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

There are two approaches to Shell Bay. Either way, by ferry or by road, you arrive at the southern tip of the mouth of Poole Harbour, one of the lovelier promontories on the south coast. A toll ferry across the ingress of water links the National Trust-protected area to Sandbanks, Poole and, beyond that, Bournemouth. This shortcut runs every day of the year and until late in the evening.

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power