I don’t profess to know much about fine food or fine dining, I just know what I like and on the odd occasion I eat out with family or friends, will usually plump for the safest option on the menu. I am so predictably unadventurous that any one of them could order in my absence and they’d be absolutely spot on.
When the invitation came from Nathan Siddle and wife and Coljan’s chef Michelle, to sample their new ‘Coljan Rocks’ menu, where you cook your food to your liking at your own table, I was uncertain what I was letting myself in for. More importantly, I was convinced I would embarrass myself; as I said, I am predictably unadventurous where food is concerned.
Try as I might to press-gang a ‘more experienced’ dining partner to bale me out of this new gastronomic journey, I drew several blanks (even my own wife turned me down!!). I finally accepted that I would be flying solo; my sales technique clearly needs refining.
My fears were completely unfounded as Nathan put me at ease as soon as I entered the quirky, almost Bohemian setting, recently refurbished with carefully chosen antique furniture the from nearby In a Nutshell antique emporium and laid out with safe and socially distanced requirements in mind.
I explained my culinary shortcomings to my most affable and welcoming host who in turn explained the reasons behind Coljan’s latest dining experience that the couple introduced by way of overcoming the Government restrictions on numbers of groups allowed to dine out at cafés and restaurants.
“Our original intention for Coljan was to be a British fine dining restaurant by evening and a café serving breakfasts and brunch by day,” Nathan explained. “We have always described it as having two sides of the same coin with the same management team. By day it is a café bistro, offering a great eclectic mix of locally sourced breakfasts with a broad mix of lunch and brunch [dishes] and then in an evening we pretty much use the same space but translated into British fine-dining, offering four starters, four mains and four desserts.”
When lockdown happened, nine months of incredible hard work by the Coljan team was beginning to come to fruition. A year ago they had seen bookings dramatically increase and enjoyed a fantastic Christmas, a great January and were really on the upward trend as Valentine’s Day approached. Nathan and Michelle contemplated how they would fit 160 people into the space on Mother’s Day. It normally seated 40 and with nearly 110 already booked across three sittings, they eventually added a fourth, evening sitting.
“Obviously March was a disastrous month for the whole of hospitality,” Nathan recalled. “We suffered like everyone else from the very beginning of March. We saw a massive downturn in our bookings, we were fully booked the day before Mother’s Day and then all the bookings began to ooze away. We already had bookings way into Easter and again they started disappearing and then the country went into lockdown on 23rd March.
‘I was the optimist, Michelle was the pessimist, so together we kind of balanced ourselves out and it was very much a case of where do we go from here or what do we do?”
Like many forward-thinking businesses Nathan and Michelle realised that they would need to ‘reinvent themselves’ and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances if Coljan was to survive.
The couple recalled the ‘On the Rocks’ experience, a group of south coast restaurants which all use the same technology where food is cooked at your table on pre-heated volcanic (lava) stone or granite. Nathan and Michelle looked at the available technology and discovered that lava stone needs to be heated to 350 degrees. They then explored how they could replicate that in their own restaurant and ‘Coljan Rocks’ was born.
Wherever possible, Coljan source their produce from local suppliers and are mindful of supporting the local economy. “We are awash with great locally sourced meat, fish and vegetable produce in Devon and surrounding counties,” Nathan points out. “Much of our meat is sourced direct from the farms and the fish direct from Brixham as it allows us to offer both meat and fish at prices that our customers are prepared to pay.
‘We are a community-first venture and proud to be at the heart of Ashburton, serving our local and surrounding communities, supporting local farms, producers and local suppliers. Our sourcing strategy has always been to get traceability back to source wherever possible and to understand where it comes from, and we can do that pretty much on everything we do. Not everything comes from Devon and Cornwall, most of it does and it’s certainly the best of the West but it’s all sourced through South West businesses. For every pound spent in this establishment, 40p goes back into the Devon or South West economy.”
This new dining experience has already enhanced Coljan’s well-earned reputation and people are now coming from further afield too. “Since introducing the ‘Coljan Rocks’ experience we have seen more people coming from places such as Paignton and Torquay, Buckfastleigh and Bovey and of course tourists during the summer, whereas before lockdown our customers tended to be more local to Ashburton itself.”
With the addition of two apprentices in son Matthew and Ewan Suttie, Nathan and Michelle are only now just starting to get together the team needed to help the business grow again since lockdown, while the ‘Rocks’ experience has provided a new revenue stream underpinning the business.
And so it was time to experience this business-saving initiative that had brought a new lease of life to one of Ashburton’s most popular destinations. Normally fish would be my preferred dish when eating out and indeed both Tuna and Salmon were on the menu. I don’t generally choose steak in the conventional style as I’ve found it cools too quickly, making the last few mouthfuls quite unpalatable. Recommendations from ‘those in the know’ who have already dined at Coljan assured me to ‘go for it’, so with rump, sirloin, rib-eye and fillet on the menu, I opted for a 10oz sirloin and a medium cook. There were starters and desserts too but as I was on a tight schedule I went straight to the main and skipped the other two, which was a pity as they too looked delicious.
Nathan assured me I’d made the right choice with my main. “You get a wooden board and three dips, sweet chilli, garlic butter and mustard cream accompanied by chips and side salad.
“It’s quite hard to get it wrong if you know how you like to eat it,” he said confidently. “Ultimately, all you are doing is looking to get the blood out of it which will happen quite naturally.”
Nathan wasn’t wrong. My sirloin arrived on said wooden platter with the locally-sourced meat sizzling enthusiastically on the 350 degree lava stone. You could clearly feel the searing heat as my meal was place in front of me. Nathan had recommended that I cut the steak into medallions and turn them until the meat was to my liking.
The juices flowed – both mine and the steak’s – and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. Then came the real surprise – the taste. Not only did the meat remain far hotter than any steak I can ever recall eating before, but it had also been well seasoned with sea salt and black pepper on both sides. This wasn’t immediately obvious when it arrived and tasted remarkable. The first medallion simply melted in my mouth, as did the remaining eleven and they all tasted as good and as hot as the first from beginning to end.
I shall never beef about my steak being cold again!