It's probably just as well there's no headline on this page any more. Otherwise how would we have resisted "'Ullo John, Got a New Bloater?" for a piece about Alexei Sayle in an East End seafood restaurant? Alexei may have once had a Cockney-baiting novelty hit, but he was happy to meet for lunch in the heart of occupied territory, Mile End. He's a connoisseur of the surreal, as readers of his occasional Independent column will appreciate, and relished the idea of eating in a place as unappealing-sounding as Winkles.
Name aside, the concept is a strong one. Winkles is an update of the traditional East End seafood restaurant, serving shellfish - your cockles, whelks and other alive, alive-o specimens - alongside modern-European fish dishes. There are daily specials, a moderately priced wine list and a takeaway counter selling pints of prawns, dressed crab and fresh fish.
What there isn't, though, is atmosphere. Winkles occupies the ground floor of a bland new-build development, well away from the main shopping drag of the Roman Road, with little passing trade. The corner site has been decked out to give a chirpy, seaside feel, with café chairs, chalked-up specials and marine blue table-tops. But on the day of our visit, it was the seaside off-season; we were the only customers.
Chef Frank Oliko has worked at Smiths of Smithfield and The Ivy, as well as a couple of Conran restaurants, and his menu is more metro than retro - think baby octopus salad and Thai prawn omelette rather than potted shrimps. There are no meat dishes, but vegetarians are offered a daily special.
Instead of bread, we chewed our way through a bowl of vinegary cockles to begin. That was more than enough Cockernee shellfish for me; I went over to the yuppie side for a starter of expertly pan-fried diver scallops on a bed of (rather bland) crushed chickpeas.
Alexei stayed with the hard stuff, with the individual seafood platter. Or, as they bill it, an "assiette de mer". An assiette de mer on the Roman Road? What's wrong with yer good old English, as Alf Garnett might have said.
Still, it was an excellent, fresh selection, including tiny brown shrimp, whelks, oysters and langoustine, and at £13.50, reasonable value. You'd pay around £35 for something similar at a Conran place. Mind you, at a Conran place, there'd be other customers, and therefore something to listen to apart from the relentless working of your own jaw through marine protein.
The fish special of the day was pan-fried turbot with herb mash; an excellent bit of really fresh fish, served on the bone and liberally squinched in lemon zest, olive oil and chopped herbs. Alexei's salmon fishcake was also a fine specimen, and he thought the hollandaise sauce compared favourably with The Ivy's, though our accompanying seasonal veg - fried courgettes and some rather musty red cabbage - were less impressive.
Alexei's very funny new novel, Overtaken, contains a description of the worst meal imaginable, which starts with a pork chop garnished with hummus and half a pear, and ends with digestive biscuits, whipped cream and Smarties. Echoes of that dessert hung over the one we tried at Winkles, a slab of solidified chocolate, raisins and crunchy biscuit bits which would have been rejected as too sweet by a pack of starving six-year-olds. Oh well, if you order something called "Chocolate biscuit cake", you get what you deserve.
At around £30 a head without wine, Winkles is a tad more expensive than Tubby Isaacs' stall, but with the well-heeled settlers of Victoria Park just down the road, it deserves to attract a local following. As Alexei pointed out, if it was in France, it would be packed. Then again if it was in France, it would be called "Bigorneaux", and that doesn't sound much better than Winkles.
SECOND HELPINGS: INLAND SEAFOOD
By Caroline Stacey
Busy fish bistro puts a spin on seafood by serving some in shot glasses. It's all fresh, simple and successful. For some, the platter of fruits de mer is plenty, but remember, there's sticky toffee pudding to fit in.
625a Ecclesall Road, Sheffield (0114 268 0999)
Large brasserie has some of the best fish and seafood in landlocked Birmingham. Always fish and chips, and also a daily changing roster of seared scallops, sole on the bone, fillet of brill, seabass and lobster.
4 Brindleyplace, Birmingham (0121-633 4466)
The original of a group of fishmongers with connected seafood cafés. Fish, mostly from Cornwall, is sensational and the cooking spot on. Fish stew, River Fowey mussels, skate with black butter, and fruits de mer.
6 Green Street, Bath (01225 448707)
This excellent fish restaurant on the village green has an inn-crowd buzz. Shellfish and fish comes mostly from Scotland, and is so fresh it can be served as sashimi or cooked with flair the Med way.
Stane Street, Ockley, Surrey (01306 627430)