“ River Cottage / Local produce stores and canteen „
This is a review of River Cottage Canteen, Axminster (between Dorchester and Exeter). I went with my family last Sunday as we were in the area on a family holiday. We went as my sister is a big River Cottage fan and she has been to the canteen several times before and always had good things to say about it. She has also been to the 'actual' River Cottage and the Canteen most certainly works out a lot cheaper!
*About River Cottage*
Most people would have seen River Cottage on channel 4 - the 'lovechild' of Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. This tv series was set at the original River Cottage which is an old game keepers lodge. Since then the River Cottage brand has gone from strength to strength, with F-W extending the River Cottage Headquarters, further tv series and books. The RC brand now also includes cooking workshops, catering for corporate events, various RC events (such as foraging and fishing) and you can even get married at RC!
Although we went to the Canteen in Axminster there are now 3 canteens in total. There is one in Plymouth and one has recently opened in Bristol.
The Axminster Canteen is open 7 days a week - Tuesday-Saturday it is open 9am-10pm (which seems a fairly early finish time for a restaurant) and Mondays and Sundays the canteen is open 9am-5pm. The deli part is open every day 9am-5pm. Breakfast, lunch and dinner options are available at the Canteen.
We booked ahead to make sure we had a table. I am really glad we did as through our 2 1/4 hour stay we saw several groups get rejected (although some lucky groups did also get in without a reservation). The other reason for booking was that my father is disabled and I wanted to ensure that we got a table suitable for his needs. On booking I made it clear that we had a person with disabilities in our group and on our arrival were welcomed and seated on the table nearest the door. Although this was really convenient and ideal for my dad, it also meant that we got interrupted by the door opening and closing in a steady stream of new customers. I suppose however you cannot have it both ways!
The other slight issue with the setting was that there was nowhere nearby enough for us to park so we had to drop my dad off outside and drive to the local Co-op which is approximately a 5 minute walk away. This was not a major issue as it wasn't raining and the weather was ok, however some dedicated disabled parking would have been nice. There was some parking outside - enough for around 10 cars and this was set around a very quirky old clock tower - unfortunately parking was full (and very tight - not sure if we could get our van in there)! In any case our little walk around the village was very nice and from what we see Axminster seems a very nice and quaint little town.
As you walk through the door you are immediately met by the deli on your right hand side, then there is a small eating area on the left and further beyond this are the toilets which are opposite (not directly!) the cooking area and the main area of the canteen. (The toilets I tried and tested - there were ample of them and they were clean)!
We were greeted immediately by the lady serving front of house. There was an additional waiter who served the few tables at the front also who ensured we were seated. Both were very friendly and straight away gave us the menu for today.
Our table was long and gigantic in size and made of a very sturdy wood. On one side we had chairs and the other a bench. Although the bench was comfy it was pushed up against the wall and as we were fairly close to the other table it meant that it was a struggle for the person on the end to get out. All in all it didn't feel cramped, I just think this was an issue to do with the table being so large!
On the table were glasses, cutlery, paper napkins and a jug of water, chilled and ready for us which I though was a nice touch. The area seemed very clean and tidy and there are no complaints here! As I was sat next to a window I saw that the window was a big fold out one which would probably be really nice when open in the height of summer - perhaps opening up the opportunity for dining outside also?!
There was a wall of RC books alongside the canteen which was stocked high (and I was a little worried would tumble over)! I t was nice to see how many different books they do though and even though I was tempted I didn't buy one! The staff were ok about people picking up the books and reading whilst waiting which was nice.
I cannot recall exactly what was on the menu and it does tend to change frequently at RC however the starters consist of what they call 'together' and 'smaller'. The 'together' consists of a couple of different sharing platters (veggie, meaty and fishy). There were around 5 or so 'smaller's' which was a mixture of dishes consisting of fish, pate, soup etc.
We went straight for the main course or what RC call 'bigger'. There were around 5 mains on the menu that I can remember with an even balance between fish, meat and veg. Prices for mains varied between £13.95 being the highest (for the beef) and £9.75 (for the salad) which I think is fairly reasonable. There were also sides of chips, greens and bread (which after seeing the small but perfectly formed portion sizes I wish I had ordered)! They had a children's menu which consisted mostly of smaller portions of the adult dishes but also had falafel on it.
So three of us went for the traditional Sunday lunch of beef cheek. I didn't quite know what to expect but wasn't disappointed! The beef came along with some gorgeous fluffy roast potatoes, greens and a lovely gravy. Although there weren't many potatoes and greens there was plenty of meat and this almost led me to think that ordering sides is a standard expectation. In any case the meat was very tender and the greens were cooked perfectly (not too soggy and not too crisp)! My sister and father had the mackrel with new potatoes and I didnt hear any complaints from there!
To drink my sister and mother had one (or two or three) cheeky elderflower sparkling wines with a brandy soaked cherry. The rest of us after being a bit worse for wear the night previous went for the lemonade (although the waiter got mine wrong and brought me a raspberry drink?! I was too hungover to care..). Mots of the soft drinks of the menu were luscombe drinks which were nice but a bit pricey at almost £3.00.
'Sweetier and cheesier' or the sweets menu consisted of a cheeseboard, jelly and ice cream, fruit compote and an apple crumble. Still on my hangover I skipped this bit but my sister had the apple crumble with cream (which was absolutely stunning - warm, tangy and perfectly baked). My mother had the elderflower jelly and ice cream which she felt was a bit disappointing (but then it is jelly and ice cream)!
All in all our server was very polite and well mannered although a little keen to get us out of the building maybe, he quickly took the hint! When booking we were not told about any restriction on our table which I felt was nice. I do wonder if there were restrictions however as our waiter did seem keen for us to leave before I had finished my food - very apologetic also however!
The service was however very efficient considering the place was busy. I am glad we got to sit in the front as I think sitting in the back nearer the kitchen would have been noisier and probably hotter, being so close to the kitchen. Every time I went to the toilet I could hear the cooks shout service which must be a bit annoying for the back room diners. At the same time it is nice to be able to see your food being prepared and the people cooking it.
After our food we went across to the deli. The deli sells amongst other things wines, jams, oils, teas, meats, cheese and pies. We bought some pies and some elderflower sparkling wine. The lady serving us was very polite and also very fun, striking up playful banter and showed genuine interest in our holiday and if we had enjoyed our stay. However she was probably one of the slowest servers I have ever come across. She did apologise, saying that it was only her first day but still I felt myself going grey the amount of time she took to cut the cheese and eventually put everything through the til! Luckily whilst she was cutting the cheese I did go for a wonder around the deli, and glanced my eye over a 10% off voucher. I enquired further with the lady serving me who stated that the waiter should have given this to us on paying or food bill as customers who eat at the Canteen are entitled to the 10% discount.
All in all I would probably visit again if I was in the area as this was a good, scrumptious dining experience but I wouldn't go out of my way.
It was a cheerful evening in Devon, though not too warm. Best Friend, her brother, The Boyfriend and I were off out to dinner. Having seen the price of going to the "real" River Cottage and realising that the frizzy haired Hugh wouldn't be there to kill or pick our food, we opted instead to visit the cheaper River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.
LOCATION & RESTAURANT
The town centre location meant we were unable to park near the restaurant, but the Co-op car park a little further down the hill suited nicely and we approached the Canteen in the dusk, past a pretty church and some unusual shops. You enter through the shop, selling Hugh's books from the TV series, bottles of local beer and a deli counter of cheese. At first glance, it seems a little cramped but behind it all, a big high barn of a room opens out.
The image in my head was of a snug, old-fashioned restaurant with big fireplaces and wonky chairs. Something along the lines of a Brakspear pub before the horrendous gastro bug bit, but it couldn't have been further from the reality. The canteen is pale and pastel, with wooden stairs on one side leading out to a raised garden. It feels light, airy and modern and the cascade of battered pots and pans arranged artfully down the wall sets it off quite nicely.
We'd booked in advance, but the restaurant was only around a third full. On being shown to our table we were reminded that we had to be out by 8:50. Apparently they'd explained this to Best Friend on the phone - you only get a set amount of time to eat. It was 7:15 by the time we were seated and at this point we weren't too concerned by the strange timetabled eating, so we started to relax and look at the drinks menu. The waitress tried to rush us straight into selecting the meal, but the menu is handwritten on chalk boards at either end of the room, so we needed some time to look.
Best Friend and I ordered the Elderflower Bubbly and The Boyfriend got a bottle of stinging nettle beer. Best Friend's brother asked for the lemonade, only to be told that they'd probably run out and he'd be lucky to get a bottle. It did seem a bit strange that they'd run out of lemonade at half past seven on a Saturday, but this 'running out' turned out to be a continuing theme with the canteen.
Our drinks came with a sweet little plate of four miniature biscuits, smothered in some kind of meat paste. Although this was a nice thought, Best Friend's Brother and I are both vegetarian. Luckily, The Boyfriend and Best Friend are carnivores, so the gesture wasn't entirely redundant. We chose our starters, Best Friend and her brother having the goats cheese toast, while The Boyfriend bravely picked pigeon and I had the courgette soup.
The starters were delicious; my soup was warm and perfectly textured and seasoned despite tasting homemade. My only criticism is that I would have loved some bread with it and instead I got a strange swirl of oil. The Boyfriend's portion of pigeon went down in seconds with a few jokes about road kill and Best Friend and her brother were just as complimentary about their Goat's Cheese.
The starter portions had been small and when the main course arrived, this didn't look any bigger. The Boyfriend loved his Sea Bass and Best Friend enjoyed her chicken. Needless to say, I didn't sample these and Best Friend's Brother and I had the only meat-free choice on the menu. This was gnocchi in a tomato sauce and was truthfully one of the best meals I have ever had in a restaurant. The gnocchi melted in my mouth, the tomatoes tasted unbelievably fresh and the cheese was mellow, soft and subtle. The whole dish was light and fluffy and graceful.
The waitress came to clear our plates and snappily demanded to know whether or not we were having pudding. I asked politely if we had time, but she pulled a face and said she'd just get the bill. With only 15 minutes left before we absolutely had to get out, we were cutting it a bit fine. So, no coffees or sweets. It was a bit of a shame as I had plenty of room and I'd been eyeing the upside down cake.
Another girl returned pretty quickly with the bill and I paid by card. For some bizarre reason she ran through this script of really insincere questions with us while handing over the receipt. "Have you eaten here before?" we shook our heads. "Are you here on holiday?" Best Friend's brother volunteered a yes. There was no interest in our answers and after we got back to the car we all commented on just how awkward that moment really was and had a good laugh about it.
The meal came to roughly £110 for all four of us, with one drink each, one starter and a main course. Compared to London prices, that's not that bad and we didn't eat out anywhere else locally to compare it to.
A couple of days later, we'd had no fresh fruit or vegetables at all, just burgers and fry-ups. We'd been bailing out the tents as the Bank Holiday monsoon lashed down around us and everyone was a little short on dry clothes and holiday spirit. It seemed like a good idea to head down to the canteen again, rather than suffer the evils of trying to light the gas camping stove in freezing fog.
The breakfast menu was short and sweet. The Boyfriend wanted the bacon roll on the menu; the description did look pretty good as it was local bacon in some kind of special roll from the local Punch and Judy Bakery. It turned up looking remarkably disgusting, apparently they had no rolls and had just used two thick slabs of shop-bought white bread to encase the bacon, which was almost entirely fat. Best Friend and I had ordered the poached fruit with granola. They had no poached fruit so they just gave us yoghurt each. The granola wasn't granola; it was a couple of spoonfuls of Dorset Cereals Muesli. The only person who got what they ordered was Best Friend's brother, who randomly had a cream tea.
In a way, I wish we'd stuck with the memories of dinner. The breakfast was pretty dire and there was no discount or apology offered, despite all the substitutions. It took ages to get a teaspoon as there were none in the self-service cutlery basket and The Boyfriend was put out at the lack of ketchup with his bacon roll, especially when we saw it brought out to the table next to us. Rather than cheering us all up, it just made us feel damp and skint. We had a look round the shop for souvenirs and gifts, but left empty handed.
Breakfast at the canteen gets a pretty low score from me; you'd do better in the nearest Wetherspoons.
The Ladies consists of a single toilet, hidden behind a map on the wall at the end of the restaurant. It was somewhat grim on the night we went for dinner, poorly lit with a rustic sort of earth and concrete floor. There was toilet paper all over the place and the cramped sink wasn't something you'd want to wash your hands in. It seemed a bit wrong given the publicity surrounding this place and the number of diners. Luckily, this part of the world does public toilets brilliantly and there are warm, clean, well-lit ones with a proper sink in the Co-Op car park just down the hill from the canteen.
Overall, the food we had for dinner at the canteen was something special and made our visit worthwhile. I'd highly recommend booking an evening there, but not wasting your money on breakfast. The food (in the evening) and atmosphere are great, but the service and facilities are somewhat hit and miss. Based on a balance of these things, I'm going to give three stars. I'd probably risk going back to try the lunch menu if I'm in the area again.
River Cottage Local Food Store & Canteen
Trinity Sq, Axminster, EX13 5AN