When the cheese plate is the best thing at a fish restaurant, you know you are in trouble, says Julian Harris
22-24 Basil St, SW3 1AT Tel: 020 7589 5171
FOOD Two Star
VALUE Two Star
ATMOSPHERE Two Star
Cost per person with wine: £70
BACK in the day, a child from the poorest family in the street would shuffle to the counter of the local fish and chip joint and issue the following plea in perfect estuary English: “Got any coley for the cat?”
The queue of customers would look away, avoiding eye contact, trapped in the social awkwardness of the situation. For they knew – everyone knew – that the coley was not, indeed, for the cat. The poor Dickensian scamp had been sent to fetch the cheapest, discarded chunks of fish under the guise of feeding a fictitious feline. The fish was, rather, to stop him and his siblings from going hungry themselves. The kindly, round-bellied owner of the chippie would smile and gather up some pieces of coley and present them to the child in yesterday’s newspaper.
But times have moved on and I have discovered that tasteless, cardboard-like white fish is not, nowadays, limited to society’s most impoverished and unfortunate souls. The wonders of the modern world mean that it is, in fact, available in a plush Knightsbridge hotel around the back of Harrods for £70 a head, including wine.
“It doesn’t taste of fish... Or anything, really,” my guest whispered, trying not to be overheard in the near-silent front room of the Capital Hotel.
I had, admittedly, travelled to Outlaw’s Seafood and Grill with high hopes. As an obsessive consumer of anything that swims (a colleague recently said I must have more omega-3 in my system than any other human on the planet) the prospect of trying out founder Nathan Outlaw’s London venture was most exciting.
Outlaw is famed in Cornwall, where he worked at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, the home of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted. In subsequent years, venturing off on his own, Outlaw has earned Michelin stars. This background adds to the confusion concerning what is going wrong at his London restaurant. The portions are tiny – a dated attempt to convince the diner that they are being given sophisticated, special food, but the flavours are depressingly ordinary. A starter of lemon sole, crispy oyster, oyster sauce and cucumber left no lingering memory apart from floppy bits of green.
A basket of plain unaccompanied bread was dropped on the table, presumably in a bid to fill us up – a portent that the main courses would be equally insubstantial.
And they were. The parsley dumplings with my plaice and chestnut mushrooms were roughly the size of marbles and tasted as if the chef had mixed a bit of chopped-up herb into some regular Sunday lunchtime mash. The lemon and garlic flavouring was as uninspiring as it sounds.
With some relief, although still largely ravenous, we arrived at the desserts. Here, at least, there were some positives. The cheese plate was simple and well sourced, paired with a port selected by the waitress. But for a cheese course to be the saving grace of the night is unacceptable for a supposedly upmarket seafood restaurant. Our smiley waitress enthusiastically recommended the treacle tart to precede the cheese. This “baked to order” dessert was enjoyable enough but not sufficiently special to justify her zeal.
A long strip of window meant that the inside of the kitchen was visible from our table, and therein we saw the furrowed brows of the chefs while they hastily scurried around. As I observed the feverish activity therein, the mystery only deepened. How can all that concentrated care and attention result in such an average end product?
Fortunately, cracking this enigma is not my job, but it is surely the next challenge on Outlaw’s plate. The capital city is no place to be losing one’s otherwise strong reputation.