The first time I visited Prawn on the Lawn was at the Padstow outpost – a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment hidden in the back streets of the seaside town. When I walked up to its unassuming door, I truly thought I’d found my idea of heaven. In the depths of lockdown, when I was about as far away from the ocean as you can get and truly missing the incandescent beauty of real life and the splendour of a dinner out, it was often my first meal at Prawn on the Lawn that I dreamt of. Perhaps influenced by that slightly giddy holiday feeling and the fact that we were a stone’s throw from the port where the fish we were eating was brought in, it was one of the best meals I could remember in recent history.
I have returned a few times since, both to the expanded Prawn on the Farm – the summertime pop-up just outside of Padstow developed off the back of Covid-19 and pandemic restrictions – and to the London iteration. Arriving at the latter, I was nervous. How could you recreate the magic of eating seafood literal steps from the sea? Instead, we were smack bang in the middle of Islington, soundtracked by the never-ending thrum of cars careening down St Paul’s Road. I had simultaneously high and low expectations – on the one hand hoping the food was as good as I remembered, and on the other believing it surely couldn’t be. And yet, it was. Of course, it was. Even on my most recent visit, one week back to indoor dining, it proved that not even the knock-on effect of the lockdown can break its stride.
Starting its life as a fishmonger in that very same north London location, Prawn on the Lawn originally only had a compact eight-cover seafood bar, serving up cured and cold bites with zero cooking involved thanks to a lack of anything resembling a kitchen. The understandably exponential rise in popularity led to a cooker being fitted, a larger dining space being sought and the introduction of a constantly rotating selection of small plates – but the bones of the operation still remained the same. The Padstow restaurant came later, in part thanks to owners Rick and Katie Toogood’s constant trips down to Cornwall to source their ingredients. It would take a whopper of a spot to rival the place often nicknamed “Padstein” thanks to Rick Stein’s seafood-laden influence on the town, and yet, Prawn on the Lawn managed to carve out a space for itself that complimented the existing establishments, rather than trying to emulate them.
There are two options for ordering when you visit Prawn on the Lawn. You can either opt for the fish or shellfish fresh off the boat that day, cooked whole with little intervention – simply served with your choice of sauce, or you can go for the small plates. While the former is a grand option, celebrating the restaurant’s central fishmonger-style ethos, I have never been able to look past the selection of tapas-style plates. Managing to be at once inventive, without overwhelming the delicacy of the seafood, the menu is ever-changing based on what the fishermen catch that day – so much so that items may even be wiped off the blackboard as you eat.
The restaurant has a strong relationship with its suppliers, one of which being Trevibban Mill, a low-intervention vineyard found just outside Padstow. I have made it a habit to start any meal at Prawn on the Lawn with a glass of the winery’s Black Ewe pink sparkling, and it has always managed to bring a tiny hint of that holiday feeling I first felt in Padstow. Accompanied with half a dozen of whatever oysters they have on the board that day, and you have a cracking kick-off to any meal.
While the menu is never the same, a few items have cropped up regularly on my visits. The eponymous Prawn on the Lawn dish is deceptively simple. Essentially smashed avocado on toast topped with a zingy, citrus-dressed prawn, it is a perfectly balanced dish that sums up the restaurant’s approach to food. The seared tuna is always perfectly cooked, featherlight slices doused in a soy and mirin dressing that complements the meaty fish wonderfully.
Then comes the Szechuan prawns. Grilled ’til crisp, they are coated in a spice mix that’s heavily spiked with numbing Szechuan pepper. Eating these is an almost out of body experience: spicy, salty, crunchy… the coating so good you could mop it up with bread (which of course we did). Take this as your warning not to wear anything white or delicate – this is a plate that requires your hands, and leaves you covered top to toe in the stuff, but boy is it worth it. The tempura fish is another favourite – delicately battered and fried until crunchy, the accompanying nam jim sauce is lightly sweet and salty, mingling perfectly with the shatteringly crisp fish.
Whatever is on the menu when you visit, however, you can be sure it’ll be good. This week’s visit featured a salmon ceviche, topped with ras el hanout and hazelnuts, a blissful combination of lightly cured salmon, earthen spice and crunch. Previous trips have seen dishes like scallops and ’nduja, and crispy-skin fillets of fish accompanied by Mediterranean chickpeas, topped with dukkha.
Then there are the potatoes. Oh, the potatoes. The first time we ate them, my partner ordered a second round almost immediately, and I was certain that if the potatoes were a human, he would have begun a sordid love affair in an instant. Luckily for me (and for everyone, really) they sell the spice mix by the pouch – although I’ve never quite been able to achieve the same lustful level of crunch.
I must admit, Prawn on the Lawn holds a special place in my heart. But it takes a magical spot to be so consistently good, its joy transcending the salty shores of Padstow and brightening the gloomy streets of London. Rick and Katie have done something particularly lovely here, and diners both in the capital and out are all better off for it.
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