Restaurant: Fresh from the sea

No-nonsense fish in Waterloo
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The Independent Culture
Just as the EC fish wars threaten a shortage of our national dish, English fish cookery is at last beginning to do justice to the seafood found around our shores. Recipes are trawled from all over the world - from Provencal anchoiade to Japanese tempura - giving fresh fish a contemporary twist and treating British battering and French saucing with circumspection.

Livebait is one of the few London restaurants to take this modern approach. The menu itself is an education in the many varieties of seafood, much of it caught round Britain. There are crabs from Poole, turbot, lobster and octopus from Cornwall, and porbeagle shark caught off the Scilly Isles, as well as oysters, of course. More exotic fish include yabbies from Australia. All are piled enticingly on ice in front of the open kitchen where, in a remarkably small space, those that escape the crustacea platter (pounds 15.95) are vividly cooked, drawing on influences from the Middle and Far East, the Mediterranean, North Africa, northern Europe - and often more than one of these on one plate.

There may be bouillabaisse, or a chowder made with various clams and mussels; Cornish turbot with basmati and wild rice, with turmeric and coconut and curry sauce; squid in oriental dressing, with roast pepper mayonnaise, baba ghanoush and pousse spinach. This is a crash course in the changing fortunes and fashions of fish. Cod is poached with warm spring vegetables; hake is elevated by a couscous crust. Meanwhile monkfish - once breaded as a substitute for scampi, more recently fashionable in its own right - is demoted to fish-and-chips status by a coating of beer batter.

In spite of this wholesale celebration of seafood. the restaurant's decor avoids both nautical kitsch and silver-plated fishknife gentility. It looks like a cleaned-up eel, pie and mash shop, with its dark seaweed green and white chequered tiles, bench seating and ribbed glass screens. Prices are keen, for food that demands precision cooking. Starters are about pounds 5, main courses double that. Cheaper still is the pounds 11 pre- and post-theatre deal. Customers are a varied bunch, thanks to Livebait's down-to-earth appeal and its mixed catchment area, where southeast London meets the centre of town.

The Young Vic is over the road; it's a programme's wave away from the Old Vic and within dining distance of the South Bank. During the day the nearby street market, college, council housing and off-West End businesses provide a different culture. When I visited, elderly shopkeepers were lunching on fruits de mer at one table; at another, sub-Ab Fab women from a nearby magazine empire drank Veuve Clicquot and ate turbot. Market traders dropped by for seafood stall standbys: whelks, winkles and cockles, for a couple of quid a pint.

Before we'd started on the fish dishes, the cooking showed its colours with splendid bread flavoured with golden turmeric and black pepper, garlic and thyme - even a pink, beetroot dough.

Then king scallops came gently spiced and tinted with turmeric, cucumber raita, roast tomatoes and endive. A piquant underlay of finely chopped coriander, onion and tomato as a warm salsa cleverly matched various elements - Moroccan spicing, Indian relish and Med veg - without conflict. A perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of tuna with okra and red pepper ragout and half a boiled egg was another starter; the egg earned its place here by being cooked with as much split-second timing as the fish.

Beneath the couscous, a generous, dazzlingly white piece of hake was garnished with tender strips of pink cuttlefish and served with spinach and green lentils - organic, apparently. The monkfish and crevette in beer batter with fries, tartare sauce and mountain rocket was a top class, crisply covered bit of fish, though softer flesh might have been better in batter than the chewy monk. The few and rather floppy chips suggested that the heart of the restaurant lies more in the traditions of the Mediterranean than in the English seaside.

Cheering puddings include chocolate brownie with a plum inside - a gratifying combination of gritty and gooey - and mango mousse with wild strawberries and cream. A mug of tea wouldn't be out of place here, but the espresso, in creamy, Fifties crockery, hits the spot.

Just when it seemed as if London's swaggeringly big restaurants might blow others out of the water, Livebait shows that small, specialised, idiosyncratic places can hold their own. Last month it beat them all to win Time Out's Best New Restaurant award.

Livebait is not for a big night out: it isn't slick; it serves only fish; it doesn't serve a simply grilled Dover sole; it has an outside lav - but it is a winning restaurant. Let's hope it can keep that up and keep the prices down

Livebait, 43 The Cut, SE1 (0171-928 7211) Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. About pounds 25 for three courses and coffee. Pre- (5.30-7pm) and post-theatre (9.30pm-last orders), two-course dinner pounds 11. Major credit cards, not Amex or Diners

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