John Walsh suggests Six good fish restaurants

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The Independent Culture
FITZROVIA Bernard Walsh was the founder of the Wheeler's chain of piscine eateries now in the hands of Rocco Forte; but his influence lives on through his grandchildren, Michael and Elaine Emmanuel, who opened Walsh's, 5 Charlotte St, W1 (0171-637 0222).They're v ery welcoming, you can eat at a counter beside the bar if you're in a hurry, or else in one of three dining areas that are hushed and rather posh but not disablingly so. Rock oysters are £11.50 for six, but are probably the most voluptuous mouthful in ce ntral London. Main courses are either lobster or Dover Sole, each got up in a variety of exciting ways: meuniere, fruits de mer, bonne femme, thermidor. I can only urge you towards the divine Dover Sole Colbert, a glistening golden curtain offish, deep- fried, split open and filled with spicy Cafe de Paris butter.

Open for lunch noon-2.30pm, Mon-Fri; dinner 6pm-10.30pm, Mon-Sat. Major credit cards.

CITY Step through the door of Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street, EC4 (0171-248 3062) and you're pitched back into a Fifties, Ealing comedy dream of fly-blown London grottiness, from the swirly-mosaic vinyl floor and the Ascot boiler on the wall to the custard-yellow walls and off-white china coffee-mugs. Around you stand slightly seedy banking types and clerks with Ian Botham haircuts. Don't be fooled. Sweetings has occupied this mid-City site for a century - and looks it - but when you've fought for a seat at one of the four main eating-counters (each served by a permanently-present waiter), you'll be surprised how delicious their old-fashioned fare is. Real turtle soup, delicately crunchy whitebait, potted shrimps and dressed crab for starters, followed by all manner of classic English fish dishes: anything with gills and a fin that can be poached, grilled or fried is here. If the prices seem steep (halibut and turbot are £16), try the fried fresh haddock (£7.50) and you won't regret it.

Open for lunch, 11am-3 pm, Mon-Fri. No credit cards.

COVENT GARDEN Like a late-Victorian matron, complete with farthingale, in the middle of Tin Pan Alley is Sheekey's, 28-32 St Martin's Court, WC2 (0171-240 2565), one of the more reliably smart and inventive places to consume the crustacean. Its centenaryis next year, and the grinning mugshots on its walls bear witness to several generations of thespians who played theatres nearby. The food is pretty eclectic for a fish joint - eggs Muscovite (served with smoked salmon and caviar), Dublin Bay prawns andcrab salad - and the main courses are full of elaborate surprises, some spectacular (noisettes of sole with scallops princesse, asparagus and truffles), some bordering on the idiotic (brill with crab and coconut, stewed eels in green liquor). Surprisingly, some of the unfussy grilled dishes can reveal shortcomings in freshness, but the vegetables are spot-on. Unless you choose carefully, you may find yourself on the wrong end of a three-figure bill. An experience, though.

Open Mon-Fri noon-11.15 pm, Sat 5.30pm-11.15pm. Major credit cards.

PICCADILLY Caviar may strike the young or the very impressionable as the last word in glamorous ichthyophagy, but it's never done much for me except sit briefly on the tongue as a kind of fizzy, expensive slush. If you must throw money at the Iranian regime's chief export, you should head for The Caviar House, 161 Piccadilly, W1 (0171-409 0445), a prime location for visiting Americans with slightly more money than sense, and for caviar pilgrims who can further indulge their ruinous habit in the handsomeshop attac hed to the restaurant. The service is attentive and charming, and the view of envious Piccadilly strutters not unpleasing. You can choose your caviar from six types, from Sevruga to the top-of-the-range Imperial, and three sizes (30 gms - 150gms); it co mes in its original tin on a crucible of ice with blinis, sour cream, lemons and Jersey Royal potatoes (of which the most memorable constituents were, to my unco-operative palate, the blinis and the spuds). House specialities are lobster with truffles, s ea bass with tagliolini al caviale, and smoked salmon with yet more caviar, though less roe-flavoured fish dishes are available, such as a delicious John Dory served with minted pea puree.

Open Mon-Sat noon-3 pm and 7.30pm-11pm. Major credit cards.

The decor at the Cafe Fish, 39 Panton St, SW1 (0171-930 3999) suggests an artily up-market chippie in a noisy seaside town, but its variety and inventiveness put many of its grander peers to shame. Refreshingly, they seem to have given some thought to the point of grilling, steaming or frying certain dishes: thus their charcoal selection starts with a beefy skewer of monkfish, shark and chilli sauce; their steam selection goes for delicate flavours - lemon sole fillet on young leeks and new potatoes; and if you really want deep-fries (they imply with snorts of contempt) you can have battered cod or breaded plaice like your grandpa used to. At the snobbier end, their specialites include lovingly glazed lobster, sauteed scallops with Chinese vegetables, and a congress of turbot and brill with mushrooms. Seekers after new experiences ought to give the lightly curried Cafe Fish Kedgeree a whirl. A medium-expensive treat for connoisseurs, i f you don't mind the bucket-and-spade atmospherics.

Open Mon-Fri noon-3pm, Mon-Sat 5.45pm-11.30pm. Major credit cards

ST JAMES'S Overton's at 5 St James's St, SW1 (0171-839 3774) has a menu that grudgingly features a few non-piscine events (fettucini, magret of duck, venison) but mostly deals in the fish dishes that have given the place its eminence. Pan-fried scallops with savoy cabbage and Alsace bacon are a toothsome starter, shellfish soup with lemon, thyme and creme chantilly will make you swoon. To follow, old-timers will go for the Dover sole fillets with spinach and parmesan sabayon, wacky modernists will favour the riot of flavours of the grilled sea bass with black beans, spring onions and ginger risotto. Real connoisseurs will wait until Friday for the lunchtime special of baby monkfish with sweet roasted onions and peppers. Two courses for a prix fixe £19.95 (without wine or 12.5 per cent service) is a bit cher, but you're paying for decades of venerable endeavour.

Open 12.30pm-2.45pm Mon-Fri, 6.30pm-10.45pm. Major credit cards.

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