MENU REVIEW – THE GALLEY, TOPSHAM
There is something special in the water in Topsham. I can’t quite explain it but, every time I visit, I am struck by the peacefulness and timelessness of the place. My pace slows. I find myself drawing deep breaths of estuary air and I catch myself reflecting on days past and daydreaming about things still to come. It also helps that there is some of Devon’s best food and drink on offer from a variety of dining spots there. I find that great food is often a superb catalyst for positivity.
And, so, it was with great relish that I recently accepted an invitation to join friend and renowned photographer Nick Hook for lunch at The Galley Topsham, one of the leading fish and seafood restaurants in the region. A tough accolade to live up to but I have learned over the years that if Nick (and his partner Harry Wild – a distinguished marketeer in the world of food and drink) recommend an establishment, then it is worth sitting up and taking notice.
This instance was no different.
As it happens, the morning that preceded our lunch was not an easy one, with both professional and personal hurdles to overcome. If I’m honest, I arrived in Topsham a little rattled and out of sorts. However, the moment that I stepped over the threshold into The Galley, I was met with a professional yet warming welcome which cut across my sombre mood and set the tone beautifully for the lunch that was to follow.
After a brief conversation with the equally warm-hearted and professional owner of The Galley, Nigel Mitchell, Nick and I decided to allow Head Chef, Jason Mead, to select which dishes we were served. We still had the pleasure of perusing the menu and discussing what we would’ve chosen and, genuinely, there were no dishes on the perfectly petite menu that were there to fill space or pander to diners. The menu at The Galley is one of the most select but well-balanced that I have seen on my travels – infused with laser-focused intentionality and educated confidence.
For those of you who have followed mine and Nick’s culinary adventures, you will know that I am a relative newcomer to seafood and fish, having grown up in a seafood allergic household. To say that I felt out of my depth as our lunch began at The Galley would be somewhat of an understatement. However, the superbly refined front-of-house service set me at ease and I decided that whatever was presented in front of me would not only be tried but enjoyed. And as we awaited our starters, we enjoyed freshly baked Pain du Campagne served with Olive Oil, Dukkah and Butter.
No sooner had the first mouthful of my starter – Dressed Devon Crab with Garam Masala Spiced Crab Mayo, Pickled Red Onion, Cucumber and Coriander – passed my lips, than I was having to remind myself to refrain from impolitely scoffing the lot. The cool, clean textures. The sweet and perfectly spiced Indian twist. The palate-cleansing cucumber. And that Devon Crab… Truly a stunning start to proceedings.
Nick was served Grilled Cornish Mackerel with Forest Funghi Mushrooms ‘à la Grecque’, Burnt Shallot Emulsion and Chives. Packed full of flavour with the smokey mackerel offset against the peppery mushrooms and the shallot emulsion adding a powerful yet not overbearing overtone, Nick and I agreed that this was another knockout starter from Jason and his team in the kitchen.
Between courses, I sipped my Luscombe Sicilian Lemonade and became mindful of just how relaxed and at home I felt at The Galley – perhaps made more noticeable due to the unusually grey mood that I had arrived to lunch in. As our meal moved on to our main courses, the day just kept on getting better and better.
With an expert flair, Nigel strode from kitchen to table with our main plates held aloft, the food tantalisingly out of view. With a sprinkling of lunchtime opera, he delighted in holding the plates out of sight for just a few seconds until we gave in and craned our necks to see the delights that awaited us. As he relented and lowered the plates down to the table, we were met with a festival of sense-satisfying stimuli.
For me, the Elston Farm Lamb Loin served with Caramelised Shallots, Potato Fondants, Green Beans and Garlic Butter and, for Nick, Baked Fillet of Hake, with Sauce Meunière, Baby Potatoes and Grilled Wye Valley Aspragus.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of lamb if I’m completely honest, but this offering was one of the finest plates of food I have had the pleasure of eating in my thirty-four years on planet earth. Succulent meat cooked to perfection, savoury potato fondants which acted as the perfect starchy backdrop to the big-hitting meat flavours and candy-sweet shallots which charmed the palate in an instant. Complemented with a rich buttery sauce and crisp green beans. Falling short of the infamous ‘When Harry Met Sally’ scene with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, I certainly had a ‘close your eyes and enjoy the moment’ experience at several points throughout this course.
Nick’s main was, likewise, a stunning take on a simple dish. Balanced, confident and seasoned to perfection, the Sauce Meunière was delectably buttery with sharp lemon at the core and accompanied the soft, tender Hake perfectly. Furthermore, the slightly bitter asparagus was a clever ingredient to add into the mix, both in terms of flavour and texture. With every mouthful, Nick and I became more certain that Jason Mead really knows his stuff – in particular his confidence and balance as a chef are to be marvelled at. By the time we finished our main courses, I was confident that whatever Jason placed in front of me was going to be of superb quality, well presented and crafted with passion. There is something refreshing and comforting knowing that you are in expert hands.
So, as we transitioned into dessert-mode, we readied ourselves for yet more surprises. And we were not to be disappointed. For me, a Warm Ale & Date Sponge with Dark Chocolate Sauce and Guinness Granny Gothards Ice Cream and, for Nick, Poached Peach Melba with Raspberry Coulis, Vanilla Granny Gothards Ice Cream and Almond Biscuit. And to add an impressive flourish, Nigel kindly served us with a hand-selected coupling dessert wines – a Château Belingard Monbazillac and Sauternes Gold Château Filhot 1998 respectively.
My sponge was malty, substantial and packed full of flavour, with a wickedly rich chocolate sauce and Nick’s Peach Melba, despite being a dish that neither of us would have naturally chosen from the menu, was a flavour sensation. Both dishes were complemented perfectly by the Granny Gothards ice cream that had been carefully chosen.
And, much like my childhood memories of riding rollercoasters at Disneyland Paris, just when I thought the ride was over, there was one more twist to come in the form of a single espresso with Petit Fours (a chocolate truffle and chilled sticky cube of fudge) each. The perfect final flourish to tie off a truly superb meal. So, sadly, our meal drew to a close and I noted how perfectly satisfied I was. I was certainly replete but I hadn’t been over-fed and, instead, had been served the perfect amount of the most stunning food.
As we sat down to chat a little more with Nigel and Jason, I was impressed with their ethos and approach – a highly personal and refined one. With experience working in some of the finest establishments in the region, I had the sense that there had been a meeting of minds and agendas between them – a synergy between back of house and front of house which is all too rare in an industry sadly sullied by ego and empire building. Not so at The Galley. They exist for one thing and one thing alone… the pleasure and experience of their clientele.
In a culinary world of big flavours, big menus and big waistlines, there is an attractive and impressive simplicity and smallness about The Galley. They have a refreshing and humble self-confidence, a strikingly selective menu, a passion for dealing with truly local suppliers wherever possible, a clear rapport between the kitchen and the front of house and a palpable hospitality that greets you the minute you walk through the front door. They’re really onto something special. And all without an ounce of competition, comparison or imitation in sight.
Yes, some might call their approach old-fashioned but I, for one, think that some things stand the test of time for a reason. In this case, if I were a betting man, I predict that Nigel, Jason and the small but perfectly formed team at the Galley have an incredibly bright future in front of them. They have certainly won over one more new fan in me.
To find out more, book a table or keep up to date with their journey, follow @GalleyTopsham on Twitter.
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook