The Elephant meal that's breaking the barriers between the art & food worlds
The brand-new Saturday art lunches at The Elephant in Torquay are a perfect matinee performance of delicious food and equally palatable talks. I went along to the very first, which welcomed multi-award-winning Theatre Director and Producer Michael Grandage to Torbay’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt a bit intimidated on my way down to the harbourside, as you are usually more likely to catch me in a pizzeria than at an award-winning gourmet eatery. You see, I don’t think I have much of a palate, I avoid anything I think is too pretentious and I loath cookery programmes. I’m the last person in the world who should be doing a restaurant review and indeed my partner found the news, highly amusing.
My fears were laid to rest from the off. The venue has a laid-back and relaxed feel. The warm, minimalistic décor is really welcoming and with a crisp glass of Prosecco in hand, I was soon chatting with the some of the arts-loving clientele who had also been attracted to this event. After hosting a really popular programme of guest chef lunches, Head Chef Simon Hulstone decided to reach for a new audience with these cross-over lunches, that are aimed at arty types who aren’t necessarily foodies, and judging by the number of people in attendance, it’s already working.
What I really liked was that this was a really social event. As well as getting to mingle with fellow guests before lunch, we were also sat at long shared tables, so there was even more opportunity to meet some new people. I sat next to some folk from Brixham, who were both lovers of theatre and regulars at the restaurant. Indeed, they confided that they had never had a bad meal at The Elephant and that I was in for a real treat, and thankfully, they were right.
I’m a bit of a penny pincher at the best of times, but I think £45 for three-course lunch, with two glasses of wine and a talk from such a prestigious member of the arts world is outstanding value. The Elephant prides itself on offering one of the best value Michelin Star lunches in the country and on a regular day - Monday to Saturday - you can enjoy two courses for £21.50 or three courses for £24.95.
One of my main fears was being presented with a pretentious menu that my O-Level French wouldn’t get me through, or the sort of descriptions that you often spot on menus in hotels that are trying to be more ostentatious than their TripAdvisor reviews would suggest. Dishes like a deconstructed toffee apple, with a balsamic reduction and basil foam. Fortunately, I didn’t have to Google anything.
Things began well with some sourdough and salted butter to nibble on, with a delicious glass of white wine before the starter arrived. The first course was a very attractive looking plate of new season asparagus, with a Bantam egg and truffle salami. The flavours and textures worked together beautifully. Lots of the produce at the restaurant comes from Simon’s 96-acre farm on the outskirts of Torbay and everything tasted like it had been picked (or laid) that very morning. The dish was garnished with edible flowers, while those little pieces of crispy rice were an extra little treat.
I’ve heard that The Elephant does some of the best seafood in Devon, again locally sourced and taking full advantage of having Brixham just across the Bay. I was really keen to sample the fillet of cod that was served as a main. While I usually enjoy my fish battered or breaded (I’m a sucker for a fish finger or two) this fish was off the scale (to borrow a seafaring pun). It was served in a melt-in-your-mouth brown butter hollandaise sauce, with a side of broccoli hearts and samphire, sometimes known as “sea asparagus,” I’m informed by Wikipedia, and a sprinkling of hazelnuts. The whole thing was another triumph – light, balanced, flavoursome and not a portion of chips in sight.
Now I don’t usually eat a full three-course meal, as I’m usually too stuffed by pudding. I blame the dough balls, but the sensible sized portions meant I still had room for what was to prove one of the most delicious desserts I have ever enjoyed. The gastronomic masterpiece I am referring to was a buttermilk panna cotta with elderflower, strawberry and champagne sorbet; it was perfection in a bowl.
Over coffee, and a ridiculously tasty chocolate, we relaxed to enjoy a fascinating chat from the guest speaker, Michael Grandage, whose nephew Ben is the sous chef at The Elephant. He was an incredibly genuine guy and has directed the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Jude Law (in Hamlet, no less). He told us how a school trip to see a production of Twelfth Night at Carn Brea Leisure Centre, near his home town of Penzance when he was 16, inspired him to go into theatre. It starred Ian McKellen and was directed by Trevor Nunn; two people he would work with in later life.
Following three years in Central School of Speech and Drama and 12 enjoyable years as an actor, a bout of stage fright led him into directing and the start of a new career. He was then offered the role of Artistic Director Sheffield Theatres, which he did for five years, before running the Donmar Warehouse in London for a decade. He currently runs his own company, MGC (Michael Grandage Company) that puts on West End Shows and touring productions, as well as producing films, TV and opera. He’s worked directly with writers including Pinter, Stoppard and Sondheim.
For the past two years he has been working with Disney to put on the Broadway production of Frozen, which has proved highly successful and will be coming to London in November 2020. Michael also explained how that first experience of theatre as a teenager has stayed with him and that he now has a charity that teaches young people about the many jobs they can do in theatre. His company also has a policy that sees 25% of the tickets they put on sale priced at just £10. This has seen a large increase in the number of youngsters aged 16 – 26 seeing their shows.
“Young people going into the theatre is one of the most important things we do, as they create the audience for tomorrow. Someone once said, why is it that children will pay £70 for a pair of trainers but they won’t pay it for a theatre ticket. Because the trainers won’t let them down. We mustn’t ever charge £70 for young people to go to the theatre…it all comes full circle. Someone did that for me back in 1978, taking me to see a play for very little money and this remains very important to me.” - Michael Grandage, Theater Director & Producer.
That idea of making something accessible for people is also the thought process behind Simon Hulstone starting these new events.
“I wanted to bring in a different demographic and open the audience to new customers,” he explains. “I do love the arts. All three of my children and my wife are fanatic theater-goers. My girls dance and one goes to Stage Coach, so they are all singing and dancing. With these lunches, we wanted to showcase what we do at the farm; nice light produces as it’s lunchtime. And to introduce new people to the restaurant.”
Well, in my case, it’s worked. It’s broken down the barriers that I would usually have in going to this type of establishment. I will definitely be returning. I wouldn’t be the first person to point out the similarities between restaurants and theatres and how a chef is like a highly skilled director. Indeed, Michael quips about arriving at the ‘tradesman’s entrance’ and being reminded of a stage door. And it’s why in my humble opinion, that I think these cross-over arts lunches are a brilliant idea — literally food for thought in every way.
Review and image by Matt Newbury