Andrew Kay finds fine food and a great atmosphere at Little Fish Market in Hove
Living by the sea one might expect that the city would be awash with great fish restaurants – but there are precious few. Oh, I know there are some great places for fish ’n’ chips and a few others that offer great fish and seafood, but compared to the number of other restaurants locally, fish remains in a sad minority.
So when I heard about a new joint opened by chef Duncan Ray I was fascinated to see what he is all about. I soon discovered that Duncan has some fine ideas about fine food and the culinary finesse to pull them off. Little surprise that Duncan is Michelin trained and has worked in quality kitchens including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray and the prestigious Pennyhill Park Hotel. Fine dining, that most elite and often abused term in the catering world, has struggled to find a foothold here in Brighton, especially if the people at the Michelin guide are to be believed, and maybe we as an audience don’t like or want it. But I can promise you that what Duncan does I do want, refinement but with little pretence.
We arrived early which slightly threw them, bookings are carefully programmed as Duncan works the range solo. It was not a problem for us, we were happy to sit and chat. The only disappointment was for our waiter who was shocked that we didn’t want an apéritif or, for that manner, any wine.
We did however want the bread, and what bread, home made with a soft open texture and a shellac hard crust. If that was not enough it came with home-churned butter with a small sprinkle of sea salt on the side. I know, home churned butter, now that is an eye for detail.
Mr R launched his sea journey with crab risotto and, having been banned from eating crab for the moment, I looked on with envy. He loved it and so did I, not being able to resist a small forkful. It was perfect, soft and creamy with the right balance of dark meat and white, sweet and at the same time musky.
I chose the smoked trout, cured in the kitchen and served with horseradish, beetroot and ratte potatoes. It arrived looking like a plate of culinary confetti, a scattering of dainty morsels that packed a punch of flavour with every bite. It was impressive stuff and although delicate in scale, more than satisfying.
For the main course Mr R chose the lemon sole. Lemon sole is so often neglected in favour of the more costly Dover sole but it is a delicious flat fish and can be locally sourced too. Mr R chose well, the fillets of sole came topped with a crispy oyster and a lobster tortellini and sat on a bed of wilted greens. The sauce was light and delicate and his only quibble came with the foam, or espuma, a fashion that is not to Mr R’s taste. I can take them or leave them, take them when they taste good and leave them when they are merely an affectation. I gave it a taste and it was pretty damn good.
I chose skate, amongst my favourite ingredients when in season. Here it came with belly pork, an interesting idea that I could not resist. Like the sole, the skate had been filleted and pan fried, the flesh a toasted golden brown outside and the long grained flesh creamy and white within with that earthy flavour that makes it so distinctive and delicious. The belly pork came as succulent cubes, again crispy outside but meltingly soft in.
The whole dish sat of a different set of wilted greens and was topped by clams and dressed with an intense meaty jus. It was extraordinarily good and I ate slowly, savouring every mouthful.
One dainty amuse-bouche and two courses in we were already getting the message, this was pretty damn fine food by any standard. And as we ate the staggered bookings started to arrive and fill the tiny venue up. Our waiter was still upset and disbelieving that we did not want a glass of wine even from what is a short but impressive list, but accepted that we didn’t with good grace.
So on to dessert, somewhat apprehensively.
In a kitchen flying solo could one man maintain the standard in the pudding section? The answer is yes. Mr R chose chocolate, a simply named dish as are the rest. It was a picture on a plate that included excellent salt caramel. It looked beautiful and, dare I say it had an air of the ‘deconstructed’ about it.
He liked it too, but perhaps not as much as his other two dishes. I chose Biscuit Glace, an amazing semifreddo of Italian meringue laced with crumbled hazelnuts and served with a passion fruit sorbet and a hint of chocolate.
It was light, sweet, refreshing, tart, crunchy, soft… it was divine.
We finished with coffee, first class espresso served in scarily large mugs that were pipingly hot and kept the shot of caffeine hot to the very last sip.
I don’t do marks out of ten and never have on this page, marks or stars can be misread, five stars can mean great food or great value. I do firmly believe that bad food at any price is expensive. This was good food, very good and at very reasonable prices too. The starters are around £6-8, mains £15-18 and desserts £5-7 with cheese at £10. It’s not much different from many chains – and it is so much better. If you get the impression that I liked this then you are right. No quibbles? Only one and it is nit-picking. Food as good as this deserves better chairs to sit on. The look of the place is delightful but I did want just a little more comfort beneath me.
The Little Fish Market, 10 Upper Market Street, Hove, BN3 1AS, 01273 203038
Open Wednesday–Friday 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm–10.30pm; Saturday 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm–10.30pm; Sunday 12pm–4pm