Restaurant review: Jill Turton at the Fish House, Boston Spa
It felt as if everyone had arrived at once, that the 7.30pm bookings were all late, and the 8pm bookings had come early, the stuff of a potential kitchen nightmare, as if Gordon Ramsay’s hidden camera crew were about to burst out.
In fact, there was no panic or chaos to film since it was all handled near seamlessly. How good to see such brisk business in hard times and how good to see a thriving restaurant installed again in this corner of Boston Spa which has had quite a few openings and closures – a Café Provence, a Maharajah and La Venta, for three – down the years.
Here’s proof, too, that apart from the odd ham hock terrine, ribeye steak and vegetarian dish, you can trade successfully on a fish and seafood menu: roll up for salt and pepper squid, oysters, mussels, shellfish bisque, tempura prawns, salmon and crayfish cocktail, crispy monkfish scampi and, if you must, a so-last-century tower of mixed seafood.
For mains there were more familiar standards of posh fish and chips, lobster thermidor, seabass, swordfish, salmon, mixed seafood grill. Call me jaded, but I’ve seen enough variants of this menu before.
Was it at Livebait or Loch Fyne? Or the Crab and Lobster at Asenby where chef Leigh Parry cooked in its early days, opening the Fish House in August?
Tried and trusted dishes doubtless make sound commercial sense but I yearned for the surprise ingredient or combination that would show chef and kitchen stamping their individuality, stretching themselves further.
So with nothing on the menu that really rocked my boat, and (disappointing for a Saturday night) nothing at all on the specials blackboard, I dithered before settling first for the shellfish bisque.
And I have to say it was lovely: a rich, heady, shellfishy broth that transported me straight to my dream lobster shack beside a glittering sea – if only there was such a thing on the north east coast. Never mind, this one was delicious.
So were the golden monkfish scampi. Who can resist a well-crisped goujon? These were the business: half a dozen neatly crumbed little soldiers standing to attention in a miniature chip basket with a good spikey homemade tartare sauce on the side.
As fish lovers, we abstained from halibut and swordfish on the grounds that they are on the Marine Conservation Society’s fish-to-avoid endangered list and with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaigning “Fish Fight” still ringing in our ears, we compromised with fish pie and sea bass, which I assumed was farmed and thus MCS-approved.
I’ve had plenty of bad fish pies, either full of everything from the ocean sink on the principle that more is better or, more commonly, on the principle of “Let’s get rid of our leftovers and shove ‘em under a pile of mash.”
Not this one. A little cast iron cocotte had been filled with white fish, salmon, prawns and mussels in a good white wine sauce and given a topping of cheesy mashed potato. Nothing too clever, just fish pie as it should be with the right proportion of top to bottom, of moist sauce to fluffy mash.
Our other main of seabass fillet topped with mushrooms and crayfish sauce was equally well balanced. The sauce, the mushrooms and the crayfish added a subtle sweetness to the fish fillet. The green beans were too squeaky for my taste.
Puddings were a predictable mix of sticky toffee, cheesecake, crème brulee, brandy snap basket and chocolate nemesis, old faithfuls but again done well, especially the chocolate nemesis.
It’s a fragile thing – eggs, butter, sugar, chocolate and no flour – but worth it for the rich, mousse-like cake that was served here with a spoonful of lightly whipped cream or possibly crème fraiche.
It’s the famous chocolate cake that caused consternation when the first River Café cook-book came out. Nobody could get it to work and everybody wrote and complained. Well, Leigh Parry’s cracked it.
The brandy-snap basket was well made and filled with scoops of vanilla and cinder toffee ice cream whose flavour suffered, I suspect, from being served just too cold. But the evening had warmed up progressively with five and a half successes from six dishes.
Service was ever so friendly, if ever so slightly clumsy with different people appearing at different times and one of those small but irritating moments when the refill glass of wine ordered for the main course had to be chased up with half the dish already gone.
While the wine list wasn’t up to much and didn’t even specify which countries the wine came from, there was notably good value in the sub-£4 choices by the glass.
The three beamed attic rooms are agreeably done out in white with a vaguely seaside theme, bits of blue, a bit of tongue and groove, a few glass fish ornaments. There are some modest seascapes on the walls and generally a welcome minimalism after the clutter of the Crab and Lobster.
Prices are eminently fair for the quality: around £7 for starters, around £15-£18 for mains (unless you step up to halibut (£20) and lobster thermidor (£36) ) and around £6 for dessert. There were side orders as extra but neither of our mains needed them to make up a balanced plate.
So having been grouchy about the limited ambition on the menu, the Fish House more than delivered. Nice place, nice people and food that was damn near text-book perfect under all that Saturday night pressure. Swap that critic’s fish pie for humble pie.
The Fish House, 174 High St, Boston Spa, Wetherby LS223 6BW T: 01937 845625. www.fishhouseboston.com Open: Tues-Sat noon-3pm & 6pm-10pm Sun noon-4pm. Dinner for two including wine, coffee and service: Approx. £90.