In the middle of a sleep-deprived, turbulent night some bright spark must have sat up sharp and decided that running a good restaurant simply isn’t difficult enough. No. What you really need for that added challenge is a barely accessible location which makes it difficult for your customers to get to you, and equally difficult for them to leave. And so it is with the The River Exe Café.
Of course, there’s certainly novelty to floating a wooden hut, a marquee, some sturdy, self-built rustic tables, some cheap-as-a-job-lot steel chairs and a decent kitchen on pontoon moored in the Exe Estuary, but not that much.
We booked by email ten days in advance – that was the easy bit – and arrived in Starcross, the nearest landmass to the restaurant, in plenty of time: 11:30am for a 1pm reservation. The first mistake was ours. We should have been there even earlier, at 11am, to catch the 11:10am ferry to Exmouth. The next ferry, the 12:10, would arrive in Exmouth at the same time as our water-taxi was due to leave. There was a chance we’d make the connection, and at least we had a few minutes to weigh up the options. But knowing that time and tide wait for no-one, and that the boatmen round here are fiercely prompt and proud of it, we decided not to chance it and rode 24 miles round the estuary by road. No hardship at all on a Bonneville on a blazing July day.
Forty minutes later, we pulled up just round the corner from the docks and took advantage of the free parking opportunity a motorcycle usually brings. Both the continuous queue of traffic from Powderham to Exminster – caused by the traffic control of the Crashbox Car Rally – and the ‘permit only’ parking of Exmouth’s packed backstreets made us happy in our choice of a motorcycle for a day out; but from here on in it was boats.
Arriving at the top of the ramp which leads down to the ferry pontoon we got the first inkling that all might not be plain sailing. The restaurant’s board on the railings had a little ‘closed’ sign hung on it. We rationalised, full of optimism, that either it hadn’t been changed from last night or the café was full and taking no more aboard. So we waited at the top of the ramp with other eager diners until the boatman welcomed us aboard his little red 12-seater taxi.
There was the two of us, a couple of late middle-aged women and a party ‘with Tom’ which should’ve been six but was now five. The ferryman started to check passenger names against his list, and neither we nor the ladies were on it. And none of us were called Harvey. Discussions ensued, reservations were questioned, I was asked if I’d brought a hard-copy of the email reservation, which I hadn’t, so the ferryman rang the restaurant. The phone is handed to me. The restaurant searched their emails and found the pertinent string, but there was no reservation. They must have ‘booked it in the wrong month, or something.’ I hand back the phone. Two more couples turn up. The ferryman won’t let them aboard until the reservations are sorted, because that would make thirteen. And it’s a 12-seat boat. I’ve played this game on management away-days. It never ends well. And the ferryman always wins.
Modelling first class professional assertiveness and a boatman’s common sense, and by a process that remained mysterious, he eliminated an unlucky couple and arranged with the restaurant for them to make the next sitting in an hour. As the seating arrangements were settled, the incoming ferry from Starcross docked – the one we would have been on if we’d taken that option. We would have arrived just as the taxi would have been leaving with 11 passengers, and not us. So now we were on the team and, just as we were about to leave, a woman turns up who wanted a lift to her yacht and squeezes on in twelfth.
The taxi pushed hard and crawled out into a 5 knot outgoing tide, making only about one and a half knots over the ground. The ferryman gave a good commentary to the ladies, dropped the woman off on her yacht, and explained that, although the café has brought a great deal of business, it’s brought its fair share of chaos in its wake. They like to receive 10 guests an hour, every hour, and they have a boat of their own too. The problems come when the reservations change, then the water-taxi’s payload changes too. I could tell he’d had some practice sorting out restaurant bookings.
The weather was blustery but in all other ways idyllic. We kept our eyes open for seals on the sandbanks, but saw only anglers, wrecks and some lunatic kite-surfers swooping past. The weekend’s supermoon was pulling the tide hard past straining moorings as yachts dangled on their buoys. The wind funnelled down the estuary from the north, raising sharp, choppy peaks on small waves. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the pontoon and climbed up and into the restaurant – just two hundred yards from Starcross. But you can’t get here from there unless you bring your own boat.
Once aboard, everything was fine. A Peter Tosh tape loop valiantly tried to induce a Caribbean atmosphere, but the wind wasn’t for warming and you are where you is. We ate inside in blue PVC marquee attached to the rustic-planked kitchen and counter area. Beneath our feet we could see the ebbing dark green tide whoosh past and feel the breeze cut up around our ankles. The staff offer blankets for starters. But it’s all good fun. The service was prompt, friendly and well coordinated, and I watched with moistening mouth as heaped, steaming plates of mussels were deftly delivered to the next table.
We had no trouble choosing the pan-fried wild sea bass on samphire and cress with smashed new potatoes. We had no trouble eating it, either. It was superb. The fish was perfectly cooked, flavoursome and flaky, and beautifully presented on a bed of greens that were sea-crisp and crunchy fresh. The potatoes were soft and fluffy, and the whole pile was topped off with a subtle, creamy sauce. It felt like the perfect dish for the setting and every mouthful was a treat. For sweets, Teresa opted for the Eton Mess; nothing to do with Westminster or education, but everything to do with mouth-melty, dripping-fresh honeycomb and clotted cream, and I had a zingy raspberry cheesecake with a rich, tangy sauce.
Then the other boat-related snag showed up. We paid, but couldn’t leave.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a leisurely lunch, and if we’d gone the whole hog and had a starter, we’d probably have still been stuffing ourselves. There was lots of other good stuff to try, particularly those mussels. But, as it happened, we’d only taken an hour and a quarter of our allotted two hours, and so there was 45mins to go before our water taxi home.
There’s an old story I was told while cycle-touring round the coast of Ireland. A guy on his travels ask a local chap the way to Limerick. The local smiles through his teeth, lists his head to one side, strokes his stubbly chin and surveys the horizon through narrowed, worldly eyes. After a moment, he looks to the traveller and says, with great wisdom and compassion, “Well Sir, if I was going to go there, I wouldn’t have been starting from here.” Likewise, if you’re planning to visit the River Exe Café, and I heartily recommend that you do, make sure you start from Exmouth – or bring your own boat.