Things that live in the sea are messed up, right? With their backwards breathing, their bottom feeding, or their just being a sentient lump of muscle that lives in a shell. But something doesn’t need to make sense for it to be tasty, and what decent human being doesn’t enjoy seafood? But away from coastal regions it comes at a price. Can you get delicious seafood (and fish) in East London that won’t cost the ocean?
I started off at Vintage Salt, in the shadow of Liverpool Street, where I was promised a ‘Cornish village look and feel’. For starters were tuna tartare with avocado and pickled cucumber, which hit the right refreshing and textural notes, while my companion for the evening opted for salt and pepper squid with chilli jam, which was pleasingly spicy. Starters often get the benefit of the doubt, but here they were definitely a highlight. My companion was not impressed with the oil seepage into my sea bass a la plancha, and perhaps it was a touch on the overcooked side too. We fared worse with the shrimp burger – it was gristly, tough, heavy and lacking in that oceanic freshness concomitant with shrimp. Afters were a buttery Bakewell tart and a very sweet apple crumble. We drank the Italian house white, which was decent drop. A good thing too, as the cost of this meal (just over £60 before wine and service) was reaching the point at which house wine becomes a necessity rather than an act of parsimony. It’s a decent enough place, though perhaps a little on the more money than sense side. As if to perfectly back this point, its sister restaurant lives in Selfridges.
69 Old Broad St, London EC2M 1NA
When in full weekend pomp I am probably not alone in finding Spitalfields Market something of a horror show. But I need to qualify this, for in Wright Brothers it is home to a gem of a seafood restaurant. We opened with fried oysters with Louis Sauce, which were light and moreish, home smoked mackerel with gentleman’s relish, which deserves musical metaphors I have too much self respect to use, and Galician octopus, chorizo, broad beans and garlic, which seemed rather brash in comparison, but it’s not a dish one orders for delicate perfumes. Salt-baked seabream, carved up at the table, was soft and yielding, and resplendent with umami qualities one doesn’t normally associate with fish. My trusted companion watched me warily as I tried her stone bass with tarragon risotto, which was nothing short of a flavour party. After a fairly standard lemon posset for pudding, the one sad note was the cheese selection (only two – and fairly uninspired at that). Before wine and service one is looking at very close to three figures here and if you want to get involved with the shellfish and oysters…well, let us just say it is a good thing that the food at Wright Brothers is of a standard that you’d be happy to go there for a special occasion.
8a Lamb Street, E1 6EA
Of all the places earmarked to visit for this parvum opus, the Richmond was perhaps the one to which I was looking forward the most; a raw food bar complete with enthusiastic reviews from the ladies and gentlemen of the press – all very promising. The much-hyped raw dishes came first, with the standout a wonderfully delicate scallop carpaccio, while the sea bass tartare divided opinion. I thought it was subtle and suggestive, my ever-hard-to-please companion found it bland. On the tuna tartare with aubergine and harissa, we were more in concord. It felt like too much, flavours falling over each other, with none of them quite winning. We were actually rather in the market for crab muffins, but they had run out (it was 9.30pm on Monday evening), so instead we opted for cooked scallops, which resisted and surrendered in the right proportions. Our cooked mains, I’m sad to say, did not treat us so well. Both the hake and mackerel we ordered had been overcooked into dry submission, though some saag-like spinach on the side treated us better (it would come back to haunt us during our gambrinous post-prandial debrief, however). For dessert, lovage cake was an interesting sweet-herby conclusion to the meal and the banana tart was perfectly serviceable and sugary. But at just above the £100 mark (pre-wine and service), I’d have hoped for better,
Monday night or not.
316 Queensbridge Rd, London E8 3NH
I would like to think the team behind Mussel Men came up with the name first and followed it up with the concept. As the puntastic moniker suggests, they take a much less po-faced approach to seafood here. One senses, however, that they do take the business of seafood more seriously. The potted crayfish were delicately fragrant and fresh, though perhaps the butter layer felt a little bit like the contents of 1970s Elvis’ arteries. I had a generous bowl of mussels mariniere next, which were refreshingly not drowning in sauce, allowing the mussels to do the talking. “We’ve been nicely done to a meaty but yielding texture, and we taste a bit like we remember what it was like to live in salt water,” I think they were saying. The fries tasted a little fast foody … in a good way, and as an ardent advocate of the potato, I had a lot of time for the velveteen mash on the side. If you happen to be in the area and get the urge for seafood in genuinely unpretentious surroundings (one feels they are making a point of it), pop your head in.
584 Kingsland Road, E8 4AH