Wright Brothers Spitalfields, restaurant review: We worked our way through an aquarium
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 22 March 2014
Exactly a century after their aerial namesakes, Orville and Wilbur, took to the air in 1903, the UK Wright Brothers – actually they're cousins, Ben Wright and Robin Hancock – took off in 2003, when they opened an oyster and seafood bar in London's Borough Market. The Market was at its apogee of trendiosity. City slickers flocked to the open-fronted premises, scarfing down plates of oysters, mussels, prawns and langoustine as if they were in Marseilles.
The Brothers said they were on a quest, to reinstate oysters as central to British cuisine. In the 18th century, they were immensely popular, the poor man's lunch. This century, Hancock told the thunderstruck catering world, the French produce 2,000 million every year, while the British produce a mere 20 million (and we're surrounded by water). He and Wright run the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm on the Helford river in Cornwall, whence they sell them (and mussels) wholesale to 150 seafood restaurants in London. They're the main bivalve distribution service to the metropolis. And they're pretty good at eating-houses. After Borough Market, they opened a second oyster house in Kingly Street, just behind Liberty's. Now they've gone for the hat-trick.
The new joint is on a prime site which once housed a tapas bar, Meson Los Barriles – where Gilbert and George regularly dropped in and ate the same meal every time. Apparently they still do. "I'm not entirely sure," said one of the waiters, "they've noticed it's no longer a tapas bar."
Inside, it's light and airy and stripped-down, the walls bare, the wooden mantle-shelf distressed, the brickwork exposed. You can sit at tables alongside the blue tanks where crab, lobster and oysters lurk in the salted water, and you can choose which you want to devour. (I couldn't do it myself: I'd feel I'd somehow established a relationship with the hapless creature, and I'm afraid I would spend lunch with "Under the Sea" sung by Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid, running round my head.) Alternatively, you can perch at the long marble bar, order a nice £27 carafe of Mendoza chardonnay and, as my friend James and I did, order practically everything on the menu. There are only three actual main courses. Before them come 40 seafood dishes, mostly plain and unadorned, their freshness alone designed to delight the marine foodie.
James and I worked our way through a whole aquarium of shellfish. When many dishes are offered at £3-£5 per 100gms, you tend to try everything. Whelks were a revelation – the beautiful spiral shells, like mini-conches, the slightly obscene fat bullets inside. Isle of Barra cockles were teeny bonsai snacks, while the razor clams were gigantic, cream-coloured eels. Atlantic prawns were so fresh you practically had to shake the ocean off their trembling orange bodies. The solitary Isle of Lewis langoustine was a miracle of briny suppleness. The winkles were a waste of time, frankly; life's too short to winkle out their shy flesh with a cocktail stick.
Everyone knows oysters are best with just a squeeze of lemon, but I thought I'd try the Wright Brothers' dressed version. The smoked Frenchman's Creek version, straight from Cornwall, were served, shelled and naked, on oat crackers with horseradish cream and pickled cucumber, a joyous riot of tastes rather than a battle.
We shared a whole brown crab, cracking it with seafood shears, picking the white meat out of the legs. The claw meat, cooked for just 12 minutes, was exquisitely tender, coming away from the cartilage, needing hardly any anointing with aioli. If we found ourselves struggling with the fiddly bits of crab-leg, Andre, our charming Portuguese waiter with the tunnel earrings, hastened to our side to help, while the charming manager Simon chatted about the ordeal of trying to cook two Godzilla-sized king crabs, named Boris and Cleopatra, which were delivered last week.
After this onslaught, my main-course braised cuttlefish with wild garlic and Jersey Royal potatoes wasn't necessary, but tasted good in a heftily herby broth. James's crab omelette was perfectly done, an accompanying shellfish bisque unassertive but complementary. A complex potato galette was a welcome side-dish, like a hugely elaborate French fry, while some white beans and escarole with a kick of harissa filled the mouth with flavours. To finish, we only just managed a heavenly Savarin, a variant of rum baba, drenched with Grand Marnier and served with whipped cream.
This banquet wasn't cheap, and some of our crab-wranglings were messy and fiddly. But there are few delights to match spending an afternoon with a friend devouring a dozen seafood items at their freshest and best. If the Wright Brothers are determined to re-invent seafood all over the nation, I'll fly with them all the way.
Wright Brothers Spitalfields, 8-9 Lamb Street, London E1 (020-7377 8706). Around £140 for two, including wine
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