In the middle of the fat bit of the River Exe, and only accessible by boat – though it’s easy – sits a unique restaurant. The views are to die for, says MATT BIELBY, and so is the food…
We love eating on boats, but most of them are moored up at a dock somewhere, accessed by a gangplank, and haven’t moved in years. Not so with Exmouth’s seasonal River Exe Café, a custom-built barge that floats well off shore in the wide, tidal estuary of the River Exe, with Exmouth on one side and Starcross on the other, neither an easy swim away.
This place began as a simple burger and barbecue sort of gaff – ideal fare for hungry watersports enthusiasts and fishermen – but the ambition levels have grown, especially over the last three years, and it’s now offering a range of local dishes (lots of fish, but not exclusively) to rival any waterside restaurant. It runs from the start of April until the end of September, lunchtime through until about 11 at night, then is towed ashore for its annual winter refit.
Staff tend to return each year, including Chef Chris – with his background on super yachts – who’s been here before and means to return next year too.
How to get here? By boat, of course. If you book, you’re given a time to rock up to the ferry steps (actually a ramp these days; don’t be fooled) at the entrance to Exmouth Marina, where you can grab a Puffin water taxi out to the café. Or, if you have your own craft, you can just moor alongside when you feel like it.
But enough about the location, what about the food? Well, it’s generously proportioned, skilfully cooked, well priced, and keen to make the most of top-notch local ingredients. Mussels are from Exmouth itself while the scallops and crab are from Lyme Bay. Pork is from Kenniford Farm at Cyst St Mary; goats’ cheese is from Vulscombe at Tiverton; soft drinks are by Luscombe of Buckfastleigh… but you get the idea.
From the half dozen or so starters we picked the smoked mackerel rillettes with horseradish, vanilla crème fraîche, apple, beetroot and a pea shoot salad (£8.95), and the Lyme Bay scallops baked with coral butter, white port and topped with Parmesan crumble (£9.95). Also tempting: a simple pint (or half pint) of shell-on prawns or those mussels, at starter (£7.95) or main course (£14.95) sizes, prepared a choice of four ways, including with fennel and Pernod or local cider and smoked bacon.
We ducked the tempting sharing platters for the regular mains. Of course there’s beer-battered fish and chips, and beef burgers (think a little under £14 for those), and veggie options like a forest mushroom risotto with Parmesan, truffle oil and asparagus (£13.95). But it’s the more ambitious use of local ingredients that tempted us, so we went for the cracked and baked whole Brixham brown crab served with warm Mediterranean crushed potato salad, buttered samphire, broad beans and spinach (£15.95), and the Devon sirloin of beef topped with garlic and herb butter, roasted tomatoes, mushroom purée, served with truffle and Parmesan fries, watercress chicory and white peach salad (at £22, the most expensive single thing on the menu).
The crab was a mighty beast, and though the claws were ready for you to crack and tease the meat from with your lobster fork, the more polarising brown meat in the body came cheesedup winningly. The beef, meanwhile, had been cooked in a water bath and was tender as you like. Both were hits.
Room for pudding? Not really – but we did it anyway. Everything’s £6.50, including our warm chocolate brownie with peppered strawberries and white chocolate ice cream, and the banana parfait with lime cream and toffee sauce.
It was a windy, highly changeable day when we visited, but inside the snug-but-airy wooden cabin it was all smiles, while outside wetsuit-sporting owners of Glastrons and Zodiacs enjoyed beers and grinned into whatever the weather might throw at them. With food this good and a location to die for, River Exe Café is bound to make our end-of-year list of most memorable meals.
RIVER EXE CAFE, middle of river, Exmouth (catch Puffin water taxi near Point Bar Grill, Exmouth Marina EX8 1XA); 07761 116103