London has always loved seafood. Step down onto the foreshore of the Thames by Borough Market and you will see ancient oyster shells among the pebbles and the fragments of clay pipe. Londoners have been throwing them into the river since the market was established in the 12th century – back when stout and oysters was a working lunch for the dockers.
The perfect start to a seafood lover’s tour of the capital should start right there in the market at Richard Haward’s Oysters on Stoney Street. These 8th generation bivalve dealers sell a number of varieties and sizes, starting at less that £1-a-piece, alongside beer and chilled wine by the glass. Venture a little further into the market interior and you’ll find Furness Fish Markets where you can order more advanced fare like razor clams and sea urchin. The latter are cracked open to order so you can get at custardy orange roe inside with a little plastic spoon. Probably not for beginners but a must-try for any hardcore seafood fanciers.
Shellfish fans should also make a trip to the Islington outpost of Prawn on the Lawn where they run an oyster happy hour from 4.30 to 6.30 with Cornish oysters at £1.50 and will even throw in a glass of English sparkling wine for £7. It would be a shame to stop there, though because the kitchen has a great reputation for turning excellent seafood prepared with minimal fuss. Menu highlights include prawns come fried with Szechuan pepper, marinated scallops served with Thai basil, and mussels cooked in manzanilla Sherry – which mussels absolutely love. It’s such a treat that you’ll forget all about the slightly daft name.
Sushi chefs have plied their trade in London since the 1970s when the first Itamae appeared in the capital and began adapting Japanese preparations for British seafood. Today, a lot of big name restaurants specialise in modern interpretations and instagramable presentation but there are a few spots that maintain a traditional approach. Sushi Tetsu, hidden away in darkest Clerkenwell, is a monument to the stayed minimalism that defines good sushi. Chef Tori ‘Tetsu’ Takahashi only serves sushi and sashimi, the only adornments being a light brushing of soy or a blast of heat from the blowtorch. Expect perfectly fatty tuna, freshly ground wasabi, and expertly vinegared rice served just warm for the nigiri, exactly as it should be.
The omakase – chef’s choice – menu costs £106 without drinks. It also takes about three hours to complete but you’ll find the time passes easily with excellent food and easy company. The booking process is authentically tricky, with reservations for the week only securable by calling the restaurant between 11am and 2pm on a Monday. It’s totally worth it thought as this is as close to a Ginza sushi-ya as you’re going to get in central London.
Anyone looking for a more iconic British seafood experience while in London might have it in mind to sample the institution that is fish and chips. After all it’s been synonymous with national cuisine since it was first brought to our shores by Shepardic Jews fleeing Portugal in the 16th century. However, as anyone from the north of England will tell you, it can be difficult to find a good fish supper at such a southerly latitude – with many tourist-y offerings suffering indignities like skinny chips and the inexplicable substitution of proper mushy peas with garden peas(!?). There are, however, a few dependable options to be had including Golden Union in Soho where the fish is beautifully cooked, the chips are the perfect mix of crunch and chew, and the comfortably traditional Toff’s in Muswell Hill where the menu reaches beyond cod and haddock to include such loveliness as skate and Dover sole.
Conversely, anyone looking to eat on the bleeding edge of London’s seafood scene should make arrangements at The Sea, the Sea in Chelsea. If you’re picking up fish to cook for dinner you should absolutely sit in at lunchtime and enjoy a bowl of sashimi on rice or their much lauded crab and seaweed waffle. However, it’s night when this place really shines – as it transforms into a full-on restaurant with a strong list of grower champagnes.
Executive chef Leandro Carreira presents a menu featuring cod tripe with caramelised yoghurt, and black garlic and aged red mullet with shio koji and scallop. The extensive use of fish offal, fermented things, and aged sea creatures place this west London spot on the frontier of marine cooking, but don’t worry if it all sounds a little elaborate. Good seafood preparation is all about revealing the nature of ingredients rather than obscuring them and the team at The Sea, the Sea do this beautifully.