A Hubbub At Hubbox
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Sofy Robertson and Joff Alexander-Frye
It was with great excitement that I attended the taster evening of Hubbox’s brand new restaurant on Catherine Street, just around the corner from Exeter Cathedral.
Hubbox began life in a humble shipping container back in 2012 on Lemon Quay in Truro, Cornwall. It was only intended to last twelve weeks over the festive period. With seven locations spanning across the South West and brand new larger premises in Exeter, the proof of Hubbox’s success is, well, not in the pudding, but rather in the burgers.
Having visited Exeter’s Hubbox when it was situated on Sidwell Street, I enjoyed the quirky vibe and the continuation of the shipping container theme which housed the restaurant’s kitchen. It was not a restaurant that we visited often though, largely due to its size. Now, in much larger premises that span two floors and even include an upper level outdoor terrace, the scent of promise, as well as delicious cooking, was in the air as we entered Hubbox’s new Exeter home.
Previously the premises of The Rum and Crab Shack, it was fantastic to see the transformation that the restaurant had undergone. I expected a similar vibe to its previous Sidwell Street home, and although there were recognisable elements, including the shipping container-style façade for the kitchen, this new design was more mature whilst retaining Hubbox’s quirkiness.
Festoon lighting draped the metal frameworks of booth-style tables upstairs, Edison-type bulbs in all shapes and sizes within glass domes hung low above tables and, a statement feature, a collection of modern chandeliers hung above the stairwell. Exposed and ‘aged’ brick walls contributed to the warmth of the atmosphere and the use of wood and a mezzanine-style structure of plants upstairs contributed to an outdoor-indoor feel.
I feel the need to warn you now, the following content contains a high level of food porn and, through the use of explicit food images and description, is likely to induce salivation. Continue at your own risk to your hunger and healthy January resolutions.
Our first stop, naturally, was the bar. My editor Joff, who is beginning his year off from alcohol, had a freshly made raspberry lemonade and I had the ‘dirty’ version; zingy and fresh. My husband Dave chose the Hubbox Session IPA made by the Harbour Brewing Co, based just outside of Bodmin. I’m not usually a beer drinker, but after taking a sneaky sip of Dave’s, I determined that it would have to be my next drink.
After a good nose around the rapidly filling restaurant, we chose a table upstairs, largely because this was where the food would be emerging. We didn’t have to wait long. First came chicken skins with dehydrated chicken as a salt. Our server explained that Hubbox want to use as much of the animal as possible to minimise waste. The result; a chicken-style pork scratching that went down extremely well with the Session IPA.
This was just the beginning of the culinary journey we were to be taken on by development chef, James Strawbridge, whose speciality is cooking over charcoal. Mini cast iron skillets of padron peppers, seasoned and made extra tangy with a little vinegar, came next, closely followed by cauliflower poppers. These were an unexpected joy; the Indian-style batter held a light spice and the fragrant scent of coconut wafted from the platters as the ‘Straight Outta Hubbox’ crew made their way swiftly between tables and groups of hungry guests.
As we happily devoured everything that came our way, the buzz of conversation and a great selection of music mixed and funked up by the DJ spinning downstairs made for the perfect atmosphere. I certainly hope Hubbox always finds itself this full as the vibe was inimitable.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Hubbox without sampling their burgers and this visit did not disappoint. Wooden boards with mouth-watering arrays of burgers began to appear from the shipping container-style pass. There was your ‘standard’ beef patty; I use inverted commas here because the meat was deliciously local, well-seasoned and perfectly accompanied by its condiments.
Vegan and veggie offerings were present too, the latter demonstrating a subtle mix of spice, chunky chick peas and a thick and fresh minty yogurt sauce. We all agreed, however, that the triumph of the night was the Smoky B. Undoubtedly an example of burger perfection, this mouth-watering morsel’s starring act was the smoked, pulled beef brisket from Launceston beef supplier Philip Warren. The accompanying homemade chunky coleslaw and mustard housed within a bouncy brioche bun from Cornish supplier, Baker Tom’s, made for the perfect supporting acts. The filling to bread ratio was perfect and the flavour was phenomenal with a taste akin to pastrami, yet providing a denser and juicier texture. Dave proclaimed it his favourite for the night.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to choose a favourite as chunks of meaty monk fish with panko crumb came by, sitting on a bed of samphire. Chicken kebab-style open pittas with minty yogurt dressing came as a welcome surprise with a beautiful level of spice and a great hit of garlic. We sampled cardboard boat boxes of dirty fries, which are completely vegan. Cornish potatoes, grown by F.G. Pryor & Son, delivered a salty and spicy hit through the sour mustard and finely chopped jalapeños and onions. Spoiling us completely, a second option of fries arrived later in the evening; fries with chicken gravy. The top layer of fries had extra salt, which was too much for me, but the layer beneath was much less abrasive and packed full of rich chicken flavour. It reminded me of a Canadian poutine with the thick, grainy mustard gravy; the only missing ingredient being the cheese curds.
It’s not often you get to eat like a pig, but for the purpose of journalism, we continued to sample all of the food that came our way. Another lovely culinary surprise was the chicken croquette, which from a distance we had mistaken as a scotch egg. Imagine a warming, wholesome chicken soup. This formed the inner of the croquette with fluffy potato. The outer was a pepped up, beautifully golden-fried crumb.
If I had to pick a favourite for the night, it would have to be the haddock in seaweed batter with salsa verde mayo. The seaweed, although subtle, had a wonderfully unusual flavour and contributed to the salty freshness of the perfectly flaky fish. This, along with the choice and execution of the earlier monk fish, demonstrated Hubbox’s ability to conquer land and sea in terms of their culinary prowess. It also epitomised the importance of choosing quality suppliers, in this case Matthew Stevens, who operates a fishing business in St Ives, Cornwall.
I can’t quite remember the last time I have been so excited by food. Perhaps part of the charm was the unexpected; I knew that Exeter’s Hubbox branch was undergoing a slight re-branding towards more of a barbecue style approach to cooking and thus stepping away slightly from the burgers and dogs. Throughout the evening, we found ourselves pointing to other tables and the passing servers and exclaiming “oooh, I wonder what that is” and keenly trying to make eye contact in the hopes that our table would be blessed with these offerings next. You know it’s a good sign when, no matter how full you are getting, you keep looking to the food hatch for more.
The last time I ate at Hubbox Exeter, I enjoyed my food but couldn’t honestly say that it held an edge above the other culinary delights that Exeter has to offer. Attending the VIP night has drastically changed my mind; a combination of their quirky new digs and buzzy positive atmosphere worked hand-in-hand with the exciting flavour combinations and fantastic friendly service we received. Even development chef James couldn’t keep himself in the kitchen, popping out into the crowds every now and then to deliver food or chat to the guests.
We ended the night on full and satisfied tummies and as we went to leave, we were given one final treat; a Hubbox Goodie Bag packed with local delights; Korev Cornish lager, Baker Tom’s delicious brioche rolls, Tregothnan Estate tea and a small tub of sea salt from the Cornish Sea Salt company amongst other goodies. Although I am a sucker for all food and drink related gifts, my favourite part of the Goodie Bag was the ‘Meet our Suppliers’ leaflet. It was fantastic to see Hubbox celebrating the triumphs of their suppliers and acknowledging the significant part that they play in the company’s success. It was great to see the brand staying so true to their Cornish roots and championing the businesses who supply them with the best food and drink ingredients that Cornwall has to offer.
One thing is for sure, my stomach will shortly be calling me back to the new and improved Hubbox, and I won’t be denying it the pleasure.