Sitwell stirs it up

Wil­liam visits The Sea, The Sea in Lon­don

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Half an hour be­fore our book­ing came a text: ‘You’re due at The Sea, The Sea in 30 min­utes,’ help­fully con­firm­ing that the spot is in­deed named The Sea, The Sea. Per­haps some­one thought that the per­son rub­ber-stamp­ing it was deaf. ‘What are we call­ing this place?’ says the dis­tin­guished Earl of Cado­gan, sit­ting in his library pe­rus­ing a copy of the Guten­berg Bi­ble. ‘The Sea,’ yells his young as­sis­tant. His grace says noth­ing. ‘The Sea,’ cries the man again. ‘Ah,’ replies his Cado­gan­ship, ‘The Sea, The Sea,’ and he writes it down and signs off the name.

The Cado­gans are all-pow­er­ful around here and have been for cen­turies. They own and man­age much of this part of Chelsea, so maybe they agree the names of the restau­rants for which they grant leases. The Sea, The Sea (in fact the name of an Iris Mur­doch novel) is on a street that once pro­vided sta­bling for the gen­try, but has re­cently been tarted up by the Cado­gan es­tate to cre­ate a ‘Lon­don vil­lage’. There are sev­eral restau­rants, cafés, a bak­ery, a butcher’s, a gen­eral store and, where we are din­ing, a fish­mon­ger by day and fish bar by night.

But this is no or­di­nary vil­lage. Un­less you char­ter yachts with­out blink­ing, do not plan your weekly shop at the gen­eral store. A packet of ce­real costs around £10.

At The Sea, The Sea, a smat­ter­ing of dishes and a bot­tle of wine won’t leave you much change from £200. So if that’s beyond your bud­get then I’ll ask you to steel your­self and oblige me to be your sur­ro­gate.

So let us en­ter The Sea, The Sea, whose ti­tle doth draw from within us the lyri­cal, the yearn­ing, the mourn­ful soul. Over the ocean’s spite­ful dag­gers came yon­der ship, cut­ting through the frothy blades. Draw­ing nearer, nearer. The crew, hold­ing fast as the ves­sel ebbed for­ward, fight­ing the drag of the mighty ocean. Car­ry­ing on her bows those glint­ing, sil­ver trea­sures of the deep. Un­til, at last, cross­ing the har­bour wall to calm, to peace, to glad prof­its from 10 days of Mother Na­ture’s harsh re­proach… OK, I’ll stop now. But you try say­ing The Sea, The Sea with­out go­ing off on one.

Come evening, the coun­ters turn into high ta­bles with bar stools. It’s a pleas­ant sight to see, as men in over­alls ap­pear to stand in a line as they shuck oys­ters and pre­pare a host of rather un­usual dishes. There’s also a large fridge where fish – whole tur­bot even – is dried and salt-cured. I whet­ted my ap­petite with half a dozen de­cent and creamy oys­ters, and then out came the first of sev­eral dishes to share. It was a sand­wich of mus­sels and girolle mush­rooms held be­tween thin and flat square crisps made with miso and topped with grated cheese.

If it sounds gross, it wasn’t. The mush­rooms and mus­sels vied for at­ten­tion with their sim­i­lar tex­tures, and it was a fabulous con­coc­tion of crunch and creami­ness, salt and umami. There was a sim­i­larly con­structed sand­wich: a lob­ster rice sandu. The lob­ster sat be­tween hard sheets of nori sea­weed with sticky rice at­tached to it. It was an­other tri­umph of in­trigu­ing tex­tu­ral sur­prise.

We ate a beau­ti­ful (and large) dol­lop of dressed crab with dry waf­fles made, also, with sea­weed. And a star­tling dish of con­fit red mul­let came as lit­tle rec­tan­gu­lar cuts of fish, with crunchy skin, the flesh tast­ing more like cure than con­fit, with two lit­tle piles of con­trast­ing caviar and capers.

Af­ter this strange but suc­cess­ful in­ven­tive­ness came a huge whack of brioche toast, ooz­ing caramel and cov­ered with hazel­nuts and cream – tasty and rich but to­tally out of kil­ter with the rest of din­ner. Per­haps it’s in­tended to soften you up for the bill; an ep­i­thet of cruel awak­en­ing.

Join Wil­liam at Guild­hall Winch­ester for a South African sup­per club on 24 Oc­to­ber with chef James Eras­mus. Tick­ets £54 for sub­scribers; go to tele­­per­club

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