I’ve arrived at dinner in more conventional ways, it has to be said. But then – fair enough – I usually eat at more conventional restaurants.
Burgh Island is anything but orthodox. This 1920s hotel sits on an island that’s cut off from the mainland when the tide comes in – and, by its prevailing Art Deco style, you may think it’s cut off from the world entirely, not to mention the concept of time. When the water does prevent walking or driving up to the hotel, the sea tractor steps up – a huge beast, built in the ’60s, which transports visitors through the surf atop its beefy wheels.
In hopping off on the other side, we swap one surreal scenario for another – namely what looks like the set of a 1930s film. (Okay, I don’t know if it’s actually been in a film, but it’s definitely been in a music video – and a TV adaptation of a novel by one- time regular resident Agatha Christie.)
The Art Deco hotel received a cash injection to the tune of millions recently, bringing the 90-year- old venue – originally built by filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold – back to its former razzle-dazzle glory, reminiscent of the days when it would welcome the likes of Noel Coward and Winston Churchill.
Rooms are individually decorated with ’30s furniture – right down to the vintage lamps, sideboards and wardrobes. Our suite’s balcony looks out onto the ‘mermaid pool’ – a natural, secluded lake that’s filled by the sea – and the rolling greenery that the beach gives way to, complete with rabbits hopping smugly around, as if showing off to visitors that they get to live in this picture-postcard landscape.
And so, onto the food (sorry for the wait, but there’s a lot of ground to cover here, you know). There are a couple of dining options for both guests and non- residents: the black-tie restaurant housed in the Grand Ballroom and the recently launched – hence the reason for this particular trip – seafood restaurant, The Nettlefold. (Also on the island is a third option: 14th-century pub, The Pilchard Inn.)
The hotel’s more casual dining room – in as much as there’s no formal dress code – The Nettlefold still has plenty of ’20s glam. The floor is black and white check, tables are cloaked in pristine white linen and retro mirrors and lamps sit on the walls. There’s a light and airy feel here, the pastel blues and white reflecting the coastal scenery that the room looks out onto (the greenery of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is visible beyond, too).
The food is sourced from within 30 miles – why wouldn’t it be, with this local bounty? – so there are lobsters and scallops caught in Beesands just the other side of Salcombe, and sea bass and sole fresh from the Brixham day boats.
West Country oysters (£3 each) come in all kinds of guises; I knock back a Japanese-style motoyaki number (you’ll see British, French and Asian inspiration on the menu), which is topped with a creamy sauce and baked until golden.
Caviar is also a draw of this menu, although, naturally, not a cheap one at £48 for 10g. After a brief and unnecessary when-in-Rome-style exchange between my dinner date and me, both of us having already made up our minds individually, we go all in. A small mound of tiny brown-black spheres is contained in a glass bowl, suspended over ice, with blinis, finely chopped shallot and a quenelle of sour cream sat alongside. Waves of earthiness and oceanic flavours
spill over my tongue as I roll the soft, tiny beads of sturgeon roe on the roof of my mouth. For starters proper (got there in the end), hand- dived king scallops (£14.50) had been seared for golden crusts and almost melting middles, and come with cauliflower and a rich and mellow black garlic purée.
We seem to barely be able to make a dent in the mound of spaghetti vongole (£20), the pasta flecked with chilli and parsley, and tangling up a generous number of clams. Honestly? We crave more oomph in flavour and bite from the thin spaghetti. Beesands lobster Thermidor (market price) arrives on a bed of salty sea veg with edible flowers. It’s impressive looking, although the shell’s fleshy, cheesy filling is firm and lacking delicateness. The meat to be found in the claws is soft and plump, though, and we clear out those pincers entirely.
There are myriad reasons to visit this magical Art Deco hotel: the scenery, the decor, the history – and, yes, the food too.
Burgh Island Hotel, Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon TQ7 4BG; 01548 810514