As Phil and Kirsty have spent the last decade telling us every time you switch on Channel Four, it’s all about positioning. And as far as locations go - with its spot on the edge of a lagoon, overlooking Chesil Beach and the Atlantic Ocean beyond - the location of the Crab House can’t really be beat. All of which made it the perfect choice for this year's Official Birthday Dinner.
Their ethos is based around sourcing local ingredients, with their eponymous crabs being caught in the English Channel and their fish all landed in local waters within a 40 mile radius of the restaurant. The Portland oysters come from even closer to home, being grown from seed on the oyster beds that run adjacent to the restaurant. Meaning you can take an preprandial stroll along the shore and get a look at your dinner before you sit down to eat.
As well as farming their own oysters, these guys have their own beer Crab House beer – an ale and a stout, brewed in conjunction with Hunter’s Brewery in Ipplepen, Devon. The former was a decent enough common-garden ale, while the latter was lighter than a normal stout, with a sweet smokiness that was perfect for seafood. A Picpoul, one of my favourites with fish (or with anything, I'm not fussy), was chosen from a comprehensive and well-priced list that included fizz from the Furleigh Estate in nearby Bridport.
The warm loaf of complimentary bread was just like the traditional malted granary my Mum used to buy for us as a treat when I was a kid, which I would eat in doorsteps, spread with an equal thickness of butter. Here it was served with the far more modern accompaniments of balsamic and olive oil and was only hampered by 'slices' still being attached at the bottom; meaning that trying pull them apart, combined with the very friable crust, meant a breadcrumb blizzard that soon covered us all in a fine crispy dust.
I shotgunned the Ewing to first dibs on starters and chose the Black Cow vodka-cured sea trout with fennel, cucumber and lemon from the specials board. All my English teachers would, I’m sure, be very disappointed to see me describe it as pretty as a picture, but if the cliché fits, wear it. And when the only criticism is you could have easily eaten twice as much – sublimity does not always equal satiation - you know things are off to a good start.
I always think of red mullet as one of those ‘cheffy’ ingredients - like gooseberries or game or globe artichokes - that seem to crop up with wild abandon in recipe books and cookery shows, but are sadly absent from the shelves at Tescos. So after seeing it on the menu - albeit served with the unseasonably summery flavours of red pepper, goats cheese and basil stuffing - it made my main an easy choice.
Overall it was very pleasant - if all rather delicate flavour-wise, considering the bold ingredients involved – but the enormous amount of tiny bones made each mouthful feel somewhat hazardous. Especially as I still have flashbacks to a fish bone related incident in Venice that involved a makeshift rescue operation involving a hotel table lamp and some tweezers.
A better choice bone-wise was my Mum’s skate - from the specials board - which was served as a central tranche of a larger specimen, rather than a whole wing of a smaller fish. Beautifully cooked, served with a punchy chorizo, smoked paprika and spring onion-flecked sauce, the pearly flakes of fish slipped from the cartilaginous bones with ease.
Sam also chose from the specials board and, lacking any pictures and a memory like the netting at the bottom of an oyster bed, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was turbot. Whatever fish it was, it was a fine-looking specimen that had been roasted on the bone and served simply with new buttery spuds and seasonal veg.
Of course, I should have known better; while the cucumber flavour wasn’t too odd and the strawberry ‘soup’ was pleasingly sharp and refreshing, the panna cotta - to match its colour - was set to the consistency of a tennis ball and the flavours were far more redolent of a balmy summer then the encroaching chill of early October.
Better was the two-tone chocolate mousse with a crunchy carapace of bitter chocolate giving way to a light and milky centre and accompanied by a couple of plump, purple figs soaked in coffee. Perhaps a plate would have been better than a wooden board, but perhaps I’m being grumpy. A slice of almond tart also more than passed muster, evidenced by lack of photos due to its swift demolition.
Of course if you have fish this fresh, a deft hand in the kitchen and a more than competent front of house, you could be eating dinner from a damp portakabin in a lay-by on the M11 and it would still taste good. But add in this view, looking across the oyster beds as the sun slips over the horizon, and everything seems to taste, just like the oysters, just that little bit sweeter.