of the 2 course menu as we paid for our meals.

James Duckett has happily forced me to review my original opinion of Barnstaple as being a bit of a culinary desert. His career to date is undeniably impressive with stints under both Albert & Michel Roux, at top restaurants in Bordeaux and Sydney and at his own restaurant in Spain. I think if North Devon wasn’t so beautiful, we might not have seen him in the West Country, but thankfully, once again, the amazing local produce and picturesque location have lured a great chef to the area. Wherever you are in the South West you should seriously consider taking a day trip to Barnstaple and treating yourself to at least a lunch at the Old Custom House. With a belly full of wonderful food, we headed back to the station and caught the ‘bone shaker’, as one of our fellow diners had referred to it, back to Exeter, sleepily looking out the window at the passing countryside and pondering seriously on how soon we could expect to make a return visit. I’m quite keen on a pre-Christmas visit to Butcher’s Row and a try of the Old Custom House Winter lunch menu myself.

Sadly, the Old Custom House has now closed (July 2011) after a failed attempt to relocate the business to the Highbullen Hotel at Umberleigh. At the time of this update it looked as if James Duckett would be leaving North Devon which is a very unfortunate situation for all foodies. I wish James well in his future endeavours and hope I can eat his food again some day.