Review: Gara Rock
by Melissa Stewart
05 November 2018
Melissa Stewart checks out this recently reopened coastal retreat, and finds a venue that’s brimming with potential
One of the delights of Devon for outdoorsy types is the South West Coastal Path. Nothing quite beats the taste of a refreshing pint and a hearty plate of grub after negotiating a few miles of rugged terrain. This means that Gara Rock should be a coastal walker’s dream. Based in East Portlemouth, near Salcombe, it has recently reopened after a major refurb and offers a boutique hotel, spa and restaurant. The location is stunning, with the hotel literally hugging the coastline and offering breathtaking views of the South Devon coast.
On arrival, we’re enthused to see a number of visitors taking advantage of the outdoor seating area and the atmosphere is buzzing. We’re lucky enough to nab a seat in the restaurant by the window, so we can soak up our lush surroundings. The décor of the hotel is rustic and contemporary, with dark wooden floors, a metro-tiled bar area and lots of leafy green plants. It’s got a chilled vibe and is not at all stuffy, with plenty of families and well behaved pooches milling around.
The challenge for Gara Rock is straddling that balance between catering for coastal walkers who are after some light refreshment, while at the same time creating something a little bit more special for hotel guests and holidaymakers. Looking at the menu, it’s clear that the new proprietors have decided to try to cater for the latter crowd, foregoing your usual café-style sandwiches, jacket potatoes and chips in favour of more ambitious dishes.
Snacks include breakfast radishes and smoked cod’s roe (£4), Coombeshead Farm sourdough (£4), and Porthilly oysters (£18 for six); while sandwich fillings include Devon crab, radish and garden herbs (£11), and salt beef with nettle sauerkraut (£10). There are also meat and fish sharing boards (from £17.50).
We opt to choose from the main lunch menu, which offers a choice of five starters, seven mains and three salads. There’s a range of dishes, with your typical seaside staples of fish and chips, mussels and burgers sitting. One of the delights of Devon for outdoorsy types is the South West Coastal Path. Nothing quite beats the taste of a refreshing pint and a hearty plate of grub after negotiating a few miles of rugged terrain. This means that Gara Rock should be a coastal walker’s dream. Based in East Portlemouth, near Salcombe, it has recently reopened after a major refurb and offers a boutique hotel, alongside fancier fodder, such as duck leg with lentils and salsa verde, and herb ravioli with girolles and chard.
My lunch companion starts with a gazpacho (£6), while I open with smoked mackerel, pickled rhubarb and horseradish (£8.50). The gazpacho packs a Mediterranean punch, evoking sunnier summer days, and it’s a hearty bowlful. The only thing lacking is a leafy garnish or a hunk of that sourdough to go with it. The mackerel fillet is delicious, and the tangy rhubarb makes for the ideal accompaniment. I could have done with a bit more kick in my horseradish but, overall, it is a satisfying Scandi-inspired dish and well presented.
When by the sea, I always have an urge for seafood, so opt for a bowl of fritto misto (£9.50) and a green side salad (£3.50) for main. The prawns are succulent, the whitebait strong and salty, and the squid is sweet and not too chewy. All are encased in a light, fluffy batter and served with a good dollop of aioli. It’s not overly fancy, but hits the right note in our casual chic, coastal setting.
Across the table, my dining buddy opts for the Gara burger, topped with smoked bacon and caramelised onions and served with chips (£14.50). Again, this hits the spot: a perfectly cooked burger, crispy hand-cut chips – a real stomach filler. What lets it down a little is the presentation.
With the foodie trend for burgers (as with gin) still in full swing, one comes to expect a bit more flourish in their delivery, rather than just being plonked on the plate. It’s not a big deal but a bit surprising, given that so much thought seems to have gone into every other detail at Gara Rock.
For dessert, my friend and I decide to share chocolate, olive oil and sea salt (£6). This is, by far, the triumph of the meal. The combination of the rich, velvety ganache together with the smooth oil and sea salt offers a terrifically bittersweet experience. Every spoonful leading to another, and then another…
As well as the food, there’s also an extensive drinks menu. The range of homemade cordials is a nice touch for non-drinkers looking for something a little different. Plus, there’s a good range of local beers on draught, and a refreshingly long list of wines available by the glass.
We come away from our lunch feeling that Gara Rock has lots to offer. The spectacular setting is worth the visit alone, and it’s been beautifully renovated. Add to that, the staff are a delight. They couldn’t have been more attentive or welcoming. Yes, things were a bit chaotic with the service as the restaurant got busier, but it was the first week and these teething troubles are to be expected.
Overall, our foodie experience was a good one; we couldn’t fault anything we had to eat. But it will be interesting to see how the menu evolves in the coming months, particularly as the season slows and the bulk of passing trade will be walkers. If you’re looking for a cup of tea and a filled roll, this isn’t the place for you. Gara Rock has ramped things up a foodie notch, and is doing something different. I wish them every success.