The big catch

A small cafe in Bath is shortly to be declared West Country Restaurant of the Year, overtaking Rick Stein's famous seafood restaurant in Padstow. Michael Bateman visits, and finds the honour richly deserved
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Indy Lifestyle Online

THE FISH in the window had evidently once been the kind of monster read about in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. But now, thanks to the inroads of the fishmongers, little was left of the 114lb yellow fin tuna save a giant fishbone.

THE FISH in the window had evidently once been the kind of monster read about in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. But now, thanks to the inroads of the fishmongers, little was left of the 114lb yellow fin tuna save a giant fishbone.

The Green Street Seafood Fish Market in Bath may not employ the baroque decorative skills of Harrod's Food Hall team but for impact it takes some beating. A few weeks ago there was an olive green turbot the size of a dustbin lid in place of the tuna, which the owner Mitchell Tonks had bought knowing that he'd have to sell it at £20 a pound to make a measly 50p a pound profit.

Bath, with a population of 60,000, has only this one fishmonger, but the town need not feel short-changed. This year it was named Fish Retailer of the Year by the food agency Food from Britain in conjunction with Country Living magazine. And in a few days' time, the Good Food Guide will announce that the little restaurant above the shop (where Tonks is chef) is West Country Restaurant of the Year, knocking Rick Stein's internationally- famous restaurant in Padstow off the top fish restaurant spot.

The restaurant is called the Green Street Seafood Cafe. It is modestly furnished with formica tables, the floorboards are bare and the woodwork painted a mustard- yellow. But the point is that fish doesn't come any fresher than this. It is bought daily at auction in Newlyn and sent by rail to Avonmouth where Tonks collects it. Customers can, if they want, buy a piece of fish in the shop and have it cooked in the restaurant for lunch.

Business is booming, contrary to the pessimistic forecasts for the fishing industry. While it's true that a combination of overfishing and the EC quota system is undermining prospects for cod, haddock, herring and other lower-priced fish, demand for more expensive fish is on the up. The huge tuna in the window is one such example.

Mitchell Tonks, the eldest of six children, comes from nearby Weston- Super-Mare. His father was an aviator, but Tonks harboured no other ambition than to become a fishmonger. He loved the smell of fish and he loved cooking it.

Now, having fulfilled his ambition and persuaded middle Britain that it's smart to eat high-priced, high- quality fish, he sells only premium fish: wild salmon (from the Severn), live lobster and langouste (otherwise known as spiny or rock lobster), crab, scallops, brill, monkfish, red and grey mullet, and gilthead bream.

Above all, he does a lively trade in the new aristocrat of the restaurant table, the sleek, silvery sea bass. Not the farmed fish, which are flabby and have little merit, but the ocean-fresh, line-caught specimens from Cornwall. To this end, he has a partnership with wholesaler Robert Clifford- Wing in a St Mawes day-boat, Joanna C, which brings in prime fish daily.

Mitchell Tonks sets out his costly fish as one might offer precious stones, displaying them under spotlights in a glass cabinet, where they lie sparkling beneath diamond-bright crystals of crushed ice, festooned with fresh herbs.

Each fish is labelled with its name and basic cooking methods, and Tonks shares recipe suggestions with his staff and customers. This urge to educate is expressed in his three-day courses (costing £160) on the preparation and cooking of fish - he has decided that the English love fish, but can't come to terms with the bones.

The restaurant has only 35 covers which are fully booked for lunch and dinner. Mitchell and his co-chef, Andrew Bird, keep dishes as unfussy as possible, believing fresh fish can speak for itself. The soup on this page is a case in point; simple in concept, brilliant in execution.

The Seafood Cafe, 6 Green Street, Bath. Tel 01225 448707

Five tips from the master fishmonger

FLAVOURINGS Too many flavourings will overpower fish. Flavour the accompaniments instead - for instance, mix herbs into mashed potatoes or serve with a flavoured risotto. Fish marries well with lemon, basil, rosemary and thyme and is particularly good with fennel (and other members of the aniseed family). Tonks sets out saucers of his own salsa on the restaurant tables - an oil seasoned with basil, mint, parsley, capers and lemon juice. You can either dip your bread in it, or pour it on your fish.

COOKING Fish is easily overcooked. Think of the flesh as a jelly which simply needs to set in the oven. Tonks recommends pan frying fish steaks in oil for a minute or two on each side to seal in the flavour, and then transferring them to a very hot oven for about six to eight minutes.

STRONG-TASTING FISH (such as sea bass) To retain the intense flavour and moistness of fish, cook it on a bed of sea salt. You need about a kilo of salt. Put salt in the bottom of an oven dish, brush the fish with oil and lay it on top, then cover it completely with salt. Bake in a very hot oven for 22 minutes exactly. Rest the dish for five minutes, then carefully crack away the salt and remove the now succulent fish. Brush with oil to give it back its sheen. The salt can be re-used a couple of times.

SEASONING Always season fish with salt before cooking.

WASTAGE Rather than let fish hang about in the fridge, losing essential freshness, convert any surplus into fish cakes. This is very simple. Make a pan of mashed potato in the usual way, beating with milk and butter and seasoning. Roast the fish in an oven tray for 10 minutes or so. When cool, flake and blend with the potato. Add herbs and spices to taste. Shape into flat cakes, dip in flour, and then in beaten egg and breadcrumbs. Fry in oil until brown and freeze if required. The better the offcuts, the better the fish cakes. Tuna with salmon is a good blend.

Fish soup with saffron

This soup is based on an Italian zuppa de pescatore, and it relies on freshness of produce to achieve its flavour. Any good firm fresh fish can be used

Serves 4

8 thin slices of sea bream (from a small fish)100g/4oz monkfish fillet4 langoustines12 mussels1.2l/2pts good fish stocka pinch good quality saffron strands2 fresh tomatoes, de-seeded and dicedsea salt8 slices French bread50g/2oz Gruyere cheese, grated4 tablespoons rouille (for recipe, see right)a clove of garlic

Boil fish stock and reduce by a third. Add the saffron and simmer gently for two to three minutes until the stock becomes a deep golden colour. Add the fish, starting with the larger pieces, and poach it gently for about five minutes until all the fish is cooked. Place even amounts in four warmed serving bowls. Add tomatoes to the remaining stock in the pan and boil for two minutes. Season to taste - it should taste fresh, and almost of the sea. Pour the sauce around fish and serve topped with croutons, Gruyere cheese and rouille (these can be served separately if you prefer).

For the croutons

Brush the bread with olive oil and bake in the oven until golden. Remove from the oven and rub with a cut clove of garlic.

Grilled red mullet with fennel, lemon and anchovy salad

The clean flavour of the red mullet is perfectly complemented by the aniseed. This salad is better left for a day or two to allow the flavours to mature. Tonks uses anchovies, but the addition of finely chopped dill or black olives works well. You can substitute other fish and shellfish for the red mullet

Serves 4

1 fennel bulb, cut in half from top to bottom and finely slicedsmall handful chopped fennel frondsjuice of 1 lemon1 teaspoon sugar syrup (sugar dissolved in boiling water)8 salted anchovy fillets3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oilsea salt and pepper4 red mullet (weighing 225-325g/ 8-12oz each), scaled and gutted

Combine all the ingredients together with the olive oil, except the red mullet, and leave overnight in the fridge for the flavours to develop. Brush the mullet with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Grill for three to four minutes on either side under a hot grill. Before serving, brush some more olive oil over the fish. To serve, lay the fish on the plate alongside the fennel salad and drizzle some good quality olive oil over the plate.

Rouille

1 slice bread soaked in fish stock12 chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped1 egg yolk2 cloves of garlica pinch of saffron4 tablespoons of olive oil

Place all the ingredients in a food processor, apart from the olive oil. When combined to a paste, slowly add the olive oil to form a thick emulsion,

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