Thursday, 1 September 2016
Wright Brothers, South Kensington
There's something incredibly attractive, even glamorous, about the Oyster Bar. The idea of being able to rock up (excuse the pun) somewhere, order a plate of fresh oysters, maybe a glass or two of wine (or stout, if you're that way inclined), enjoy these things in an informal setting and be on your way without the subsequent commitment of a three course meal, or (again, if you're lucky) a wallet-busting bill, makes you wonder why there isn't one on every street corner. Surely everyone, barring those of delicate constitutions or the hopelessly seafood-averse, loves oyster bars?
The problem, in this country at least, is historical. Until fairly recently you just did not see decent fresh seafood - oysters, but also crabs, lobster, prawns, langoustine and a whole host of other delicacies - on the menu anywhere outside of the poshest of posh (and French) restaurants, invariably in London. Fish served in UK restaurants, if it wasn't smoked (kippers, cod, mackerel), was frozen - your average high street dining spot simply didn't have the motivation or desire to serve fresh fish, nor the turnover or the expertise to handle it even if they did. The vast majority of the wonderful stuff found swimming around UK shores was loaded straight into vans and packed off to France and Spain, who could boast the demand, and the restaurants.
Part of the story of how this sorry situation was turned around with such dramatic effect was written by people like Rick Stein, one of the first to realise the madness of ignoring the produce on our doorstep and to do something about it in his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow in the 1970s. But each generation makes its own leaps forward, and that Londoners can enjoy fresh oysters, shucked and presented properly, in so many venues in town is largely thanks to the Wright Brothers, who turned their oyster import business into a stall in Borough Market in 2005, and in doing so became the latest in a long line of food heroes (I'm sure Rick Stein would approve of the term) to contribute to London being one of - ok, the - greatest food city on earth.
It will come as no surprise, then, that the seafood served at Wright Brothers South Kensington is immaculate. Cherry-picking my two favourite elements of any fruit de mer - oysters and langoustine - I constructed myself a stripped-back and starkly beautiful tray of seafood heaven; four plump, perky beauties from the North Atlantic, sweet and soft and the finest I've tasted all year (and that includes some fairly notable places), and half a dozen Jersey rocks, minerally and lean with an almost native-like metallic tang. As far as I'm concerned, this is the engame of seafood platters - you can keep your lobster tails, shrimps, whelks (horrid things), mussels and clams; if I could order nothing but langoustine and oysters from a seafood menu for the rest of my days, I'd die a happy man.
Nothing Wright Brothers could do from that seafood onwards could ruin my evening, which was just as well because their fish soup was a bit on the underwhelming side. All the elements were in place, rouille and grated Gruyere on the side, a good dark brown colour and thick consistency to the broth, but it all added up to an oddly muted flavour overall, hinting at something stronger and more powerful but not quite managing it. With a lot of added salt and pepper it was better, but still not great. Strange how even the best places find fish soup quite a challenge.
Roast crab was much more like it though. Hacked apart and dressed in a sticky chilli, coriander and ginger sauce, it had the irresistable one-two punch of vast amounts of plump brown crab and an Asian-influenced sauce which brought to mind Rick Stein's famous Singapore Chilli Crab dish but was somehow more mature and complex. There aren't many dishes that improve on the simple joy of a boiled crab with chips and aioli; this was certainly a contender.
Speaking of which, chips were also great - golden brown and greaseless, with a lovely lemon-tinged aioli neither too stiff or too garlicky, light and incredibly moreish.
Seafood - proper fresh seafood, sourced with care and prepared with skill - will never and should never be "cheap". Sure, you can probably shave a few quid off these numbers if you shop around a bit, but Wright Brothers is many people's go-to oyster bar because they consistently serve a wide range of the very finest shellfish in the country, and they charge exactly the proper amount for it. And they do so in genuinely lovely spaces (the Soho branch is particularly stunning) via staff who know exactly what they're doing. There's not much, in short, they're getting wrong. Now if they could only work on that fish soup...
Wright Brothers stands a good chance of being in the next version of the app. Meantime, see where else is good in South Kensington.