A little place down by the sea; Eating out
With its small but perfectly formed menu, Dorset's Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant is the kind of eatery foodies dream of
If you're wondering whether I'll ever get to the point, we felt the same as we approached it no less tortuously by road from the West. Through bottleneck Corfe, gateway to the Isle of Purbeck (which isn't an island), on past the beach at Studland, we drove along the three deserted miles of road which climb up to a vantage point overlooking the harbour on the left, and descend to the marshes and dunes of the harbour and coast respectively.
Geography lesson over, biology next. This part of Dorset attracts diverse human, sea and shore life: birdwatchers and walkers, camper-van drivers, the rich and retired, sailors professional and recreational, the jet-ski set, droves of holiday makers. And nudists.
Shell Bay itself is a fantastic stretch of undeveloped sandy beach, the further reaches of which are designated for naturists (that's nudists to us swimwear-wearers, what they call "textiles"). When the ferry, propelled along thick underwater chains, got snagged on a loose dinghy and had to be unhooked by a coastguard, I overheard a fit sunbather heading home in ecstasy: "Sun, sand, sea, bodies, and now coastguards, sailors, uniforms and chains; I've realised every fantasy of mine today," he raved. As dusk descended on the harbour, I too found a fantasy come true at Shell Bay; the restaurant you dream of finding while on holiday in England and seldom do.
Behind a beach caff is the Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant. Not much of an architectural attraction, nor an eyesore, this solitary building looks across the harbour to Brownsea Island. Unlike other types of restaurant, fish restaurants work best when they're close to the source of what they cook. While pictures of frolicking lambs and rolling pastures are not considered an appropriate way to promote meat, fish restaurants can evoke the maritime origins of their food. They haven't gone overboard here, but the curtains are a shell-design fabric with fish-shaped tie-backs, walls are white with a few fishy stencils. There are aluminium cafe chairs on a terracotta floor, paper napkins, and flimsy paper placemats on scrubbed wood tables.
Once we'd looked at the menu and ordered a bottle of rose to match the sky, we sat back and congratulated ourselves on finding such a place (conveniently forgetting that it had been recommended by a friend who is Something Big in Dorset council). Then we realised that we hadn't eaten anything yet and we might feel differently at the end of the meal. It didn't look as if they'd screw it up badly; not with a simple menu and a full house of healthy, tanned diners. Even so, there's scope for a restaurant to get it wrong. Plenty do.
The baguette could have been chopped up some time in advance of being brought to us instead of immediately before, the butter could have been portion packed (as it is at Fish! and at the Whitstable Oyster Company). The seafood could have been less fresh; it could have been over or undercooked, battered and breadcrumbed and abused with sauces. The scallops could have been mistimed so that they weren't so juicy, so sweet, so perfectly seared. The kitchen could have overdosed them with lemongrass and ginger, used stale oil and iceberg lettuce and naff garnishes. Instead, there was just enough of the Thai-ish spicing to put an extra spring in the scallops, just enough fragrant oil mingling with their juices and seeping into the mixture of salad leaves to make it a delicious fusion. The fish soup could have been a bowl of bony leftovers, not a homely aromatic tomato broth scattered with clams that had probably come straight from the harbour.
On a menu with one meat and one vegetarian dish, the number of locally- caught fish easily outnumber tourists like tuna and swordfish. Occasional Oriental incursions such as sea bass with pak choi and Thai dressing, or crevettes on ginger salad, don't overwhelm the more traditional simplicity. Cooking methods are restricted to grilling, griddling, searing and pan- frying.
A blunt-nosed seabream with neat slashes across its silvery skin was grilled and handsome beside "hand-cut chips" which were above-average average, rather than outstanding. My fancier main course didn't falter at the challenge of doing more than just grilling a fish and cutting up potatoes. Porbeagle shark, caught off the Isle of Wight, was advertised as coming on red cabbage jam and grape chutney; I preferred the sound of celeriac mash and cucumber salsa promised with the griddled swordfish. A transfer was arranged, making a dish closer to The Livebait Cookbook's shark confit with celeriac remoulade. The shark - is the porbeagle prefix there to make it sound less like the familiar predator? - with the meaty appeal of tuna and a stronger, coarser taste than swordfish, also has the advantage of being local to Britain and unloved in the sea. Cleverly, they served three slices of different thicknesses for a range of effects from seared outside to cooked through. The salsa, like a coarse gazpacho, gave the fish a little revenging bite.
From a selection on the barely adequate side of short, our summer pudding was composed of bread thoroughly steeped in juices (there's nothing worse than incomplete pigmentation) and had a "compote of soft berries" - an overspill of its sweet, softened contents - on the side. When everything else had been so irreproachably fresh, some creme, particularly of the fraiche variety, would have been appreciated. Otherwise, a meal that cost pounds 30 each including wine, coffee and water was. If this restaurant was a seaside bungalow, I wouldn't hesitate to call it my Shangri-La. Come to think of it, it is a seaside bungalow of sorts and I fantasise about retiring to it again.
Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant, Ferry Road, Studland, Dorset (01929 450363). Until end September, daily lunch and dinner. From October, Thur-Sat lunch and dinner, Sun lunch. Closed January. From May 2000, lunch and dinner daily. Average pounds 25 for three courses. Major cards, not Amex or Diners Club. No disabled access
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