Boscastle is a location scout’s vision of Cornwall, a cluster of buildings at the bottom of a steep wooded ravine. There are stone walls, whitewashed cottages, thatched roofs. Thomas Hardy land. If you took away the Spar and Range Rovers and started filming you’d have an instant BBC One drama on your hands (if you left the Spar and Range Rovers you’d have something for ITV).
Despite all the gorgeousness, Boscastle has yet to be overrun by bouji grub snufflers. That’s increasingly unusual round these parts. In Cornwall you can hardly move for London-type restaurants, which are spreading out from Rick Stein’s epicentre at Padstow, which will soon be ruled entirely by seagulls, Planet of the Apes style. There’s a Prawn on the Lawn there, and an outpost of Westerns Laundry, Fitzroy, on the south coast at Fowey. I’m sure they’re fine, but it is an odd phenomenon, this driving six hours from Highbury to eat at restaurants from Highbury. I imagine the customers are the same people who turn their noses up at people eating McDonald’s abroad.
The Rocket Store takes its name from the building’s old use as an arsenal of naval rockets. Billing itself as a “small seafood bar”, it’s basically a large hut with a triangular roof, nestled between larger buildings and set back from the river. The busy kitchen takes up half the available space and in quieter moments staff outnumber the customers. It’s the first permanent site for Alex Key and Freddie Woodruff, who also run a food company called NOCO. Freddie is the head chef, having worked at Chez Bruce and Kricket, among others, while Alex has run a catering company. I wonder if events are more honest testing grounds than restaurants. Perhaps you can tell more about diners’ proclivities from the canapé trays that return full at a fashion event – most of them, presumably – than what self-proclaimed foodies pretend to like at a soft launch.
However they’ve come by their intel, they know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve come up with a fish-driven menu, changing daily, with Asian and Middle Eastern flourishes here and there. The kitchen seems to be populated by staff who are happy to be there, which is always a good sign. They have every right to be proud of what they put out, which is a succession of dishes that are completely sure of themselves, beautifully presented and made with endless attention to detail. Porthilly oysters, sweetened with apple and salted with soy. Smoked peas like English edamame, plump and moreish, practically begging to be squeezed from their furry green pods. A salad of cucumber, red onion and fried chickpeas on a bed of yoghurt, all freshness and crunch. Char-kissed scallops, sea-sweet and cooked just beyond translucency, sitting in devotional pools of butter in their shells.
The focus is on ingredients, but not in a “we won’t bother to cook them” way. They have a farm nearby, Trebiffen, and a fishing boat, and treat the produce with the right amount of respect. Vegetables receive as much care as the fish. Hispi is charred just so. Asparagus and mushrooms are given enough space to do their thing. We visit during wild garlic season. The ingredient has a habit of making chefs lose all sense of proportion. Not here. After eating almost all of the smaller dishes, we only have room to share a John Dory from the mains. It comes grilled whole, its firm, almost-sweet flesh lifted by the sour tang of fish sauce in the nahm jim, a flash of Thailand in as un-Thai a setting as you can imagine. Given the size of the kitchen, there are understandably only a couple of puddings, a chocolate pot and a pana cotta. They are both serviceable, although they’re not why you’re there.
Don’t be fooled by its diminutive size and relaxed vibe. The Rocket Store is not entirely a homely bootstraps affair. Despite its simplicity, the room betrays a sharp eye for design. Alex’s partner is Assisi Jagger, Jade’s daughter. One wall is dominated by a striking painting, a constellation of stars hanging in inky blue space, by Assisi’s father, Piers Jackson. If the restaurant is pitched with one eye on a smart Londonish crowd, they know their target, but the glamorous connections take nothing away from the restaurant. The Rocket Store is a brilliant, unexpected little spot, absolutely worth the detour. You might eat more cheaply somewhere else around here, but I doubt you’ll eat better. In a lovely old village this is a haven of 21st-century hospitality, which takes the best ingredients Cornwall has to offer and elevates them with thought and care. It deserves to – sorry about this – blow up.