Words by Rosie Cattrell
A story of fine flavours, a passionate craft and shared celebration during an exclusive night with Michael Caines at The Harbourside Refuge.
The arrival of spring in the sleepy fishing village of Porthleven brought with it a strange feeling of excitement which hung over the harbour as we made our way past the bobbing boats and buoys that find home in the water below. Though quiet, for now, the village was alive with an atmosphere of anticipation for the weekend ahead, a date for the diary that had been three years in the making. After cancellations that would break the hearts of locals and food lovers for two years in a row, the much-loved Porthleven Food Festival was finally in sight, and this strange and wonderful Thursday evening in April would mark the beginning of a wild weekend that would set the world straight for many. As seven o’clock approached, the last rosy fingers of sunlight grew warm and inviting, and it felt as though I held a golden ticket as we stepped through the open doors of The Harbourside Refuge for an epicurean evening that wouldn’t easily be forgotten.
Simon Wilson, the Restaurant Manager, met us gladly at the door, taking our coats and inviting us in with a smile. Polished and pristine, The Harbourside Refuge made for the most stunning of settings with an ocean view, and the product of thoughtful preparation for the evening ahead did not go unnoticed. Gleaming glasses of amber liquid adorned with a slice of orange and a sprig of rosemary were offered into grateful hands; a Chandon Garden Spritz, sweet to taste and delightfully aromatic. The lure of a soft leather sofa kept company by twin armchairs proved too tempting to resist as we sat amongst the buzz of mingled voices and friendly faces dotted with familiar Porthleven characters.
Waiters and waitresses in crisp striped uniforms found their way through a throng of cheerful guests bearing plates of canapés, fresh from the kitchen and ready to offer the first flavours of the night. Wild mushroom, black garlic and parmesan gougères, duck liver parfait cigars with apricot and balsamic, and salmon tarts topped with pickled cucumber and salmon roe offered only a tantalising glimpse of the delights to come as the evening progressed. A collection of well-placed Edison bulbs hung from above, casting a glow on the heads below, the night ahead brimming with delicious promise.
Still with bubbles and fragrant flavours on the tongue, we found ourselves gradually guided upstairs to take our seats at freshly laid tables on the mezzanine above to sit and wait in anticipation for the next culinary delight. Alive with a buzz of fevered conversation the restaurant stilled, wine glasses put down to rest, heads turning to the top of the stairs as the man of the evening made his entrance. Michael Caines, standing proud with his Head Chef and staff smiling alongside him, expressed his delight in welcoming his guests on the most special of evenings. A better way to celebrate the return of the famed Porthleven Food Festival than with a night of exquisite culinary indulgence in the heart of the village simply didn’t come to mind.
With passion in his voice and a glint of pride in his eyes, the urge to lean forward in your seat as he described the night ahead was sure to be felt by all, while a calm humility redirected our focus to the food on this one-off menu specially designed for one night only. With an introduction from Michael for each course as it was laid in front of us, the first dish of the evening was an off-menu surprise of aerated squash and coconut soup, warm and rich with the flavour of spices and curry, laced with lime and coriander oil. With an exchange of glances and expressions of sheer delight, we knew then, if we didn’t already, that tonight was going to be something really special.
Next came a starter of Cornish duck breast with a hazelnut crumb, morel mushroom and nettle, paired with a beautiful pinot noir to complement the rich flavours of the duck, succulent and perfectly cooked to melt in the mouth. Muted grumbles of enjoyment were openly shared amongst us, mixed with words of intrigue and clinks of wine glasses as we paid homage to the chef. No one lingered over their meal, and it wasn’t long before our plates were cleared to make way for the fish course; hand dived scallops with caramelised cauliflower, raisins and a cumin velouté. As a lover of seafood this was the course for me, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Placed in front of me was the biggest scallop I’d ever seen, resting in the centre of a gleaming white shell and lovingly embraced by the cumin velouté, a perfect complement alongside a glass of Albariño 2020. It is difficult to describe in words the sensation of tasting the very best version of a meal you had already established as a favourite, but I can say that any scallops I may come across in the future simply won’t compare to the masterpiece of that evening.
The time for the main had come, as Michael introduced the beef fillet accompanied by charred onion, carrot puree and a beef red wine jus. Fleeting looks of eager excitement swept through the restaurant, and with a glass of Margaux 2016 in hand we brought our glasses together across the table before taking a sip and bringing our knives and forks to the plates in front of us. The flavour was entirely irresistible, and the texture couldn’t be more perfect; soft and succulent, and wonderfully matched with the dedicated wine. One by one we each sat back to enjoy the calm satisfaction that naturally follows such an outstanding meal, and took an opportunity to savour the wealth of flavours we’d experienced so far.
We were soon brought to our senses once more with the arrival of the evening’s dessert, a raspberry parfait with pistachio crème patisserie and a raspberry sorbet. Fresh and light with a tangy edge, taste buds were set to tingling as we spoiled the impeccably presented display with eager spoons. Paired with a Barossa Valley Botrytis Semillion, a pleasant feeling of refreshed contentment settled over the restaurant as the evening began to draw in, but not before a final treat of coffee and delicious petit fours over which we shared our favourite moments and consign the precious flavours we’d experienced to memory.
With the last of the wine in our glasses, Michael and his team joined us once more in celebration of a unique and successful evening, and a well-earned round of applause rang around the restaurant. With his Executive Head Chef and Head Chef smiling beside him, Michael exchanged final handshakes and fervent thanks with his guests, each of us glad to be a part of this wonderful night. With stomachs full and heads dizzied with spectacular flavours, we each found our way out into the salt air, unsure of how the weekend ahead could possibly compare to our evening with Michael Caines at The Harbourside Refuge.