Paradise for pescatarians

Whitby cod with soft shell crabWhitby cod with soft shell crab
Whitby cod with soft shell crab
Fish and chips. It's what you come to Whitby for, isn't it? With the Magpie, Trenchers, the Fisherman's Wife, Quayside and Mr Chips, it feels as if there is a chippy on every corner. Whitby is well named the capital of fish and chips.

But when the whiff of chip fat wears thin, where might you find something different, a dozen oysters, clams, Dover sole, caviar even, or just a piece of cod that hasn’t been shellacked in batter?

The answer used to be Green’s. But back in January Rob Green gave up trying to persuade customers that seafood doesn’t have to emerge from the deep fat fryer. Now the best answer lies amid the tat of Marine Parade, where sandwiched between the Dracula Experience and the Clairvoyant’s hut is the Marine, handily placed for the quayside fish market.

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Correctly, it’s the Marine Hotel, just as when Frank Meadow Sutcliffe photographed it in 1895. His picture hangs, I’m assured, in the gents’ toilet. He’d still recognise the exterior, except perhaps for the plastic box hedging; the interior less so: metro tiles, marble-topped tables, mirrors, copper bar stools and a shiny grand piano. There’s plenty of bling to go with an expansive cocktail list and, if your boat’s come in, 30g of Oscietra caviar for £89.

The menu though looks more ambitious than anything else I’ve spotted in Whitby, with oysters and caviar, smoked eel and lobster, lemon sole, sea bream and halibut. They’re bold enough to add on such twists as seaweed butter, chorizo or wasabi with their Lindisfarne oysters, and put puy lentils with their pan-fried salmon.

I popped in a few weeks ago, seduced by the blackboard outside that offered a lunchtime special of crab linguine with chilli, garlic and parsley and it was spot on. This time two of us went the whole hog with a salad of smoked eel, bacon and horseradish; hot and sticky sesame prawns; roast cod with soft shell crab and lobster served cold, hot with garlic butter or thermidored. If the smoked eel and bacon leaned more towards the bacon than the pricier eel, it was a clever combination. A fresh, light starter served with frisée salad and a crème fraiche sauce with just a touch of horseradish.

Hot and sticky sesame prawns were hot and generous but far from sticky. I couldn’t argue with the serving size, there were plenty of fat juicy prawns and even some Asian flavours in there, but the sweet sauce had not been reduced to create the stickiness they deserved so they swam in an unappetising sweet liquid. Disappointing.

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Far better was a decent piece of flaking cod served with spinach and a rich sauce of coconut with a kick of chilli and a whole soft shell crab placed majestically atop. You eat the lot, shell and all. Fried in a light batter, they have a good crunch, soft flesh and plenty of flavour.

Soft shell crabs are usually blue crabs from Chesapeake Bay in the US or farmed in Japan and South East Asia. Alan Davidson’s encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food explains how the crab first grows a soft shell beneath its hard one, then when it’s ready to moult it fills its shell with water to crack it and bravely crawls out into a dangerous world, prey to all kinds of predators. The crab hides under a rock for a day or two until its shell begins to harden, but that makes it tricky for the fishermen to find, hence why the crabs are usually farmed.

Wherever the crab came from, my lobster will undoubtedly have been landed at Whitby or one of the little harbours further up the coast. I’ve always been ambivalent about lobster thermidor: shallots, wine, cream, brandy, Parmesan, all seem unnecessary adornments for the dense, rich meat of a freshly caught lobster. I usually bypass what probably qualifies as a retro dish, but then sometimes rich and indulgent is what you want. This was one of those days.

It wasn’t the definitive thermidor. The shallots were still crunchy, but happily the sauce and the Parmesan crust were restrained. This is the expensive end of the lobster year and at £14 for half a lobster with fries and a salad, this was good value, not least when the same dish costs £32.50 at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, though I’m guessing Rick would have cooked his shallots properly.

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Matched with a glass of well-chilled Languedoc Chardonnay – and they have a terrific white wine list – willing service, and a matchless view of the harbour, the Marine has plenty going for it. Though I couldn’t help noticing that our neighbouring table ignored such a welcome range of enterprising seafood on the menu and the blackboard specials and ordered, you’ve guessed it, fish and chips. No Whitby restaurant would dare not serve it.

The Marine Hotel, 13 Marine Parade, Whitby YO21 3PR. 01947 605022, Open: daily from 8.30am until 10pm. Price: Approx. £80 dinner for two inc. bottle of wine and service.