Eating Out: Spinning a great line

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The Independent Culture
RESTAURANTS with high concepts and mission statements should, in my experience, be approached with some caution. They may shine brightly at first, sustaining the in-crowd for a few months or even a year or two with their glossy package of slick architecture and funked-up menu. But places like Quaglino's, Wagamama and Mash no longer have the cachet of round-the-block queues, or waiting lists to rival those for hip replacements. Lined up alongside the competition, including their own imitators, these one-time originals are too often found wanting where it matters most - on the plate. Some of them had it and lost it, others only ever looked as though they had it. The net result is the same: the foodie bolts for the door, with the fashion victim hot on his heels.

It was with this healthily sceptical outlook that I approached Fish! which must be - with its glass and steel housing, its own press release printed on the back of its paper place-mat menu, and its unfortunate exclamation mark (how much cooler it would have been to understate that delectable monosyllable) - the highest new concept in town.

I went with a friend of mine, Tom, who is a furniture designer by trade and also likes his fish (ideally battered and smothered in malt vinegar). Tom was "blown away" by the style of the place, and I must admit I was more or less "knocked out" myself. Tom admired the woven-steel chairs and the cutlery, which he surmised were both Italian. I liked the bar seating arrangement (Fish! calls itself a diner), which stretches for a good 30 metres in front of the open kitchen, affording the customer an unrivalled opportunity to scrutinise the food preparation. Having had a quick gawp, Tom and I went to sit at a "normal" table beside the restaurant's enormous glass wall.

The concept is made explicit on the menu, which outlines the extremely right-on buying policy: "wherever possible we buy line-caught fish", "we have asked a team of independent experts to monitor all our suppliers", etc. It also tells you in no uncertain terms that fish is the best thing, healthwise, since Popeye's spinach. This is all, without a doubt, a very good thing, as fish need all the help they can get these days. But this swanking about quality of supply and joy of fish on the back of the menu puts a lot of extra pressure on the front: it had better be good.

When it comes to ordering there is more concept to contend with: a section of the menu called "Choose your own ..." (what else do you do on a menu?) lists over 20 fish, with little square tick boxes next to each. Those that are available (when I went there were seven) have their boxes ticked. I liked this approach, even if it is a bit gimmicky. It emphasises (as if you hadn't got the message from the back of the menu) that everything is market fresh. Or, as I would have advised them to say if they'd hired me as their PR: "If it ain't in good nick, it don't get no tick."

For our starters we went to another bit of the menu, called "Piscivore", and both opted for timeless classics. My marinated herrings were good but not great: the fish itself could not be faulted, but came over-smothered in a mustardy sauce which, while not totally unpleasant, had a suspiciously bottled consistency. Considering how easy it is to knock up a lovely sauce for herring from creme fraiche, a bit of English mustard, a pinch of brown sugar, a splash of wine vinegar and a handful of chopped fresh dill, this was a disappointment. Tom's prawn cocktail was exemplary: fat cold-water prawns on a bed of shredded lettuce, and a pink sauce that had the balance of ketchup and mayo just right. For my taste, an extra pinch of cayenne and an extra squeeze of lemon would have made it perfect, but he was more than happy.

Tom forsook the option of fish and chips with mushy peas, which would have been a good test of the kitchen, for fish pie, which was perhaps an even better one. Topped with creamy mash, nicely browned on top, the fishy bit below boasted a range of species, all worthy of a tick, plus prawns, in a nicely balanced sauce, quite winey and herby and not too milky or floury. It was right up there with the fish pie my mother used to make (she's not dead yet, so quite why she's stopped I don't know) and that's high praise indeed.

But what really stood out, what made the height of the concept and the breadth of the boasting all worthwhile, was my main course: a piece of swordfish, simply grilled, which came with a mild salsa (my selection from a choice of accompaniments including Hollandaise, herb butter and red wine fish gravy, and applicable to any fish). I hardly noticed the salsa, because the swordfish itself was so utterly fine. This is a fish which is very very good when it's good, but so much more often is horrid. A day too long in the fridge or a minute too long on the grill and you have a fibrous juiceless piece of dried-up mealy pap. Get it right, as here, and you have the ultimate trade-off between white and oily fish: delicate richness, meaty succulence, robust subtlety. This was the best piece of swordfish I have ever had in this country.

If the rest of the Fish! menu maintains this quality of raw materials and timing in the kitchen (and, with swordfish being such a tough one to get right, there's no reason to doubt it does), then the high-concept swagger seems more than justified. I'd want to go back to be absolutely sure. But the fact that I can hardly wait to do so should tell you all you need to know for now.

Fish!

Cathedral Street, Borough Market, London SE1, 0171 836 3236. Lunch Mon-Fri 11.30am-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 5.30-11pm. Two-course dinner pounds 15-20. 12.5 per cent service added

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

It's astonishing that a restaurant with experienced management (Bank Group) can produce a wine list as sloppy as this one. It's not that the wines are bad; those I can identify are perfectly good. What astonishes is the failure to provide necessary information. A wine list offering `Sancerre, '97 Loire' and `Saumur Champigny, '97 Loire' is like a cheese menu presenting "Cheddar, England". Sancerre and Saumur-Champigny can be sublime; they can also be about as appetising as a well-chilled tumbler of uric acid. Unless you know who made the stuff, you don't know which version you're getting. Back to the drawing board, guys!

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