Going the extra mile in search of the UK's best meal
From a gourmet restaurant to a floating estuary eatery, Michel Roux Jr has scoured the country for his new TV show. Jeananne Craig takes a look at some of the tasty treats he has in store.
Michel Roux Jr is no stranger to intricately crafted dishes, perfectly polished silverware and starched white napkins. But, the top chef and TV presenter notes: "As much as I love the fripperies of fine dining, with all its pomp and circumstance, I just wanted to do something completely different."
As a result, Roux Jr has taken to the road for new Channel 4 show Hidden Restaurants, which sees him seek out the most tucked-away eateries and meet the fearless foodies who run them, before setting up a secret pop-up of his own.
"This is my chance to break free from high-end dining and cook simple, beautiful food in a completely new setting," he says.
The Hidden Restaurants foodie pilgrimage begins in Devon, where Roux Jr visits the River Exe Cafe in the Exe Estuary in Exmouth. Located around 20 minutes out to sea, accessible only by water, guests must visit this eatery by boat or water taxi (as Roux Jr says, "It really is in the middle of nowhere.").
But the trek to the cafe - comprised of flatbed barges and a shed - is worth it for a taste of its signature dish, River Exe mussels cooked with cider and bacon.
"However obscure and difficult the restaurant is to find, if it's good enough, customers will come to them," Roux Jr remarks after sampling those "mind-blowing mussels".
Roux Jr's next stop is a restaurant with an arty twist - it's housed in a massive sculpture. The Radic Pavilion, designed by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic to resemble a giant shell, started life in London's Serpentine Gallery and was later taken apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt in Somerset - a process which took around three months to complete.
When Roux Jr visits the epic fibreglass and steel structure, he discovers a dining room is now tucked inside it. But for all its creative credentials and striking setting, the pavilion poses challenges - namely its lack of any proper kitchen facilities. As a result, its chef cooks outside on a firepit, producing delicious golden brown chickens, flame-cooked pheasants and succulent lamb shoulders.
"This place is bonkers, breathtaking and exhilarating all in one," Roux Jr marvels, as he tries his hand at hooking some chickens up on the fire cooker, declaring: "I love this, I just love it."
Deep in the heart of the Somerset countryside - "about as far removed as you can get from my restaurant in Mayfair" - Roux Jr visits James Whetlor at his pop-up Cabrito restaurant.
After learning of the dairy industry's culling of male Billy goats shortly before birth (because they can't be used for milk), Whetlor decided to try and combat the wastage by encouraging people to eat more goat meat.
While Roux Jr notes that goat is a popular meat in his father's native France, particularly at Easter, many UK diners are less enticed. But after devouring his goat meal (slow-cooked for three hours and served alongside summer salad and pulses), the chef notes: "There's just no reason why you shouldn't be buying this stuff, cooking it and eating it. It's gorgeous, delicious."
Caravan sites normally conjure up images of flasks of tea and baked beans cooked over makeshift stoves, but one camp site in Anglesey, North Wales, is bucking the trend.
The Marram Grass Cafe was set up by brothers Liam and Ellis Barrie in a potting shed on their parents' caravan site. But while the location might not sound inspiring on paper, the food certainly is, with an emphasis on quality, seasonal produce - from local mussels to pork from the brothers' own pig farm.
Roux Jr takes inspiration from the food he's sampled and the places he's visited in his own pop-up for the show, The Oast House.
"It reminds me of my childhood, where I grew up in Kent," he says of the remote location. "My best friend lived in an oast house - an old converted barn, where people used to dry hops for making beer. I loved that place and that's why I've chosen to be here."
There's a mussels, sausage and garlic starter in homage to his trip to Exmouth, a Cabrito-inspired goat pie main course (with shop-bought pastry - "this isn't a fiddly, fine-dining dish, I want this to be a welcoming country kitchen pie") and a flame-grilled pineapple dessert with spicy herb salsa and meringues, to reflect his trip to the Radic Pavilion firepit.
It might not be a Michelin-starred menu, but it's been just as lovingly crafted.
- Hidden Restaurants with Michel Roux Jr, Channel 4, Wednesday, 8pm