When I first met my wife she announced, just after telling me her favourite drinks were Black Russians or sweet pear cider, that she only really ate fish. As a confirmed beer-drinking carnivore, who had been living with a vegetarian for five years, I would have been less distraught to hear she was a Gooner who liked pulling the wings off butterflies in her spare time. Thankfully, pretty much five minutes later, she was drinking pints of ale while gnawing racks of ribs with her bare hands. Something I like to frequently remind her about, although she tells the story somewhat differently….
Anyway, as much as she loves most sources of protein, including a manic new ‘hummus in the Nutribullet’ phase she’s going through, fish and seafood remains a firm favourite. So it was an easy decision when it came to choosing what to eat on our recent jaunt down to Brighton.
Our Sunday night fish supper was at Bankers a popular takeaway and restaurant on the Western Road that are the only company in the UK to be awarded the Icelandic Responsible Fisheries Management Award, another ethical cause close to the Ewing's heart.
Inside is clean and bright, if a little utilitarian, while the fascinating range of clientele, with their quirky social mores, made me feel like I had stepped into a modern day Orwell novel full of day-trippers and secret trysts by the sea.
Keeping it classy, as always, we started with a bottle of the muscadet and a couple of wallies. No, not us, but the gherkins that were served as a kind of aperitivo, East Sussex style. If you’re feeling really fancy then a bottle of Monopole Blue Top is yours for £28. Not far off supermarket prices.
We shared the cold platter of stone cold classics to start – smoked salmon, mackerel pate and prawn cocktail - which, at £6.50, also proved great value. There are few things I like better than a prawn cocktail (I recently made the Ewing a giant version in a trifle bowl, for Valentine’s Day) and this one was no exception. The pate and salmon were also decent and served in generous portions, unlike the triangles of brown bread, which we squabbled over as we tried to scoop up every last bit of the smoked fish.
Grilled dover sole, while a touch over-cooked, was nevertheless a marvellous treat. It’s a sweet, buttery fish that needed nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and had the advantage of coming with both a generous side salad – including some outré beetroot chunks, not seen since the 80s - and a great bowl of perfect ‘chippy’ chips.
Large cod - traditionally battered and deep fried, skin left on in the southern style - was also pretty good, but not up to the heady heights of the accompanying pile of chipped potatoes; especially when they were dunked into the complimentary tartare sauce. Boiled peas, however, were disappointingly watery and bland. Even the Ewing sadly forwent them after trying a spoonful.
After breakfasting on kippers at our hotel, followed by a stroll around the lanes to pick up mid-morning (fish-free) pastries, we headed to the Regency, a Brighton institution on the King's Road, for lunch. Another seaside classic that's been preserved in aspic, offering everything from fried breakfasts to Sunday lunch, it specialises in fish and seafood dishes with an Italian twist.
A ‘side’ of three scallops – although a couple of bivalves had been squeezed into two of the shells – served grilled and doused in garlic butter, were joyous. At £6.95, these were one of the priciest options on the menu, but a treat that was worth every penny. A pile of these, alongside a heap of fat Atlantic prawns, are very strong contenders for the starter in my death row meal menu - don’t worry, no crime has been committed; yet….)
If the scallops were good value then my main, seafood risotto, was a steal. Tomatoey rice, packed with plump prawns, sweet clams, mussels and squid and drizzled with the remnants of garlic butter from our scallops, this is about the best fun you can have in Brighton for under a tenner (and without breaking any indecency laws).
The Ewing chose the last of the seasonal sardines, before they rush off to spawn in the springtime, served simply with garlic, lemon and virginal boiled potatoes, sullied only with a sprinkling of fresh parsley. A dish that made me think of long hot summers in the south of Portugal, eating barbecued fish while watching the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the rocky shore. Not too dissimilar from our view at the Regency. Give or take twenty degrees.
We had chosen starters the day before, but now it was pudding time And what a time to be alive, with steamed syrup pudding, banoffee pie and profiteroles, three of my all-time faves all on the menu. As much as I was tempted, who could resist the lure spotted dick, or Richard, as it’s been coyly renamed here. Steamed sultana-studded, spiced sponge drowned in thick Bird's custard, what ever it's called, is always going to hit the spot.
The Ewing finished with one of her favourites, a deep-fried banana fritter served topped with ice cream and sugar wafers. A speciality her Dad spent much time perfecting when she was young, (served with toffee cream made by mixing double cream with a can of condensed milk that had been boiled for 3 hours - TE) this was a syrup covered trip down memory lane.
In an age of bland homogenisation, both restaurants are proper seaside gems that are well worth a visit - offering forgotten classics with old-fashioned prices to match. Whether you're after a takeaway tray of cod chips or a slap up lobster thermidor, despite the Ewing's very best efforts there's still plenty more fish in the sea.