Crab House Cafe, Wyke Regis
I’ve known the Crab House since it first opened, serving fresh shucked oysters picked from its own oyster beds just outside the restaurant’s front door. Oysters – in fact seafood of all sorts – is a passion of Nigel Bloxham the owner and chef, and the cafe is perfectly situated to buy fish fresh from the Portland and Weymouth day boats. On a sunny day there is almost Caribbean/Floridian feel to The Crab House. Portland harbour is home of some stunning wild shell fish too, and the special, of razor clams with chorizo and young sweet broad beans, that I sampled was criminally gorgeous. The posher dishes include fillets of brill caught from the Shambles sand bank only a couple of miles offshore, served with horseradish and samphire (?19.95), and locally dived scallops (?8.95). So much of this fantastic local fish is exported to France and Spain – in fact most of the best fish you’ll eat in France, Spain and Italy comes from the West Country. The crisis with the euro means more of it is now available at home – a sweet silver lining to the European financial meltdown perhaps.
• Ferrymans Way, Portland Road, 01305 788 867, crabhousecafe.co.uk
Dogs, boats, beach, children, sea, sky and fat, firm flakes of perfectly cooked fish flesh, make the Watch House Cafe a smashing lunchtime venue. New little sister to the well-loved and much-praised Hive Beach Cafe in Burton Bradstock, the Watch House – located in a former 1970s bungalow beach cafe that served scary bacon rolls and undrinkable tea – is the owners’ new venture in West Bay, the seaside suburb of Bridport. Huge bowls of steaming Exe mussels (?9.95), brown-bread doorstep fresh Lyme Bay crab sandwiches (?8.15) and one of the best cod, chips and peas (?13.45) you could ever wish to wrestle with, are the daily fare; they also do good coffee, proper big pots of tea and a range of local beers and ciders. Comfortably informal, with a system where you order at the counter, grab a table (outside and inside dining is spacious and comfortable – with hooks to tie up dogs or children). We often take our four youngsters and dog for a bracing cliff walk before tucking into a crab snack or a fish feast followed by huge wedges of homemade cakes.
• 01308 459330, watchhousecafe.co.uk
The Olive Tree sits on one of Bridport’s two main streets, a mussel-shell lob away from the heart of this busy, friendly market town. From the outside this high-street bistro doesn’t exactly shout “fish”, but inside, chef and co-owner Stephane Frigon (a keen angler and diver) is easily excited about things that come in shells and scales. “The Spectacular” (?17.90) is a sumptuous, broth-poached bath tub full of Exe mussels, local clams, Lyme Bay scallops and chunks of seasonal white fish (pollack, whiting, gurnard) and salmon, all topped with a fillet of local sea bass. I like to share it with my wife – there’s easily enough for two and we spoon and slurp and dredge with hunks of local Leakers’ bread. And if I’m feeling greedy we’ll top it off with half a dozen hand dived scallops (?7.90) served (lightly cooked) in the shell with only a tangy creamy sauce to cover their modesty. The menu also features sea bass fillets (?14.90) and local crab as staples, and occasionally Stephane gets his hands on something sexy like bundles of huge black razor clams, Cornish sardines, samphire and local lobsters.
• 59 East Street, 01308 422882, olivetreerestaurant.net
Poole is the Kensington of Dorset. It’s full of bright red Ferarris, yummy-mummies and cosmetically preserved ladies-who-lunch. For those of us from rural west Dorset, where our tractor-rumbling streets have weeds growing up the centre, Poole can seem a little, scary, elitist and fund-manager heavy. All the same seeing how the other half (of Dorset) lives, is occasionally irresistible. As a family we like to visit The Bay Cafe in Parkstone Bay on our bikes so we can cycle along millionaire’s row on Sandbanks after lunch. It is a tiny decked wooden chalet in the heart of the yacht-owning, deck-shoe wearing, chino-sporting Poole, and it is an oasis of charm. I’ve eaten cuttlefish and chorizo stew here that was better than any I’ve had in Spain. Belgian chef Stephane makes a great crispy haddock fishcake (?7.90), a smoked, peppery mackerel nicoise salad and a casserole of Scottish mussels cooked Belgian style. It won’t break the bank and the position deep in the posh yachty marina is fascinating for anyone with even the slightest interest in boats.
• Parkstone Bay Marina, Turks Lane, 01202 724915, parkstonebay.com/cafe
Grilled herrings with garlic butter, salad and granary bread (?10.95) is a daily special menu listing that I find hard to resist. Herrings feature so rarely on British menus, apart from the suspect Dutch-cured varieties and the occasional industrially vinegared roll mop. So I have to applaud any restaurant that serves them. The herrings, fried mackerel fillets and Cornish sardines are a delight. Also, there’s great crabs served whole or picked, and there’s fancy fillets of turbot and brill to lust after. The Hive is never not busy, even in winter, and it can be a bit of a bun fight to get served, but food arrives fast and is always reliably delicious. We eat here as a family all year round and it never ceases to amaze me how good the fish and the service is. It ain’t exactly cheap, it can be noisy, but it’s worth it. It’s dog and child friendly too. Its location makes it the perfect place to park and walk Chesil Beach.
• Beach Road, 01308 897 070, hivebeachcafe.co.uk , 01308 8970
Forget the Olympics and the world heritage Jurassic coastline; the most exciting thing about Weymouth is the harbour (pictured). For a fishing boat groupie like me, there’s nothing more delightful than walking around the town harbour, bustling with crabbers, scallop dredgers, sole netters and whelkers that nestle cheek by jowl with charter angling boats and tourist dive boats … while eating fish. I like to start with a mackerel bap smeared with horseradish sauce from the Marlboro fish bar. The mackerel is filleted, lightly battered and deep fried. I am a huge fan of deep frying oily fish, something which rarely happens in our kitchens.
I like to finish my walk with a bag of Billy Winters (locally caught Weymouth Bay prawns), fresh boiled and served in their shells from Weyfish fishmongers on the east of the quayside. And maybe I’ll spoil myself with a cup of local whelks doused in malt vinegar or even a fresh picked Portland crab. Seafood is sometimes better on the hoof. Sitting on the town wall, doing battle with prawn-mugging herring gulls while sucking salty prawn juice off my fingertips is a joy like no other.
• Marlboro Fish & Chips, 46 St Thomas Street, 01305 785700. Weyfish, 1 Custom House Quay, 01305 761 277
Lyme Regis is toe-curlingly pretty, with its historic Cobb made famous by Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But the main reason for a day out at Lyme is to visit the beach with the children. Eating out with four children is never cheap, but our family favourite for affordable fish in Lyme is By The Bay, in the perfect spot for beach, Cobb and town fun. Sea bass with Mediterranean vegetables and risotto (?15.95), and their reliably delicious cod and chips with peas comes in at a reasonable ?9.95 – and will fill up even hollow-legged teenage boys.
• Marine Parade, 01297442668, bythebay.co.uk
How can you not love a small independent restaurant that can present a menu offering both braised pig cheeks with beetroot and gherkins as well as poached sea bass with local faggots and serrano ham. Not to mention scallops with black pudding and orange butter sauce (two courses ?22.50, three courses ?26.50). The children’s menu (?9.95 or ?12.95) includes home made fish fingers that are so good I have to stop myself stealing from other people’s distracted toddlers. Bluefish is fantastic for so many good reasons: it is small, friendly, run by an enthusiastic French chef; it nestles just below the shingle bank at the Portland end of Chesil Beach; it offers an unhurried, unharassed dining experience and the menu is like a schizophrenic mixture of all the things I love to eat, from blue cheese to prunes, from chorizo to homemade chutney and confit of duck, to squid ink and ham hock soup – with a duck egg! They also do one of the best and biggest moules frites I’ve ever had the pleasure to assault. A short walk away from Portland harbour and Portland Prison, it’s a great place to eat before searching for razor clams on the mud flats or visiting your bank-robbing uncle. I love it!
• 01305 822991, thebluefishrestaurant.com
Hake is not a fish that is served very often in pubs. Partly because, given the chance, the Spanish would buy and eat every hake ever landed, as they regard merluza as the most perfect of all deep-water white fish. Quite a lot of great hake is landed by the (somewhat controversial) beam trawlers of Brixham. And some occasionally ends up in Melplash, a tiny village on the road between Bridport and Beaminster. This newly revamped, thatched gastro-pub does astonishingly good meat (such as 28-day-aged local beef) and a selection of very tasty fish. The posh fish pie with salmon and scallop (?12) and the natural smoked haddock chowder (?6.50) are alive with tangy flavours and firm fish flesh. The Portland crab and Lyme Bay scallops sing siren songs of the Chesil shingle, and the bowls of lightly steamed Fowey mussels are an easy crowd-pleaser. With a back garden for children to investigate and very welcoming service, it’s hard to find anything not to be happy about.
• 01308 488321
Of all the best kept fish-eatery secrets in Dorset, there is none so well kept as Shelley’s Plaice (until recently called Billy The Fish), secreted down a practically invisible dead end in the centre of Dorchester. This tiny open-kitchen cafe-restaurant is draped with used nets and pots. Billy used to be a fishmonger who occasionally cooked fish for customers. Now, because his dad’s not well, Shelley who did most of the cooking as the restaurant grew larger (but it’s still tiny) now runs the kitchen, where everything is cooked fresh to order. Cooking fish well is important, but sourcing it is even more vital. Billy does all his buying from the boats and market in Brixham, Devon (pictured), bringing home skate, megrim, grey mullet, monkfish and gurnard as well as great bass and crabs. Shelley smokes her own locally line-caught mackerel (main course ?8.50). On my last visit, Portland crab and local samphire was her best-selling starter (?4.95), while oddities like conger eel and huss (a dogfish) regularly appear on the chalkboard. This is fish done with simplicity and love.
• Trinity Street, 01305 757428, no website
• The entry on the Hive Beach Cafe was amended on 31/7/2012 to reflect the recent accident at Burton Bradstock