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Steins fish and chips Falmouth UK

Photograph of Rick Stein, Sandbanks restaurantRick Stein, Sandbanks: ‘The first few dishes that arrive make me shut my snarky face: they’re glorious.’ Photograph: Marc Nazer for the Guardian

Sandbanks, despite its location in an area of natural beauty, is deeply unattractive. That it has one of the highest land values in the world, just behind Tokyo and Manhattan, seems further evidence that the rich have the oddest taste. The drive from Bournemouth is lined with bloated McMansions squatting behind high, prole-repelling hedges – Bishops Avenue-sur-Mer – before finally giving way at the waterfront to ranks of equally ugly modern flats pockmarked with luxury estate agents’ boards. Come the revolution, I’m pretty sure it won’t be stirred up from Sandbanks.

Anyway, right next to one of those luxury estate agents is where Rick Stein has chosen for the latest outpost of his burgeoning empire, a sprawling, pack-’em-in, 200-plus-seater, formerly Cafe Shore. At front is a greige hotel chain of a room dedicated to bar and walk-ins; the rear, past an open kitchen, is a more attractive, duck-egg-blue-and-blond-wood-furnished space with massive windows looking out over the yacht club and Poole Harbour. Legions of staff scurry hither and thither, brandishing enormous menus, a collection of piscine greatest hits (smoked salmon to Dover sole à la meunière), the odd touch of exoticism (seared scallop succotash, barbecued sumac chicken), with a steak or two for the golf club.

Prices are predictably bracing, which dictates our choice of wine: “Rick Stein’s Spanish white”, a frisky, unsophisticated verdejo/viura blend. The first few dishes that arrive make me shut my snarky face: they’re glorious. Oysters from Porthilly in Cornwall (natch), just-shucked, all slippery, briny minerality, come with three feverishly spicy little sausages that have all the crumble and offally pungency of homemade. “Crisp” smoked mackerel salad is a som tam-lite: peanuts, julienned green papaya and mango, sweetened with palm sugar and soured with lime and good fish sauce. Tiny, vicious scud chillies are present and correct, but it’s short on the classic Thai salad’s alluring rankness. The fish is a chewy, not-unpleasing pemmican.

Then an absolute knockout beauty of a dish: cuttlefish risotto of pure inkiness, blackest of black, staining lips and teeth and gums, but worth it for its buttery depth of flavour. The rice is perfect, that almost impossible confluence of soupy and al dente, the seafood all pearly bite. I could eat gallons of the stuff; hell, I would happily bathe in it.

After this, things start to swerve off-message. I don’t hate the Indonesian fish curry, a Stein stalwart, but this is a half-arsed attempt: a watery, primrose-coloured apology with little of the throbbing resonance you should get from basa gede (a basic Balinese spice paste), and none of the expected fragrant thrum of lemongrass and lime leaves; the odd lump of bass (I think; it’s overcooked, so hard to tell), squid and prawns bob disconsolately.

And one true shocker: lobster thermidor. Luxurious classic or hoary warhorse? Who cares? Done properly, I love it. And here it comes with chips. Done deal: sold – for 44 and a half quid. But a small miserable creature arrives, its chunks of meat barely coated with a cheesy snivel of a sauce, as though the tomalley has been stirred through to brackish, throat-clearing effect. The flesh itself is mealy, pappy, soggy, slimy – and 100 other adjectives you don’t want associated with seafood. It absolutely lacks the taut, virginal squeak of freshness. Truly: ugh. This should never have been allowed to leave the kitchen. “Is Mr Stein in there?” I wonder. “He comes in every few weeks, ” we’re told. “But his son is in just now.”

Despite some excellent dishes and the cheery professionalism of the staff, I’m not buying it. We’re flanked by helmet-headed dames ordering grilled salmon (“No miso, please!”) and the only young people appear to be on a grandparents’ treat. It’s all too corporate and slick, overproduced and soulless, safe and anodyne: an M&S cashmere of a restaurant. It is, of course, wildly busy: people pile in even at the most off-peak times. (“Is it because it’s payday?” I idiotically ask a staff member who laughs: “This lot got paid years ago.”)

The Stein family business seems to be expanding at a rate of knots, colonising Newquay, Winchester and more, perhaps making hay while pater familias is still on the telly. To paraphrase Mrs Merton, what was it that attracted Rick Stein to the multimillionaire-infested Sandbanks?

Rick Stein, Sandbanks 10-14 Banks Road, Sandbanks, Poole, Dorset, 00. Open all week, noon-3pm, 6.30-10pm. £40-plus a head, plus drinks and service.

Food 6/10 (9/10 for the risotto)

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