I’m with George Orwell on a lot of things, but In Defence of English Cooking is an essay I have always been a bit ambivalent about. Nonetheless, in London at least, I can see his point. If someone says that the Brits can’t cook, the capital has plenty of Berkeley-style refutations (kick optional).
Ah, the slippery, denigrating bastard says. I never said Brits can’t cook anything. What I mean is, they can’t cook seafood, and they can’t cook it in a British style.
That’s a bit harder to refute in London, where seafood is generally (and mystifyingly) woeful. But now I have a refutation for that too. It involves taking the critic to Brighton, and then taking them into one of the small back-alleys near the city centre. I’m not advocating violence. I’m saying you take them to Riddle and Finns.
NB: Didn’t take photos of the interior – it was pretty busy, and I felt like privacy is best respected.
I’m not alone and I’m not a pioneer where this restaurant is concerned; they seem to be fixtures in the scene, acclaimed and popular enough to open another branch at an apparently more scenic location on the beach. I went to the original, though, and it can be easy to miss, wedged in a tangle of medieval-style alleyways. But find it – the kitchen is visible from the outside, if that helps – and you are led into a green-tiled, candle- and chandelier-lit space, with long tables sprouting from the walls. And above the tables, several B&W photos of seafood being traded (presumably in Brighton).
I’ve seen it written, I’m not sure how negatively, that the interior of the place is rather ‘functional’. And you know what? I agree. But having passed a branch of Jamie’s Italian, with its very exotic ‘splash paint around with your mates and see how it goes’ decor, I’m bleeding glad it’s functional. It’s functional the way a Spitfire is functional. It’s a product of its time; it’s not a seafood restaurant trying to pretend it’s the 23rd century. Evidence has it that humans have figured out how to cook seafood for at least several millennia, and what has not been proven defective does not demand replacement or repair.
So it looks as lovely as its time. And as it turns out, not unlike the Spitfire, it works as beautifully as it looks.
A slightly wink-prone hostess takes my order, and soon bread is brought in. Butter on a scallop shell is a nice touch, and the mackerel pate is glorious – first smoke, then fish flesh, and then a hint of the deep blue sea. Also included is garlic mayonnaise, Tabasco sauce, and horseradish, strong enough to pleasantly tweak the palate. I didn’t use the Tabasco.
After the bread, and already properly primed to be very, very fond of the place, I am then presented with the crustacean prelude. See, the thing about tiger prawns is that their size when they’re alive tends to cloud people’s judgement, in a world with huge TV screens and all-you-can-eat data. In Singapore, where seafood is a lot more common (or maybe it’s just my family), we never ate tiger prawns. They’re big, my father said, but they’re tasteless. And they have no mouthfeel. It’s all fibrousness, crustacean sinews, and no crunch or bounce.
And yet this mess of shortcomings is played to its advantage in this dish – pan-fried tiger prawns, shelled except for the tail (nice touch), with a tomato, onion and parsley sauce. Lack of innate crunch that’s amenable to steaming? Here’s the outside of the prawn, seared into a firm crust covering a tender core, for the mouthfeel. Lack of innate flavour? Here come the parsley and tomatoes to accentuate it. And since the prawns are large, they can be pan-seared long enough for Maillard reactions to work on the outside without messing with the whole prawn’s texture, after which the juices mix into the sauce, adding savouriness.
Suffice to say I ate all the salad leaves just because I needed something to catch that liquid with. Was on the verge of asking for more bread as well, but then I’m decorous and technically dieting.
For the main course I order something that is a well loved staple of my tropical youth – skate. In Singapore there are plenty of stalls where you choose a fish, and it is then grilled to perfection and slathered with sambal belachan, and I have rarely had any fish other than skate at those places. Something about it is very suitable for the grill – the long leaves of flesh, the mottled skin that makes its own crust.
The dish takes a few minutes to come, presented simply – a grilled skate wing, topped with capers, and a goodly helping of vegetable tagliatelle, beautifully sliced, and lemon risotto. (The portions here are substantial, which is always a plus.)
Now, childhood memories of what skate is supposed to taste like – that is, burning off the roof of the mouth – might have prejudiced me somewhat. But the skate! At a gentle press of the knife it opens, like a paperback bent in an S-shape and compressed. The leaves open, emitting steam and marine vapours; it would be glorious even without any sauce, with a slight bounce and its natural sweetness. What the capers bring is a sharpness, just like sambal does, except in an acidic and salty direction. Perhaps by itself it is just a bit too salty, though in a team it does its job well.
The risotto moderates the caper sauce rather, with a firm suggestion of fish stock along with the lemon; it’s not very strongly flavoured, but then with the caper sauce and skate to accompany, it does not need to be. Same with the steamed slivers of vegetables.
I polished the plate, once again (honestly, I was not even that hungry; Riddle and Finns was my fourth meal of a hard-walking day), until all that remained on the plate was the cartilaginous ‘hand’ of the skate, with subtle nodes on its thin fingers. It’s a good design, evolutionarily, and the cooking has done it justice.
I have to end this review by stating a reason – well, another reason – for me to go back in the near future. While scanning the menu, I come across a dish which made me blink.
Wok-Fried Crabs, in Singapore Chilli Style or Malaysian Style.
Now. There was only one of me in the restaurant today, and alone is simply not one of the ways Chilli Crab – and yes, it’s Singaporean – is eaten. Drunk, Smashed, and Sober are some acceptable alternatives. Deliriously Inebriated is not recommended; the dish involves crab shell fragments after all. But Alone is definitely unacceptable. But after I’ve had what I’ve had, I have no reason to suspect that the Chilli Crab is an over-promise.
The wink-prone hostess with a flower in her hair, who goes about the restaurant with an air of highly efficient sociability, comes to handle my payment. Oh, it was 27 quid for everything above, service included. Well, I have to ask about the dish.
‘So I notice you have Singapore style crab on your menu.’
‘Yes, we do.’ Pressing buttons on the card reader.
‘Is that a popular dish?’
‘So it’s with a chilli gravy?’
She looks at me and nods, still smiling a little. ‘Of course. It’s chilli crab.’
You know what, lady? You’re quite right it is. That was a stupid question. But I shall take your answer as throwing down the gauntlet nonetheless, in the best and most sociable way. I have the gauntlet. I will be back at Riddle and Finns. And I’ll be bringing friends.
Info: Riddle and Finns now has two branches. The one I visited was in 12b Meeting Place Lane; the seaside branch is at 139 Kings Road Arches.