Restaurants: Oyster extravagance

Whitstable is famous for its seafood - but is it becoming too popular for its own good? Vivienne Heller finds out
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Gingham-check tablecloths and Sarson's vinegar bottles remind you that oysters were not always a rich-man's dish; indeed Dickens noted: "Where there are oysters, there's poverty." Scouring the blackboard menu, though, I reflected that the price of this little lot looked equal to a king's ransom. Still, when in Whitstable...

Half a dozen local oysters lounged on a bed of ice. Fat and meaty, they hit the spot. Vincent's starter, however, dampened any ardour that might have been provoked. His deep-fried squid wallowed in oily batter, with a charmless chip-shop presentation - a dollop of mayo, a sad sprig of coriander. I hastily turned my attention to my surroundings. Cheerful families and courting couples clustered around wooden tables fresh with tulips and candles. And my window view was a perfect composition: the hull of an old boat with a beachy backdrop.

I was distracted by the arrival of our main courses. Eight pairs of lugubrious langoustines fixed me with their dead eyes, legs tucked up like synchronised swimmers. The one nod to the "salad" tag was a small heap of lettuce at the side. Well, they were delicious, even if I had to work for my supper; and proved educational as architect Vincent used their sad little bodies to demonstrate the escape mechanisms of a prawn (though these, obviously, were pretty poor specimens). He struck oil again with his rich seared scallops in sauce vierge, and the chips were soggy enough to be spared any ministration from me.

And so to pud. While main courses were limited - two choices of fish (haddock, salmon) and a few shellfish offerings - a long list of desserts cried out to be sampled. We had chocolate-and-hazelnut ice cream and a pear tart, which were polished off in a flash.

This would have been a jolly meal at half the cost. With the nearby fish market selling oysters at less than a tenth of the price, next time I've resolved that I shall take a bottle of wine, find a quiet spot on the beach, and do it myself.

Whitstable Oyster Co, Sea Wall, Whitstable (01227 276856) around pounds 30 a head


Pearson's Crab & Oyster House

Sea Wall, Whitstable, Kent

(01227 272005) around pounds 15

The Seafood Restaurant

Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall

(01841 532485) around pounds 34

Palais du Jardin

136 Long Acre, WC2

(0171-379 5353) around pounds 30