If anyone needed proof that mankind could not have evolved from an aquatic life form, I suggest that they take a look at an English beach in summer - the hairless, sock-polished legs of the men, the white bodies lying on tortuously hard pebbles, and the flapping and the dancing in the icy water. If that doesn't settle the matter, then the food should: scones, pies, chips, crisps, baked beans and ice-cream. If there is fish, it is unrecognisable. Battered and deep-fried, it is just an excuse for more chips.
But, every now and then, a new seaside mecca emerges, serving fresh fish and shellfish to the sound of wheeling seagulls on a sunny terrace overlooking the ocean. Only then is it possible to suspect there is a real affinity between those of the land and those of the sea.
The two meet over lunch at the cliff-top Pebble Beach at Barton-on-Sea near Bournemouth with great success. I sit with the Solent at my feet, my view of the Needles and the Isle of Wight obscured by a seafood platter so vast that it is greeted with a ripple of applause from my fellow terrace dwellers. Presented on a vast tray of ice, it isn't so much a platter as a buffet. A good-sized Cornish crab and an equally hefty spider crab are joined by four beautifully cooked langoustines, six good prawns, a clutch of cockles and palourde clams, a scattering of mussels, and four huge, fleshy Irish rock oysters, forming lunch for two consenting adults for £29.50. Throw in glasses of chilled New Zealand Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc at £5.50 a pop, and it's welcome to Nirvana-on-Sea. If you found a seafood platter in London for £30, you'd be lucky to get half this catch. It makes me want to eat by the sea again as soon as possible. Easily fixed - I book for dinner as well.
The chef of this madly popular restaurant-with-rooms is Pierre Chevillard, formerly of Chewton Glen, where, according to the Pebble Beach website, he taught Jean-Christophe Novelli to cook. To those who say that a seafood platter is no test of a chef, I say that is a load of dressed crap. The sourcing and care of such perishable produce is a craft in itself.
After a two-hour walk along the shore, the sun is thinking about setting, the view is getting more distant by the minute, and unfortunately I find the outside tables have already been allocated. My far inferior indoor table is squeezed in behind a large pillar and a vast vase of decorative twigs on the upper floor of the split-level dining room, next to a linen and glass cupboard in constant use, and within spitting distance of an ivory piano and a pianist with more than a fair share of Elton John songs in his ring-bound folder. I feel I have not so much moved indoors but back in time, to a mid-budget resort hotel with apricot walls and busy carpet, where every second guest is a retiree and the young waiting staff take on the appearance of fresh-faced grandchildren.
The main menu covers all possibilities, from double-baked emmenthal cheese soufflé, to a swag of chicken, lamb and beef dishes. The "lighter options" on offer include fish and chips, steamed mussels and seafood pancakes, while "daily specials" include roasted turbot cutlet with thyme and garlic (£18.90) and braised whole John Dory with olives and saffron on pommes boulanger and globe artichokes (£17.50). It's a bit all over the place, really, and so is the cooking.
A tartar of marinated salmon (£7.50) is not the clean, refreshing raw dish that I expected, but an old-fashioned muddle of cubed salmon doused in crème fraîche, decorated with sliced cucumber, tomato "petals" and a sneeze of snipped chives. Then again, a Cornish crab soup is better than I could hope: deeply flavoured, generous, heady and satisfying, and laughably good value at £5.90.
I had seen both John Dory and turbot arrive by little white van direct from the West Coast during the afternoon, so decisions were easy. The whole dory is cooked and served on soft, flavoursome potatoes, its snow-white flesh scented by thyme. More tomato petals and mangetout add nothing but fuss. Likewise, the appeal of two generously meaty turbot fillets topped with a thatch of thyme is compromised by lacklustre broccoli florets, lollo rosso and - this is now getting annoying - more mangetout. Such good fish don't need fill-'em-up fodder such as this.
The wine list is a bit of a rag-bag but an opinionated one - rather like somebody's personal cellar. A Canadian Mission Hill 2004 Pinot Noir from British Colombia's Okanagan Valley is no Burgundy but, for £23.50, it's easy-going, balanced, and bursting with fruit.
Moving outside for the final course, I devour a whole rosy poached peach (£6) teamed with redcurrants, peach jelly, nutty pistachio shortbread and good ice-cream, like a new-wave peach Melba. The suburbia behind me drifts away, and the world is reduced to just us, the full moon and the sea, with the faint echo of Elton John in the background. The evolution of man continues. s
Pebble Beach, Marine Drive, Barton-On-Sea, Hampshire, tel: 01425 627 777. Lunch and dinner served daily. Dinner around £85 for two including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More restaurants beside the seaside
Seafood Restaurant The Scores, Bruce Embankment, St Andrews, Fife, tel: 01334 479 475 This glass-walled, futuristically designed restaurant hangs, seemingly suspended, over the St Andrews foreshore. Eat local seafood, from freshly opened Kilbrandon oysters to home-cured gravlax, and turbot with polenta cake.
Hotel Tresanton 27 Lower Castle Road, St Mawes, Cornwall, tel: 01326 270 055 Olga Polizzi brings a touch of the Med to Cornwall with her chic, elegant hotel. Heaven is a table on the terrace with views across the bay, a platter of fresh, Italian-influenced seafood, and a glass of something chilled.
Westbeach Pier Approach, Bournemouth, Dorset, tel: 01202 587 785 Awarded AA seafood restaurant of the year in 2005, Westbeach has a smart, contemporary feel, with a much-in-demand outside deck set against a backdrop of Bournemouth Beach and Poole Bay. The seafood comes in every day, from local fishermen as well as the markets.Reuse content