Forget fish and chips, Amanda Wragg discovers a restaurant with a more sophisticated taste of the seaside.
On an unseasonably mild April evening the sea shimmers, reflecting the harbour lights; boats bob, seagulls wheel and lovers stroll along the promenade. Beautiful, historic buildings are bathed in soft light, and somewhere in the distance, a plaintive rendition of Some Enchanted Evening drifts on the still air.
We’re seated on a tall table by the floor to ceiling window, and the view across to the old town is stunning. The ruin of an ancient abbey is picked out in silhouette, and as our charming waitress brings two Prosecco cocktails we toast our good fortune. You may be wondering how I got a gig in Venice.
I’m messing with you. It’s Whitby, of course, but on certain nights and in certain light you could be on the Cannaregio. This is one of those nights, and it predisposes us to have a good one. I’ve dropped in to the Moon & Sixpence before, for coffee (very good macchiato from a gleaming Gaggia) and another time for a pre-prandial before fish and chips at the magnificent Magpie Café just along the way.
A handsome 19th-century building, it’s tucked in between a gaudy rock shop and one of those places flogging “humorous” T-shirts – but don’t let this put you off. Whitby has its slightly tacky seaside self and on a hot day during the holidays you can’t move on Marine Parade for day trippers. You’ll doubtless have your own views on the various aspects of the town’s tourism; I think that badly spelt tattoos and Goths just add to the charm of the place.
The Moon is a haven from the hoi polloi, but there’s a very attractive buzz; the sound of people ever ready to erupt into a party. There’s glamour too, in the form of crystal chandeliers, huge Rococo mirrors and row upon row of bottles of liquor for the assemblage of cocktails; Caipirinha or Cosmopolitan, anyone? If you’re thinking it’s out of whack to be sipping a Mojito looking out over Whitby Abbey, you’re right. There’s something deliciously incongruous about it.
The set menu promises the likes of Whitby scampi, fish pie and pork chops with bubble & squeak – two courses for twelve quid, add a dessert for £3.50 and another tenner for a bottle of wine – pretty good value. We chose from the a la carte; leek, spinach & chestnut fritters appeals but I can’t resist king prawns, chorizo, spinach cherry tomatoes. It’s exactly as it sounds; fat, juicy shelled prawns, chunks of chorizo, all in a fine broth so fragrant I ask for a spoon to slurp it up. My plus one (Alison Milnes who runs the fabulous Staithes Gallery) goes for whitebait with harrisa mayo; it disappears so quickly I didn’t get chance to try it. She reported that the tiny fish were beautifully crispy and the mayo had a welcome heat hit.
Next up, a classic bouillabaisse, brimming with squid, prawns, cod and octopus (“a chunk of fish in every mouthful”, observes Al). Before she necks the lot I dive in, and what a delight it is. Too often, the fish is introduced to a bland tomato sauce five minutes before it’s sent out, resulting in zero depth of flavour; not so here. I like to imagine the Moon’s version has been bubbling away on the stove for an hour or so. Chef Joe Bendell has made it his own – there’s a spice in there that neither of us can quite identify (fennel, perhaps?) but it adds a welcome piquancy.
My sea bass – two fat, fresh-as-you-like pearly fillets, shown the pan for, oh, five minutes perhaps – is accompanied by a creamy leek and smoked bacon sauce and a mound of spuds mashed to almost a puree. It’s a perfectly cooked, nicely presented plate and a steal at £11.90. I know a couple of places on the Yorkshire coast where this dish would be nearly double that and wouldn’t be any better.
It’s worth mentioning the service; our delightful waitresses Lydia and Jessie are charming and funny. When service is this good it makes you want to come again.
We don’t need a pudding but that’s never stopped us. Crème brulee it is then, and two spoons. It’s a classic, and perfect. I somehow didn’t expect the food to be as good as this; quite often seafront eateries trade on their location, as if it’s enough in itself – but thought and skill has gone into these simple, honest brasserie dishes, and the flavours are big and bold.
The Moon is open from nine in the morning for breakfast (there are a handful of rather stylish bedrooms over the shop); choose from a decent list which includes eggs Florentine, spinach & mushroom omelette and of course the peerless Fortune’s Kippers. At lunchtime, go for the BLT or a beer battered fish butty (always my choice). As the Teessiders shuffle home it’s your cue to get your glad rags on; cocktail o’clock!
Al and I don’t want to leave, the vibe is so convivial. We eke out what’s left of the evening in the comfy chairs on the pavement outside with an espresso. The moon is up, casting its glimmer on the water. As we gaze out beyond the boat masts, a pair of immaculately turned-out, 60-something women in impossibly high heels totter past us, wishing us good night, as if there’s nothing odd about sitting out in Whitby in April at midnight.
• The Moon & Sixpence, Marine Parade, Whitby, YO21 3PR. 01947 604416, www.moon-and-sixpence.co.uk. Open seven days a week, 9pm to 12am.