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We were up and at it on Saturday morning, hitting the road early for a trip to Lyme Regis, home of Hix Oyster and Fish House. The Fish House has been on my ‘restaurants to visit’ list for a while now so I was excited to be on my way. Fresh British fish can be hard to beat and such a special treat, fitting for a belated birthday lunch.

The restaurant is in a prime location in Lyme Regis on the hillside overlooking the small harbour and, on a sunny day like Saturday, with a view for miles down the Jurassic coastline and out across the glistening sea. The modern ‘beach hut’ has floor to ceiling windows on two sides and the layout of the tables means that you can enjoy the magnificent view wherever you’re sitting.

The menu changes daily and, as you’d expect, is predominantly fish based, though on Saturday there were a few dishes for those who’d prefer meat and a couple of vegetarian starters. It was also great to see so many sea vegetables appearing on the menu.

We kicked off the meal with a glass of Prosecco and some rock oysters, one of each variety between us (Carlingford Lough, Brownsea Island, Portland Royals, Devon Yealms). Wonderfully fresh and tasting of the sea.

From the starters, we chose monkfish cheeks with peas, bacon and tarragon, Fowey mussel and Burrow Hill cider broth and soused Torbay gurnard with sea purslane.

The monkfish cheeks were meaty and tasty but the bacon and tarragon were lost in the peas. Such strong flavours, you’d expect them to stand out. The broth was delicious, topped with a few plump mussels, but to me was more a potage than a broth. More a criticism of the menu writing than the dish itself! The flavour of the soused gurnard was perfect, such a shame that the skin had been left on making it impossible to eat and that in parts the fish was still raw. When we raised the issue with the waitress, we were offered an alternative and chose the Fish House salad. This was a take on a Nicoise with mackerel fillets in place of tuna – nice but not spectacular.

For our main courses we chose grilled fillet of Portland Race sea bass with Atlantic prawns and sea spinach, grilled Dorset Blue lobster with wild garlic and chips (it was my birthday!), grilled Bigbury Bay dabs with green sauce and Barrington potatoes, and chargrilled lamb cutlets with deep-fried sweetbreads and wild garlic.

The sea bass was beautiful and a picture on the plate (the photo doesn’t do it justice).  Disappointing though that the Atlantic prawns had been replaced by clams without a word of explanation or a check to see if the subsitution was acceptable. The lobster was finger licking good and the wild garlic sauce a perfect combination, only to be let down by the seriously late arrival of the chips. The dabs and green sauce were tasty but a salsa verde made by hand rather than in a blender would have really elevated the dish. The lamb cutlets turned out to be one thick and slightly underwhelming chop, though the sweetbreads a crispy and interesting addition to the dish.

The kitchen, which we discovered at this point was running without a head chef owing to a serious knife wound, redeemed itself with the desserts; a refreshing blackcurrant sorbet, a palate cleansing lemon sorbet and a tangy, though untraditional (the cake base ran through the cheese mixture), cheesecake.

The food aside, the service is what let the Fish House down the most. When eating out and paying the relatively high price that this kind of restaurant commands, I like to be made to feel welcome and special. Instead I felt we were just another punter and an imposition, our waitress at her most cheerful as we said goodbye. The restaurant wasn’t busy during our visit and with three waitresses on hand a more personal and friendly touch could have been offered.

We’d heard good reviews before our visit and more since so maybe we just caught them on an off day. Perhaps we’ll be able to go again sometime soon and our experience will live up to the stunning setting. 

If you’re in the area on a bright day and wanting to give it a try, my recommendation would be to head outside onto the balcony with a glass of wine and a tray of oysters to soak up the view and take in the sea air. Watching people out there whilst we were eating, I couldn’t help but think that that’s the good life!

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Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book was first published in English in 1938. Simone Prunier quickly became THE authority on fish cookery in England. She opened her restaurant in London in 1934 where she gained a reputation for cooking impressive and innovative fish and shellfish dishes. 

The book is mainly a collection of recipes from her father, Emile Prunier, himself a renowned restaurateur in Paris, who shortly before his death had collated his recipes and prepared an outline for a book, but failed to publish it before he passed away. His business partner, Michel Bouzy, was the first to publish Emile’s collection of recipes in 1929; Simone’s Fish Cookery Book is a revised version of that publication. 

‘If Madame Prunier has her way, English people will soon become much more “fish-conscious”, and by asking for cheaper and more unfamiliar fishes will soon find that a demand is created.’ Ambrose Heath, original editor of Fish Cookery. 

It is sad to think that what Madame Prunier was hoping to achieve from publishing the book is still a battle for fishermen and chefs today. The chapter on salt-water fish starts with the editor’s introduction ‘She has always been a little puzzled why it is we cannot as a rule get fishes such as Bass, Gurnard, Sea-bream and so on in the fishmonger’s shop, and I am inclined to think that the reason is that even if we were to see them there we should neither recognise them nor know what to do with them if we bought them.’ Whilst a wider range of fish is more readily available in our shops today, it is probably still true that people do not recognise nor know how to cook many of them. 

The likes of Rick Stein and Mitch Tonks, and more recently Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver with the fish fight campaign, continue the fish heritage the Prunier family brought to English home cooks. Times have changed but much of what Prunier was encouraging people to do back in 1938 is no different to what chefs are shouting from the seashores and fishing boats now. 

She includes recipes for herring, mackerel, whiting, gurnard; inexpensive fish at the time which were, until she included them on the restaurant menu, neglected by her well-off clientele. It is these same fish which are being championed now as sustainable and affordable alternatives to cod, tuna and salmon on which we’ve got ourselves hooked. 

Much the same as Mitch Tonks in his Fish cookbook and more recently with his Eat Fish iPhone app, Madame Prunier gives heaps of sound advice on buying fresh fish and shellfish, basic rules for cooking them and help with what to serve with them. 

Buy it fresh, cook it quick, keep it simple, though by all means adorn the fish with a classic sauce, for which there are plenty of recipes in the book. She, as Mitch is saying today, proclaimed that all you need is a bit of knowledge and a little experience and fish really is nothing to be frightened of. 

In addition to the advice and information, sauces and accompaniments, a note on pairing wine with fish and original illustrations, there are hundreds of recipes for hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, soups, fresh-water, salt-water and shellfish as well as turtle (now illegal), frogs and snails. Many of the recipes are timeless classics widely found on menus today. They are concise, descriptive and elegantly written, making the simplest of dishes sound decadent. The chapter introductions are personal, simple accounts and musings as well as frank and sometimes humorous observations. 

Except for the style of writing, definitely a sign of the times, this book would not be out of place on book shelves alongside modern works from Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson or even Raymond Blanc. The re-publication of Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book in the Classic Voices in Food series has given the Prunier family a new stage from which to passionately encourage us all to embrace the fruits of the sea.

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Last night we were on the guest list for dinner at the third Montpelier Basement Supper Club where we joined 13 other Bristol foodies who’d all caught wind of this new phenomenon to hit Bristol via Twitter.

Our hosts Dan and Elly are keen cooks who have bravely decided to open their dining room to food lovers looking for a new kind of dining experience which offers restaurant quality food at a very reasonable price (a suggested donation is requested) in intimate surroundings with the ability to meet and talk to like-minded people.

The wood stove was roaring and jazz music set the tone for a relaxed evening. We were welcomed with an arrival aperitif of La Gitana Manzanilla sherry and an appetiser of sage and pumpkin gougere. A gougere is simply a savoury cheese choux pastry. These were as soft as a pillow and so very morish!

Bertinet sourdough and spelt loaf were served ahead of the starter; a parsnip, apple and chestnut soup with bitter croutons and parsnip crisp. A surprising combination of savoury and sweet with a crunch and a crisp to offset the thick velvety soup.

Our fish course was Cornish haddock with a pumpkin crust, leeks and a white wine sauce. The pumpkin was an unusual seasonal twist to this quite classic dish, the sweetness really complimenting the firm fish, leeks and rich sauce. Elly gave away her secret for the crunch atop the pumpkin crust after many of the guests had left – I’ll be making use of it myself! Thanks Elly!

Try as I might, and I have tried plenty recently, I don’t get on with steak. The texture and flavour just don’t do it for me. So I was a little hesitant about the main course but there was no way I was passing up the accompanying triple cooked chips and béarnaise sauce! The bavette, which comes from the skirt or flank is a rare cut of meat in this country but popular in France, was served rare with a good seared outer crust. I have to share with you my utter pride in having polished the lot off! Dan, that’s the first whole serving of steak I’ve eaten, well done!

Dessert was an unusual masala chai chocolate tart with medjool date and PX ice cream and a syrup of reduced PX. The tart was not to my taste but the ice cream was sublime. Given that Dan had been up most of the night before churning it by hand after the ice cream machine had given up the ghost, the result was impressive.

This was an incredible effort to simultaneously serve 15 people such high quality food from a small domestic kitchen whilst creating a lovely atmosphere and environment where online contacts but otherwise complete strangers could meet, chat and spend a most enjoyable evening. We look forward to dining with you all again.

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Like a child at Christmas I was up with the larks this morning ready to make my way across town to Whiteladies Road. Destination: RockFish Grill & Seafood Market. Reason for visit: smoked salmon tasting.

I was honoured to have been invited to RockFish to take part in a smoked salmon tasting session with a number of other Bristol foodies and bloggers. The aim of the session was to help RockFish decide on which smoked salmon to offer customers this Christmas.

Our session started with a straw poll of how many of us has ever tasted several smoked salmon in one sitting. Answer: no one. It’s not surprising, how many of us actually taste several varieties of anything at the same time, let alone a luxury ingredient such as smoked salmon? We were in for a treat.

Mitch Tonks went on to explain how best to serve smoked salmon – with a tartare of creme fraiche, dill, chopped egg and capers and not, as many of us probably regularly do, with lemon and a slice of brown bread. Something with a little sourness really compliments the fish. We were to have ours plain today since we really needed to taste the fish and mark it on its merits.

Mitch also described the curing and smoking process and told us that his own entry into our blind tasting today had been left out due to a disaster in his attempt to smoke the fish whilst frozen, a method which is apparently well used. We’ll have to look forward to Mitch’s own entry sometime soon.

We had five different smoked salmon to taste, each quite unique in its texture, colour, flavour and smell. The variety was astonishing and the vast differences between them unexpected. Once we had tasted and commented on each, Mitch and the fishmonger, Neil, told us the origin of the fish, its price per kilo, as well as how it had been cured, smoked and sliced.

After working our way through all five, cleansing out palettes with water, bread and a glass of crisp Macon-Vinzelles as we went, we were asked to rank the fish in order of preference. Here’s how I ranked them:

  1. Bloydits. This smoked salmon is from the Shetlands and priced at £31/kilo. It has a lovely, subtle cure, good texture, isn’t too oily and has a sweet smokiness to it. What stood out for me was that the taste of the smoke and the salmon melded together. With so many you often get the flavour of the fish followed by the smoke or vice versa whereas Bloydits salmon has a rounded smoke and fish flavour. Following our session, RockFish announced that this salmon will be available to its customers for Christmas. Save your pennies and treat yourself!
  2. Frank Hederman. Frank Hederman’s smoked salmon from the Clare Isle was the only Irish contender.  The smokiness of this salmon was quite sweet, almost fruity, it had a dense texture and was bright in colour owing to the fish being farmed in the wild. It was difficult to choose between this and Bloydits salmon. This was the overall favourite of the taste testers but what clinched it for me was the value for money that Bloydits offered over Frank Hederman’s. At £49/kilo, you would really need to splash out for this one.
  3. Brown and Forest. Served at the Ivy Caprice and coming in at £35/kilo, this salmon is very strongly but unevenly smoked. The smoke really penetrates the outer edges of the slices of salmon but this flavour is not carried right through the fish. A lovely texture and a strong contender nonetheless.
  4. The Valley Smokehouse. A local smokehouse supplied this very pale and lightly smoked sample. This was smoked salmon as many of us know it. It was the cheapest of the fish at £21/kilo and certainly good value for money if you are looking for decent salmon without pushing the boat out too far.
  5. Tim Croft. Tim Croft is a friend of Mitch’s and an experimenter. Tim used an unusual cure for his salmon which incorporated lemon, dill, garlic salt, onion salt and rum. This wasn’t for me, I’m afraid! The fish was very smokey and had an overpowering flavour from the cure which lingered in the mouth. It’s always good to experiment but I’m not convinced this one was successful.

Our final treat of the morning was a fish masterclass with Neil. He first showed off the array of fresh fish, much of which had been brought in from Brixham and  explained what to look for when picking fresh fish. He went on to deftly demonstrate how to dress a crab after which we tasted the sweet fruits of his labour.

Neil holds 20 minute fishmonger masterclasses every Wednesday morning and it is well worth popping along.

This was the first time RockFish have held such an event, a great opportunity for local food fanatics to get involved in the restaurant community and for restaurants to get good, honest feedback as well as test new ideas and products before they reach paying customers. I’m hoping that RockFish hold more of these sessions and that other local restaurants follow suit.

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Tuesday night was fish night at Cookery Book Supper Club and with recipes this good why wait until Friday?

A slight breakdown in communication meant that we reviewed not one but two of Mitch Tonks’ fish cookery books this month – Fish: the complete fish and seafood companion and Fresh: great simple seafood. There are worse mistakes to make!

The two books are brimming with delicious fish and seafood recipes which are a joy to cook and eat. The simplicity of the recipes, quite rightly, allow the fish to be the star of the show: we are instructed to either simply grill, fry, bake or poach the fish and serve it with a tasty accompaniment or treat it delicately with herbs and spices.

On the menu at Supper Club from Fresh were:

The creamed leeks and runner beans are a staple in Angie’s kitchen where she pairs it with lamb, chicken as well as fish.

On the menu from Fish were:

  • grilled bream with cumin, lemon and sea salt
  • grilled salmon with watercress, capers and mint 
  • spiced new potato salad

The spiced new potato salad accompanies a plain grilled salmon fillet in the book but it is such a fabulous, easy recipe which is bursting with flavour that I had to share it with our book club members. It will definitely be a regular on our dinner table and will work well with meat as well as fish.

                  

Other highlights from the book are:

  • hake with green sauce and clams
  • bream cooked en papillote with garlic, chilli and rosemary

The recipes for both of these and others are on Mitch Tonks’ website.

Fish and Fresh offer the reader more than just recipes – they are also reference guides, containing information on fishing, sustainability, alternative names, notes on taste, texture, territory and seasonality. Handy tips, tricks and photographs feature alongside the recipes – what to ask the fishmonger, how to make life easy for yourself in the kitchen and what to look out for when buying fish.

These are books we’ll be dipping into regularly – both are more than worthy of pride of place on the cookery book shelves in our homes.

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We travelled to Dartmouth on a bright and crisp autumn day. The reason for our visit, a meal at The Seahorse – a birthday present for my mother-in-law to be. Lunchtime was upon us as we boarded the higher ferry to cross the Dart so we headed into town to the only other place we’d heard about – RockFish!

A warm welcome awaited us along with the promise of very fresh fish (as the strapline goes, so fresh tomorrow’s is still in the sea) and golden chips. We were spoilt for choice with a long list of seasonal fish and seafood, batter and breadcrumb options and the usual side orders of chips, mushy peas and curry sauce.

Our meals were brought to the table in cardboard trays: breadcrumbed red gurnard and good old-fashioned scampi with tartare sauce, calamari with aioli and a crab sandwich on brown, accompanied by piles of chips and bowls of mushy peas. The fish was divine, the chips cooked to perfection and the mushy peas the best I’ve tasted!

We received a nice surprise as we were leaving. Mitch was in the restaurant, on his break from The Seahorse kitchen further down the Embankment. He came over to say hello and ask if everything had been ok for us. He struck me as a cook and business owner who genuinely cares about and takes an interest in his customers and staff and is always looking for ways to make improvements (though we would have been hard pushed to find fault!). 

Parallels have been drawn between RockFish and Rick Stein’s fish and chip restaurant in Padstow but Mitch has got every detail of RockFish right and for me, there was no comparison. If lunch was this good, just how big a grin would we have at dinner?

A walk around town and the sea air stoked our appetites for the evening. We donned our best bib and tucker and headed back into town. As we stepped out of the taxi, the large, heavy wooden doors burst open, we entered the warmth of the intimate dining room of The Seahorse restaurant and were greeted with a beaming smile and a wave from the kitchen. Glasses of prosecco were sent our way with a message from Mitch: ‘congratulations on doing the double!’.

We were astounded by the service we received, great service so often a rarity – the staff were friendly, attentive, extremely knowledgeable and obviously passionate about the restaurant. They talked us through the menu, brought out the fish from the kitchen for us to see before we made our decisions and knew just when to leave us be.

The large window dividing the kitchen from the dining room means that Mitch can keep a constant eye on proceedings. Messages from the kitchen and dining room were constantly being relayed to all the staff, including news of my mother-in-law to be’s birthday.

Mitch’s approach to the food is simple – let the fish shine through. We chose starters of red Mediterranean prawns, grilled and dressed with olive oil, spaghetti with prawns and cardoon in a rich tomato sauce which had a deep shellfish back note, mussels from the nearby Elbury Cove which were packed with flavour and the zuppa di pesce – it came, was eaten and the dish refilled! 

Following the stunning starters, expectations were high for our main courses and were exceeded: sea bream cooked en papillote with roast garlic, chilli and rosemary – strong flavours but delicately applied to the fish; John Dory which had been given an Italian treatment with a tomato, anchovy and olive sauce; skate traditionally served with black butter and capers, and fritto misto (a selection of crisp fried monkfish, John Dory, red mullet, prawns, whitebait, squid and chiperones) which overflowed from the plate!

Towards the end of service Mitch came out from the kitchen to talk with his guests – not in a pretentious way and expecting praise but to actually talk – though, yes he did sign books and menus, say ‘Happy Birthday’ to the birthday girl and have his picture taken with me too!

As a coincidence, Mitch Tonks’ Fish cook book is being reviewed at this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club. I had spent the previous couple of weeks reading, testing recipes and tweeting about the delicious dishes I had created. RockFish, having picked up my tweets, told me that Mitch was really interested in what we were doing so, of course, there was one obvious topic of conversation when he reached our table.

Unfortunately Mitch is unable to make it to book club on Tuesday but I did offer him an open invitation for whenever he is in Bristol!

There’s no doubting that Mitch Tonks is at one with the fish he sources from Brixham fish market and knows how to make your day, evening, or even year!

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