Menu Review – The Salutation Inn, Topsham
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
In a world where the loudest voices are sometimes the ones that get heard – for better or worse – there is something refreshing about understated, limelight-avoiding people who have a level of self-confidence that doesn’t hunger for fruitless attention. So it is also in the world of food and drink. In a culinary world of big flavours, big portions and big egos, it can sometimes be the very cuisine itself that falls out of the limelight, relegated to the shadows and unable to vie for the attention that it so merits.
However, there are some producers, proprietors and restaurateurs who do everything possible to allow their cuisine to do the talking – willing to stand back and enjoy the relationships, reputation and accolades that come from giving food and drink the love and respect that it deserves. The Salutation Inn in Topsham is just such an establishment.
At the kind invite of owners Tom & Amelia Williams-Hawkes, I recently had the absolute pleasure of spending a couple of hours dining in their beautiful GlassHouse Café – their 45-cover glazed atrium which runs adjacent to their 30-cover restaurant. I knew a little bit about Tom and Amelia from friends Harry Wild and Nick Hook (renowned freelance writer and photographer respectively), who had told me a bit about their story and their award-winning business. And so, Nick and I met outside The Salutation Inn with expectant hearts and hungry stomachs and, even with the little that I had heard, I knew that I was in for a treat.
From the moment that we arrived, we were given a warm, friendly, down-to-earth yet professional service from the front-of-house (FOH) team. There are few things more important to a smooth experience in a fine dining environment than the FOH staff ‘knowing their onions’.
In some cases, that actually means knowing a lot about onions but, more generally, an FOH team who know the story behind their menu, the origin of the ingredients, the source of the meat and fish, the more subtle finesse ingredients and the sometimes-hard-to-pronounce names of non-British delicacies are worth their weight in gold for establishments like The Salutation Inn. Our waiting staff Kate and Ben had clearly been impeccably trained, had an excellent table-side manner and struck the difficult balance between personality and professionalism with aplomb.
As our attentions turned to our rumbling tummies, I was impressed to find an attractive Prix Fixe lunch on the menu, offering a fine-dining experience between midday and 2.30pm each day. I was genuinely spoiled for choice with an array of dishes that, in terms of complexity, you would expect to find on an evening menu. Yet, there was a light and playful touch to the two or three course menu which denoted an expert chef’s eye, making it accessible and attractive in the middle of the day too.
As someone who grew up in a seafood-allergic household, I never tried basic ocean fare growing up until, about a year ago, I decided that I wanted to stop saying ‘no’ out of habit and try as many new foods as possible – even the ones that scared me!
So, despite seeing other dishes on the Prix Fixe that I would have usually ordered before a waiter or waitress could say “And what would you like sir?”, I opted for Duck Liver brûlée with burnt lemon and hazelnut for starters, followed by Local Seafood Risotto with Parmesan and then asked for a surprise for dessert. Nick, on the other hand, went for the Smoked Haddock Mousse with Parsnip Espuma and Poached Quails Eggs, followed by Greendale Farm Top Rump Beef with Bourguignon Garnish, Crispy Onions and Pancetta. He decided not to opt for dessert, but that didn’t quite end up panning out as he had planned…
As we awaited our starters and took in our atrium surroundings, our palates were kickstarted with some beautiful home-baked bread accompanied by olives, homemade crisps and salted nuts. The first of our liquid accompaniments arrived in tow – some Devonia water (the only water company in the whole of the UK who washes, sterilises and reuses their glass bottles) as well as a non-alcoholic beer for me.
As Nick and I started to catch up on work, family life and reminiscing about early 90s hip-hop, our starters arrived, bringing with them scents and an aesthetic which were both impressive and inviting. Moreover, the pairing of flavours within my starter was something really special. I rarely find lemon powerful and tarte enough for me when I eat out, but the burnt lemon reduction and zest that accompanied the Duck Liver Brûlée packed a real punch when tasted in isolation. When coupled with the smokiness and full-flavour of the duck, however, the combination of tastes was truly exceptional. And all complemented by the underlying texture and aftertaste of the hazelnuts too. A stunning starter.
Nick’s Smoked Haddock starter was well-structured, both in its presentation and in its flavour profile. The two quails eggs hidden within the mousse gave him that child-like surprise that comes with a new or unexpected culinary discovery. A perfect Spring-time starter in every way.
As we polished off every last bit of our starters, we were unexpectedly joined for a few minutes by Nick’s partner Harry and their beautiful infant son Elliot. Passing on their afternoon stroll, they popped in to say ‘hi’ and Elliot did what he does best…charming the socks and shoes off of everyone he meets. It was a delightful breather between courses and only went to add to the feeling of community that one feels when walking into The Salutation Inn.
As our main courses came out of the kitchen, I caught sight of the Seafood Risotto that I had ordered and, momentarily, wondered if I had metaphorically bitten off more than I could chew. With such a weak foundation of experience in terms of eating seafood, I was fleetingly gripped with a mild panic that I had ordered something special and top quality that I just wasn’t going to be able to enjoy.
I would be lying if I said that I ate all of it but let me tell you something…the dish was so well-seasoned and plated that I tried almost every single bit of seafood on the plate – something I would never have dreamed of being able to do even a year ago. It was plated in such a way that the dish felt separated into bite-size chunks, which seemed to reduce the feelings of anxiety around ‘the unknown’ for me.
Whether it was the Smoked Haddock, Pollock, Salmon and Scallops or the Wild Rainbow Trout, Red Gurnard or Prawns, I tried every single ingredient on the plate except the Mussels. I wasn’t quite that brave. One day I will be though and experiences like this will be the reason why. The subtle addition of Samphire, Sea Vegetables and Parmesan into the dish helped my palate to accustom to the flavour combinations by providing some familiar tastes in the mix too. I genuinely enjoyed this dish far more than I thought my newbie seafood palate would do.
Nick’s main course was a flavour powerhouse. Top Rump of Beef from Greendale Farm just down the road, with a Bourguignon sauce and Crispy Onions that reached up from the plate and gave your taste buds a punchy taste-combo akin to one you might find in a local boxing gym. With a garnish of Romanesco broccoli, green beans and pancetta, the dish felt inherently Spring-like and was about as close to comfort food as you are likely to find within a fine dining environment.
After letting our mains start to digest over a chat about beards and work-life balance, we sampled from their Cheese Board, my personal highlight being a Baked Camembert served in warm Garlic Oil with Quince Jelly, homemade flatbread and Roasted Walnuts.
Our meal at The Salutation Inn was topped off with a selection of desserts made by in-house Head Pastry Chef, Nikoletta Patkos Hancock. With bursts of colour, injections of flavour and fusions between typically sweet ingredients and some slightly unexpected ones, we were treated to some really top-notch patisserie. Highlights included a Rhubarb and White Chocolate Slice with Rhubarb Jelly, Pistachio Ice Cream and a Matcha Green Tea Crumb as well as a Strawberry and White Chocolate Mascarpone Slice with a beautiful Praline base.
As if my time at The Salutation Inn hadn’t been good enough, I was treated further to a chat with Amelia and then a guided tour around the premises by Tom. I was struck by how friendly and down to earth they both were and the passion that they so clearly hold for what they do and also for the local community.
With over 100 years of hospitality in Tom’s ancestry, and with both Tom and Amelia growing up in pubs, it clearly runs in the blood on both sides of the family. There is a youthful energy coupled with a mature wisdom and self confidence that exudes from them both, which suggests a long and successful future ahead of them. With Tom’s unquestionable genius behind the pass and Amelia’s personable and refined FOH approach, The Salutation Inn can only continue to be the magnetic culinary destination which it has already established itself as.
As I headed back to Grow HQ with a full stomach and an even fuller heart, I reflected on my time with Tom and Amelia. It was obvious that, after nearly seven years of hard work and restoration, The Salutation Inn has turned from a derelict building in need of some real care into a mecca for both local admirers and food buffs from further afield. With their core ingredients of excellence, attention to detail, friendliness and placing a high value on the local community, they have cooked up something really special which brings joy, quality and a personal touch to the local food and drink scene.