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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?