Lunch never got off to the best of starts. The Sat Nav said we’ll be almost an hour early, so I phoned the pub and after a brief discussion managed to change the reservation to one forty-five minutes earlier than planned. Five minutes later and we are stuck in a traffic jam due to a minor accident on a main road, me moaning about needing a wee and chastising the flagrant optimism of getting from Birmingham to Devon in such speed. I try to call, to apologise and explain that the initial time booked is now going to be a struggle, but the lines have now switched to the voicemail to say that service has started and I should send an email. I punch out said email, explaining everything but the wee, though this being Devon my 4g signal wants even less to do with me than my brother. They call. I am fifteen minutes late by their timings, unaware that I had changed the time. I try to explain before I lose signal again, arriving in Tavistock extremely late and unable to find a car parking space.
They thankfully are very understanding by the time I arrive and order a glass of Portuguese red. The Cornish Arms is bigger than I imagined; a double fronted grey bricked pub, packed to the rafters on one of those days between Christmas and New Year where it could be any one of seven and might be day or night or even breakfast. It caught my attention when it made 14 on the Top 50 Gastropub list and on closer inspection, a Bib Gourmand from Michelin also. The menu is the kind of thing that makes it impossible to choose between but choose we do eventually.
From the off you know it’s a place which takes flavour seriously. Chef John Hookers food has the whiff of Tom Kerridge about it; the flavours are brash and there is a basic understanding of fat, salt, and acidity. A scotch egg of Pheasant shot locally on Dartmoor has the gaminess loosened by the addition of a little pork. The centre yolk is jammy, the outside crispy; it is very much a textbook scotch egg. On the side is a jumble of blue cheese and onions pickled with beer, the idea foil against the richness, of the egg. The other starter is cauliflower soup – a simple blend of veg, stock, cream, butter and seasoning – with nutmeg cream, and a chicken tortellini that could be a dumpling in China Town if I closed my eyes. On the side is a white roll made in-house; soft, fluffy and delicate enough to have its own Twitter account. A superb start to the meal.
Mains are as good, if not better. I have ox cheek, slow cooked so that the strands of muscle flake and fall between the prongs of the fork on eating. With it is a carrot cooked in beef fat, a parsley puree, carrot puree, pickled shallots and a gravy that is the very essence of beef. One the side is mashed potato with more of that gravy lapping up at its feet. There is nothing not to love and everything to admire, but none more that the carrot cooked in beef fat packed with flavour. It is great cooking. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything pub food should be.
The same applied to the lamb. Lamb belly, poached and roasted until so soft and yielding it needs the devilled kidneys for texture, which also happens to be a clever way to incorporate a little heat from the mustard. Onions roasted in lamb fat, a spiced puree of burnt aubergine and another killer sauce. Levels of detail with every step and layers upon layers of flavour. They just get it here.
We weren’t intending to have dessert, but given how good the previous dishes – and how appetising the menu was – it seemed silly not to. There is a wedge of Cashel Blue cheese with a rectangle of treacle tart, arguably better than the similar dish I had at Paul Ainsworth. The tart is impeccably made, layered on top with discs of apple and pickled walnut, but what I really love is the apple puree that somehow musk’s the sweetness of the tart. I had souffle of pear and hazelnut, with muscovado and ginger ice cream. Nice, but the weak point of the meal, the souffle was a touch eggy and lacked any real flavour of pear. I’m also not sure what the clotted cream brought to the dish. These are small details, yet when the rest is so good, they stand out.
The bill, with a couple of coffees, some water and a little wine is a few quid under a ton for two . I loved The Cornish Arms; the food is precisely what I want from this environment and I loved that it is fundamentally a pub with people sat at the bar with a pint. I used it as a bridging point to ease the big drive between Birmingham and St Ives, but Tavistock looks big and pretty enough to warrant a trip by itself.