Medcalf is next door to the bustling Moro in Exmouth Market. It has a long, narrow dining room with a bar running down most of one side. There is a wooden floor, high ceiling and a mix of wooden tables and very battered metal tables. The place is distinctly shabby in places e.g. there was a large gash in the wall next to our table which no one had bothered to fix. The lighting is from an odd mix of a few proper directed ceiling spot lights, one light fitting and a series of bare light bulbs hanging from wires. The kitchen is open to the dining room, and this has the unfortunate side effect that there was a distinct stale food smell about the room when we sat down.
The wine list runs to two pages and is mostly French, with some Spanish wines and a few token others. The house wine started at £16.25. Michel Guitton 2005 Chablis was listed at £35.50 for a wine that costs around £10 in the shops. Gevrey Chambertin Humbert Freres 2001 was £47 for a wine that costs about £18 retail, and there were three sweet offerings, though only one sweet wine as such. The menu changes daily and is firmly in modern British territory. Starters are £4.50 - £6.50, mains £10.50 - £21, desserts £5.50, vegetables £3.25 a portion.
A starter of scallops with celeriac puree and rocket salad was disappointing. The puree was smooth but lacked any intensity of celeriac flavour, which is odd given how distinctive celeriac tastes and given that it is not a costly ingredient. The scallops had been sliced into pieces, then cooked and placed on the puree. Unfortunately they were slightly overcooked, with the knife just hinting at bouncing off the flesh (11/20).
A red pepper, caramelised onion, spinach and Parmesan tart was better, served with a rather dull mixed leaf salad that needed a decent dressing. The tart itself was fine, with clear flavours (13/20 overall). I had Barbary duck breast, which was cooked pink though sliced rather thickly. It had decent taste but, despite its correct cooking, was rather chewy in places. It rested on a very pleasant bed of mashed caramelised swede and a layer of kale (12/20).
Chips were fair (13/20) but cauliflower cheese, though it kept the texture of the cauliflower, badly needed more cheese (11/20). For dessert, an apple of blackberry crumble was seasonal, but suffered from the fruit being pre-cooked so ending up rather mushy in texture. The crumble itself needed more butter (12/20). Pleasant enough cooking overall if I ignore the “welcome” from the staff.
We dined quite late, which is often a revealing time to examine restaurant service. Staff are tired and anxious to go home, and it is interesting to see how customers are treated. We sat down ten minutes before last orders and the dishes certainly appeared at a brisk rate. Initially I thought they did not have bread at all since we were not served any, until I spotted some loaves at the other end of the restaurant. “Oh, do you want bread?” was the reaction of our waitress. The bread itself was of good quality (it is bought in from the capable Exeter Street Bakery) but was not that fresh. Indeed at the end of the evening I saw the bread being wrapped in cling-film; no doubt this is purely to feed the ducks, rather than any diners the next day.
We ordered quickly and did not have any pre-dinner drinks, yet one member of kitchen staff still decided to walk past his table while we were eating our main course and point at his watch. The bill came to £71.78 for two people with one starter, two main courses, one dessert and four glasses of wine. Overall we may have done particularly badly by dining late, but there were plenty of minor problems in the cooking that mean that I would not wish to return. Sorry about the poor quality of the photos, but the lighting was very gloomy here.