“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
―Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Sitting in The Boathouse restaurant, watching river life from arguably the finest view in Stratford-upon-Avon, feels very Wind in the Willows-ish.
Life close to the riverbank seems amazingly unchanged through the years. Wooden rowing boats and barges, canoeists and swans slip by reminding one of a simpler more hallowed life.
I’m in this blessed spot to try out the menu at the newly opened restaurant, simply christened The Boathouse. It is an independent, with chef/owner Nick Rowberry overseeing an autumn refurbishment, and the restaurant welcoming diners from November 2019.
Nick’s credentials are impressive. For many years he worked with hospitality guru Susan Hawkins, accruing devoted followers as his amazing culinary skills helped revive the reputations of such pubs as the Fox and Goose at Armscote, the George Townhouse, Shipston, The Chequers, Ettington and The Bell at Stow. More recently he’s done private chef work and worked abroad, before deciding to set up on his own.
My family – teenagers Mery and Syd, and husband Steve – don’t need much persuasion to join me in trying out The Boathouse: “great chef, on the river” does the trick.
As darkness falls the restaurant’s exterior is adorned with stringed lights and looks extra magical as we spot it front-left as we cross over the Tramway Bridge from town and follow the footpath to The Boathouse’s entrance. It’s both surprising and exciting how close to the still and glistening river we are.
The Boathouse is one of the unsung heroes among Stratford’s landmark buildings. Its origins are enigmatically fuzzy – it started as a humble warehouse in the late-1700s-ish, but grew in size and ornateness over the centuries. The downstairs is occupied by Avon Boating, which has been in residence since 1890s. Upstairs has seen a series of occupants; since its 1980s wine bar heyday it’s been a nightclub, French restaurant and, most recently, a Thai restaurant.
Once inside and upstairs it is surprisingly spacious, but what really impresses is its refurbishment. It’s what you might call modern rustic chic, which very much brings out its heritage. Ancient timbers and the exposed original brick wall makes it feel old and solid, while glam touches like chandeliers and colourful velour upholstery offset the muted conservative tones and give it a modern feel. Running the length of the room looking out to the river is an impressively long zinc-topped bar behind which you half expect to spot Tom Cruise shaking up a cocktail. Altogether it achieves that allusive double whammy of being both wowsy and welcoming.
Service is under the auspices of legendary host Mat Faulkner, who has come over from The One Elm, where he was general manager – many Stratfordians will already be familiar with his affable and uber calm demeanour. Indeed service from the whole team was exemplary during our evening visit.
And now to the food… Advanced warning: I was so impressed with Nick’s cuisine that I may go a bit Toad of Toad Hall on the enthusiasm front.
First up the menu. You know how with some menus you struggle to find more than one or two choices? No such problem here. I could have order the lot – and there’s a great choice of menus and price points, including a prix fixe (available 12pm to 7pm weekdays, when two courses are a bargainous £15, and three courses are £18), and a daily specials board. Even the kids, fussy beggars as they are wont to be, didn’t dally or moan.
We begin with perennial favourite crispy fried baby squid – here served with a mango, green chilli and mint dip – the citrusy sauce happily offsets the crunchy morsels that were perfectly crunchy without a hint of grease. For some reason the teens are demons for cream of celeriac soup (one of the few times they get excited about anything vegetable-based) so we have a couple of bowls of that too. It is served with chive, horseradish crème fraiche and crispy onion – it’s both sweet and savoury and incredibly moreish – and the double portion is positively lapped up. As it’s wintry and we are in need of further comforting delights, we also opt to share a baked camembert, which comes with toasted rustic breads and a particularly beguiling apple and rhubarb chutney that adds a sweet and sour bite to the gorgeous gooey globules that the four of us tussle over in a bit to devour more than our fair share. Yes, it’s the sort of sublime cheese dish that inspires family warfare.
Even though Stratford is notoriously landlocked, Nick has been inspired by his restaurant’s proximity to the river to introduce daily fish specials, a prominently displayed board advertises that day’s Marine Cuisine.
For the mains, the Sutherlands go our separate ways. There’s lots to tempt – slow-cooked blade of beef with Marmite potatoes sings to my inner carnivore; while the orzo risotto with baked pumpkin, crumbled feta and crispy kale tempts my vegan conscience (I’m not vegan, but my eco-conscious conscience wants me to be). Fearless burger consumer Syd goes for the Hereford beef option – with American cheese, garnish and added bacon. He declares it “a beauty” – high praise from the often monosyllabic youth market.
After much deliberating – while enjoying a fine glass of French chardonnay from the extensive and reasonably priced wine list – the remaining three of us are reeled in by the lure of the fish specials. Steve goes for the chargrilled halibut, Goan spiced lentil dahl with pickled red onion and coconut crème fraiche; while Mery and I plump for herb-crusted cod, seaweed colcannon with lemon butter and crayfish tails.
In the wrong hands fish, with its delicate flavours and textures, can too often be a dullish affair… But while there may be messing about on boats outside at The Boathouse, inside there’s no messing about in the kitchen: just the superb skills of a master craftsman at work.
I can’t recall when I’ve had a less boring fish dish: the smooth white flakes of squeaky fresh cod are lent extra savoury interest by the slight crunch of their herby coats, the creamy mash offers comfort, while the buttery lemon sauce and seaweed in the mash bring out the nuanced flavours of the fish, making it nothing short of a fishtastic masterpiece. It is sublimely delicious. So absorbed was I by my own dish, I forgot to nick any of Steve’s so have to rely on his summation that it was “thoroughly excellent”.
How do you top that? Unsurprisingly The Boathouse has the answer. Despite being royally stuffed, we make room to share a couple of puds: chocolate and hazelnut torte, espresso Chantilly and toasted marshmallow and sticky toffee pudding, salted caramel sauce with clotted cream ice cream. Both are melt-in-the-mouth, homemade gorgeousness of the highest order.
By the end of our meal we Sutherlands are beatific from being well-fed and finding our new favourite eating spot in Stratford-upon-Avon. It put me in mind of another quote from Wind in the Willows, which I shall leave you with:
“It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.”
To book a table visit www.thestratfordboathouse.co.uk