Wednesday, 8 June 2022

The Crab House Café, Weymouth

You could be forgiven for assuming as an island nation surrounded by fertile, seafood-rich waters that there should be any number of unpretentious little places lining the UK coast to sell such produce simply, and if not cheaply (live seafood will never again be cheap) then at least without the frills and premiums of full restaurant dining.

The reality of a successful seafood bar on a majority of British seaside towns has proved rather elusive. The relative inflation of live seafood over the last hundred years or so, which has lifted the oyster and crab (and before that the lobster) out of the realms of humble peasant food and onto the tiered platters of fine dining restaurants has meant that while Victorian seaside resorts like Blackpool or Brighton used to be lined with such unpretentious spots, these days very few remain, and ones that do are more likely to be serving plastic-wrapped fish sticks and farmed frozen prawns from Thailand than local dressed crab or live oysters.

All of which means, when you do come across a place serving locally caught live (or at least very-recently-live) seasonal seafood without fuss or fanfare alongside portions of chips and crisp white wines then it's a cause for genuine celebration. The Crab House Café, a few minutes' drive outside of Weymouth at a place called Wyke overlooking Chesil Beach, is nothing short of the holy grail for the shellfish-obsessed. There's a decently attractive (and priced) year-round menu of staples such as monkfish tail and sea bass, all of which I'm sure is lovely but nothing you can't get in most restaurants worth their salt in the UK. No, what you really want is the smaller list of daily specials, containing on this occasion such rareties as megrim sole and roasted ray wing, and the even more exclusive crab menu, offering various different ways of enjoying whole local brown and spider crab. With hammers.

We allowed ourselves a brief distraction before the main business of smashing apart giant local crabs with DIY hardware. Firstly, oysters, lean and lovely with all the usual trimmings (mignionette, tabasco, lemon juice), radishes - from their garden apparently - sprinkled with salt and great dipped in butter, and our favourite of the snacks, "fish crackling", a kind of whole dried fish jerky which rather than being chewy or unpleasantly boney was incredibly easy to eat - you literally munch through the whole fish, head, tail and all, like a hungry seal - and packed full of umami flavour.

The crabs, arriving next after the oysters etc. had been polished off (service at the Crab House is spot-on, and everything was very sensibly paced) did not disappoint. The local seasonal spider crabs, their bristly legs containing satisfying tubes of sweet flesh, were a relative steal at £23 a pop, especially as spider crabs are a fairly rare sight in the UK and earn quite the premium on the continent. I also liked the way they'd turned the head shell into a vessel for a kind of chilli & chilli dip, brown meat not really being a thing in spider crabs.

Conversely, I've paid a lot less than £34 for a whole brown crab in the past, although I appreciate every part of the crab-catching business has got more expensive since I was last lucky enough to dig into one (Margate at the Buoy and Oyster in 2019 since you ask, where they were £15). This bulky specimen arrived with a variety of interesting parephenalia to make the disassembling and consuming of it easier, not to mention a great deal of fun, including various kind of pickers and crackers and, as mentioned before, a standard-sized carpentry hammer. I was in the middle of enthusiastically and noisily scattering bits of crab all around the room when I was politely informed it might be an idea to put the claws inside the provided plastic bag first before getting all smash-y.

We very much enjoyed a side of plump asparagus in good sharp hollandaise, and were having so much fun that we even found room for a couple of scoops of local ice cream, honeycomb and chocolate flavours. Oh and the wine was lovely too, a bottle of Albarino for £32.50 which is about right really. You'll notice none of this stuff is bargain basement but it is all of unmistakably high quality - not just the seafood itself which was impeccable of course, but also the sides, the service and the place itself which managed to feel like an unpretentious crab shack while having big nicely spaced out tables and smart toilets.

The bill came to £130 for two, which is pretty much what this kind of stuff costs these days unless you're really lucky. And we didn't mind paying it at all because the whole experience from start to finish was so enjoyable, from the first slurp of the oyster to the final trip to the bathroom to wash the crab viscera off my forearms. Soon enough we were pootling back into town for the rail replacement bus service (it being a Sunday in Britain) thinking about how twice in two days this unlikely corner of the southern coast had served up two of the most interesting - and diverse - meals of recent weeks.

Of course, two decent restaurants within ten minutes of each other does not signal some radical renaissance of the local dining scene, and I appreciate that being treated to one of said meals as well as a quaint B&B with a sea view does skew the experience somewhat. But as I always end up repeating ad nauseum on these pages, you can't fake good food, or good service, and you certainly can't beat attacking a giant brown crab with a hammer with a view of Chesil Beach. If you have even a passing interest in fresh British seafood, you'll find a happy home at the Crab House Café.



Anonymous said...

On a similar note, Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar in Newlyn is absolutely superb.

Chris Pople said...

I love that place too! I just only had a single dish there (an amazing crab sandwich) and so only put it on Instagram, not the blog. I'll have to go back.

Anonymous said...

I went to the Crab House Café last summer - it was great. The only (slight) disappointment was the radishes I had as the pre-starter, which didn't have the lovely, peppery taste I'd hoped for, and were just a bit bland. Everything else was excellent.