As North Devon’s main town, Barnstaple has a fair number of chain and independent restaurants. On our recent visit there, my dining partner and I chose to sample one of the independents, Custom House. Locally owned, this specialist burger joint opened about a year ago – so far, it seems to be thriving, and so it seemed an excellent candidate for a restaurant review. Housed in an attractive listed building on The Strand, Custom House’s décor is all stripped wooden tables and exposed brick walls. As soon as we entered we were welcomed by a friendly waitress who showed us to our table and took our drinks order. Service continued as it had begun and was swift and smiling throughout our dinner.
To start, my dining partner and I shared a plate of Custom House’s “famous” nachos. These were oversized, perfectly crisp triangles – delicious, but a world away from regular nachos. Rather than cornmeal, they seemed to be made from plain flour so they tasted a bit like a very thin, crispy flatbread. Liberally dusted with paprika, they had a sweet, slightly spicy tang which went well with the lashings of melted cheese, refreshing diced peppers and hot pickled jalapenos. The pile was topped off with a dollop of thick, smooth sour cream which was perfect for taming the heat of the jalapenos. Portion size wise, it was perfect for sharing.
Having got off to such a good start, I had high expectations of my main. Custom House’s concept is fairly common in London, but in Barnstaple it’s one of a kind – a fully customisable burger where the diner builds the whole thing, from bottom bun to top. My dining partner chose a beef burger on a classic burger bun, with swiss cheese, caramelised onions, jalapenos, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and hot sauce, while I opted for a beef burger on corn bread, with cheddar cheese, beetroot, tomato, gherkin, guacamole and sour cream. My corn bread bun was excellent – tasty, slightly crumbly and undeniably light. The beetroot and gherkins were both delicately pickled so as not to overwhelm the other flavours, the tomatoes were juicy and intensely sweet, and the generous squirt of sour cream was smooth and refreshing. I was also delighted with the cheese – not for Custom House the thin, floppy plastic cheese slices of your usual burger bar – here were two massive wedges of proper mature cheddar. Sadly, the other ingredients didn’t quite come up to scratch. For a place that specialises in burgers and sources its ingredients locally, I would have expected a more flavoursome beef patty, and hoped to be allowed to choose how it was cooked – while a well done burger is the norm, if the beef is good enough quality, then medium cooking tends to do the meat more justice. And my dining partner’s burger suffered from the same flaw. In my experience, guacamole can be made in many ways and I’ll happily admit that it often contains some onion (usually very finely diced), but the essential ingredient of any guacamole is the mashed avocado. Alas, the guacamole in my burger was majority roughly chopped red onion, with just four small pieces of diced avocado. As a whole, my burger was tasty and pleasant to eat, but with a bland patty and a very disappointing attempt at guacamole, it just didn’t quite hit the spot. All burgers at Custom House are served with house cut chips but, for a £1 supplement, you can upgrade to sweet potato chips. Being big fans of the sweet potato chip, neither my dining partner nor I could resist this option. Medium cut, and served skin on, the sweet potato chips had meltingly soft centres, but unfortunately had soggily soft outsides as well.
Despite the quibbles we had with our mains, my dining partner and I were keen to give dessert a go. My dining partner’s choice of double chocolate brownie was served warm, with a generous scoop of toffee flavoured ice cream. It was an ok example of a simple dessert, though a vanilla ice cream might have been a better match flavour wise. My own dessert, a baked vanilla cheesecake, however, really let the side down. The base to topping ratio was about right, but the texture of the topping was thick and sticky where it should have been creamy with a slight graininess from the bake, and the vanilla flavour was so clearly artificial that the taste was just cloying, saccharine sweetness. What’s more, the base was too buttery and had no real crunch, as if the biscuits it had been made with were slightly stale. It was also served with a scoop of toffee ice cream, which in my opinion was entirely superfluous – if a baked cheesecake needs any accompaniment at all, it’s surely just a drizzle of fruit coulis (strawberry, or raspberry to cut through the creaminess of the cake).
Drinks wise, Custom House offers three reds and three whites, all by the glass or the bottle and all very reasonably priced. My dining partner prefers beer with a burger, so drank a Corona, while I tried a glass of their Chilean Merlot – slightly drier and more acidic than I would have expected for a merlot, it was still a very drinkable wine with decent plummy notes.
Custom House offers good value for money, as two and a half courses and a drink came in at just £21 per head including service. With its friendly service and relaxed atmosphere, it’s also a very pleasant place to spend an evening in Barnstaple. I really love the concept and I think that a place like Custom House has real potential to do well here. So I have to admit that I’ve found this quite a difficult restaurant review to write – I want to score them highly, but there are flaws with the food that just can’t be ignored. Overall then, Custom House gets a rather middle-of-the-road three Forks-Up.
Custom House 9 The Strand Barnstaple Devon EX31 1EU T: 01271 322 143