Rick Stein's newly opened Sandbanks restaurant
PUBLISHED: 10:31 11 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:30 12 January 2016
Rick Stein's latest venture is a harmonious blend of family talent and fabulous local seafood at a stunning waterside location. Sue Quinn went to meet the first family of fish at their newly opened Sandbanks restaurant
Rick Stein looks more dapper today than he does on the telly, in navy blazer and crisply pressed collared shirt. Yet he seems so familiar, with those slightly sad eyes and easygoing charm, that I feel like I’ve met him many times before.
This isn’t surprising really, as he’s been on our television screens for 30 years now, amiably persuading us to eat lots of fish (especially stuff caught locally) and whisking us away on foodie adventures around Britain, Europe and beyond. Today he’s in Dorset to open his newest restaurant, Rick Stein Sandbanks. And what a sparkling, shiny jewel in the crown of his expanding seafood empire it is.
Stein now operates ten eateries in the UK, including the original Seafood Restaurant in Padstow that started it all in 1975, plus a cookery school in Cornwall and a restaurant on the east coast of Australia a few hours drive south of Sydney. But even by his own high standards, Rick Stein Sandbanks, perched on Poole’s famous ‘platinum peninsula’ with sea views to the back and front, is a big deal. With seating for 210 people, it’s now the largest restaurant in the Stein group and required a “big investment” to transform it into the expansive, swanky, light-flooded space it now is.
Stein, 68, says he mentally bookmarked the location when he chanced upon the area while filming the Seafood Lovers Guide to Britain and Ireland back in 2000. “I just remember thinking this is really nice, having the sea on one side and Poole Harbour on the other,” he recalls. “I knew it could be a really good place for a restaurant, although I had no idea how high the property values were! It just felt nice and I’ve always liked the fish on the south coast.”
Stein had to bide his time. It was only while work was being done on the Rick Stein Winchester branch, which opened in 2014, that he learned that a restaurant on the spot he had eyed up all those years ago – the well-known Café Shore – was up for grabs after being damaged by fire. “I came to have a look at it with my son Ed and we all decided it was a place we wanted to go. I think it’s perfect for us.” By us, he means his clan; the business is now a family affair and, on the eve of its grand opening, there are Steins everywhere I look.
Eldest son Ed, 38, an artist and sculptor by trade, works alongside Rick’s ex-wife Jill on interior design; middle son Jack, 35, the group’s executive chef, works on the food with dad; and youngest son Charlie, 30, works for The Vintner wine merchants in London and selects tipple for the restaurants.
Working with ex-wives and children – isn’t that a recipe for grief?
“It is and it isn’t,” admits Stein, a tinge wearily. “On the whole we try and have different departments. You talk to family businesses and the trouble happens when everybody wants to be the boss. But with us, it’s finding our own area and just doing that.”
One thing the family agrees on is the need to give each restaurant in the group its own character so they don’t become bland links in a chain. This risk is very real; Sandbanks is part of a rollout of Rick Stein restaurants beyond Cornwall (there’s another planned for 2016 – the family is keeping shtum about the location, but it’s not on the coast). “It is a worry,” Stein concedes. “I think we will be considered a bit chainy but we’re not. This is a family business and each restaurant that we open is all about where it is.”
For Sandbanks, this means a menu that is true to the Stein hallmark of simple, classic seafood, yet one that will eventually have a Dorset feel. Stein devised the opening menu in collaboration with son Jack. “What I tend to do is write a menu off the top of my head and Jack then says this is rubbish, this won’t work, then I’ll try to justify it,” he laughs.
It’s studded with delicious Stein signatures like turbot hollandaise, Dover sole a la meunière and lobster thermidor, but – happily – it also contains a few snazzier seafood and meat dishes. Stein says he expects the menu to evolve over time, as the team develops relationships with Dorset producers, and his Cornwall-based seafood supplier (who has worked with Stein for decades) seeks out locally caught ingredients especially for the new Sandbanks outpost. Son Charlie is also keen to explore Dorset wines and spirits once the restaurant finds its feet.
It’s a smart move to be flexible – Sandbanks is an idiosyncratic place. Famous for being one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world with its multi-million pound waterfront homes, it’s also a popular destination for bucket-and-spade holidaymakers in the summer. It will be no easy feat to appeal to both groups – but the building’s magical makeover by ex-wife Jill and son Ed shows the family’s flair for design and their commitment to making it work.
At the front of the restaurant, facing the beach, they have raised the height of the glass folding doors to allow more light to flood in during the winter and to open out the space when the doors are flung open during the summer. Limed oak tables and floors, squishy leather banquettes in muted tones, exposed brickwork and a fabulous fish mosaic on the floor in the entrance give this section of the restaurant a relaxed coastal vibe. “I’m hoping to get a lot of people off the beach really,” Stein says. “We are planning to have a menu that encourages people to come in for mussels and chips, or a bowl of fish soup.”
Head up the stairs at the back of the restaurant and the kitchen comes into view, all gleaming stainless steel and chefs’ whites. Around the curve is the more formal dining room, and then you see it – a wall of picture windows framing the most astonishing views of Poole Harbour.
With so many spokes in his business wheel these days, Stein won’t be a regular fixture at Sandbanks, sadly. He has more restaurants to open and has just started filming another television series about foodie escapes to Europe that can be done in a weekend. Currently he divides his time between his home in London and his business HQ in Padstow. But he aims to pop into Sandbanks once a month or so and hopes to get to know the area better. He’d also like to involve himself in the local food scene, including the multi award-winning Dorset Seafood Festival in Weymouth. Talking to him its evident that his passion for supporting local producers – captured so brilliantly in his award-winning Food Heroes television series in 2002 – is still as keen as ever. “I’ll get involved, for sure,” he says. “There is certain sophistication in the UK about food from particular parts of the country like Dorset. And the things that make a restaurant special are your local fish, your local butter, or whatever. All that sourcing locally stuff is really important to us.”
In the meantime, Stein is busy accepting plaudits from locals who have popped into the restaurant to congratulate him on its transformation, have their photo taken with him and pat him on the back. Like me, they seem to feel they know him, and Stein seems genuinely touched. “I did ask someone why we couldn’t just bring our stuff from Padstow and just work from here,” he says. Possibly, he’s only half joking.
The eldest of the Stein offspring, Ed started off working in the kitchen but decided it wasn’t his forte and headed off to train as a stonemason and sculptor. He did stints at Michelangelo’s marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, but decided to return to the family business in 2014 as the creative lead on all interior design for the business, working alongside his mother Jill and his wife Kate.
“We’ve got a coastal chic feel on this one, so we went for light stains on the woodwork and trying to give it a fresh New England feel,” he says of their new venue on Banks Road. “We’re not fine dining, we’re accessible restaurateurs, so we’re hoping that people will feel comfortable to come in and have mussels and chips straight from the beach.”
The middle Stein offspring, Jack, started as a kitchen porter in The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, aged 12, and worked there as a waiter while he studied at university. His father tried to deter him from being a chef but the lure of the kitchen was too strong. In 2002 he started to work his way up the ranks, doing stints in kitchens around the world. He was made Executive Chef of all Stein restaurants in 2013, and oversees the Padstow Seafood School.
“It’s the old man’s menu, almost completely,” Jack says of the food served across the group. “A few of the dishes are mine, but my job is to make sure the style remains true to Rick’s belief in simplicity.” Jack does have plans for a restaurant of his own “something with a community conscience” – but is waiting for the right time “and someone to commission me!” he laughs.
The youngest Stein offspring, Charlie learned about wine during stints helping out front of house at The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, where his aunt Roni Arnold is sommelier. Growing up Charlie also met leading figures in the wine industry, and visited vineyards regularly with the family. “Cheffing wasn’t for me,” he confesses. “I wanted to make my own mark, but my life and blood was the restaurant. Loving wine so much, I thought that was a good way to do it.”
In 2010 Charlie helped to set up The Vintner, a specialist wine merchant in London, where he works full time. But his “heart and soul” is in the family business, for which he helps design and source the wine lists. He is hoping that the offering in their Sandbanks restaurant will evolve according to local tastes but already includes some “really good” American wines and delicious white Burgundies. “I’m looking for recommendations for Dorset wines because English wines are definitely on the up,” he adds.
Jill co-founded the business with then-husband Rick in 1975 and is acknowledged to be a key driving force behind its success over the last 40 years. Jill received an Honorary Doctorate of Business in 2011 for her outstanding achievements in hospitality and was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to the restaurant industry.
Though the Steins divorced in 2008, Jill continues to share the running of the company with Rick and the family, focussing on interior design. She also runs a successful interior design business outside the Stein empire.
As a child, Jill recalls spending holidays at Sandbanks with her aunt and uncle. “I always knew it would be the perfect location for a restaurant,” she says. But even after all these years she still finds opening a new restaurant stressful. “The bar goes up every time we open one, particularly here in Sandbanks because there are such high expectations,” she says. “But it keeps me going, it’s like a drug really.”
Rick Stein Sandbanks
• 10-14 Banks Road, Poole, BH13 7QB; 01202 283000; rickstein.com
• Opening times: Lunch 12 noon – 3pm / Dinner 6.30pm – 10pm