When you find a restaurant which changes its menu sometimes twice a day and which supplies a hammer as an eating utensil almost as often as a knife and fork, you know you’ve found somewhere unusual Certainly the Crab House Café™ is outside the normal run, but it could hardly be better situated for a fish restaurant: right on the edge of the Fleet at Ferrbridge.
The frequently changing menu is because of owner Nigel Bloxham’s insistence on the absolute freshness of the fish he serves. It is not unusual to see fishermen in their Wellingtons coming through the restaurant straight from their boats, carrying their most recent catch.
The hammers are for getting into the crabs that give the restaurant its name; if they occasionally make it sound like a builder’s yard, they add to the uniqueness and the informality of the place.
The standard of the food undoubtedly qualifies this as a restaurant, but the word ‘Café’ in its title is reflected in the décor, bare wooden tables (but comfy chairs), tables outside looking over the Fleet and a lack of frills. Few nets and crab shells reflect the piscine theme, but it is not overdone – my experience of fish restaurants is that the number of such fishy reminders is usually inverse proportion to the quality of the food. Mrs Freddie was particularly impressed by the trouble that had been taken with the exquisite flower arrangements, set in oyster shells that graced each table.
The best thing about the layout is the open kitchen down one side, with nothing but a rapidly diminishing pile of fresh fish between the diners and the chefs. We sat on this side of the room, so we had a good view of the slick kitchen operation and were able to chat to Nigel Bloxham in his rare spare moments.
For a nation surrounded by the sea, we are in general surprisingly uninformed about the finer points of edible fish.
It is possible to be rather daunted by the range available, but there is no such feeling at the Crab House, where the friendly staff offered to explain anything on the menu without making us feel embarrassed by our ignorance. In fact, the service we received throughout the meal was first rate.
One of the questions I had to ask was ‘What is Huss?’
I learnt that it is a type of dogfish with a not-too-fishy taste, cut into medallions around one central bone. This sounded ideal for my main meal course, and so it proved; usually for a fish dish, it was served with a red wine sauce, reflecting Nigel’s description of it as ‘a fish for meat eaters.’ It followed a starter of tangy mackerel mouse which was well set-off by its accompanying beetroot salsa.
Mrs Freddie’s question concerned oysters: should she have them au naturel or go for one of the two accompaniments of pesto and parmesan or bacon and cream? The consensus was that an oyster purist would for the natural approach, but she decided to try the tastier pesto and parmesan and didn’t regret it. She followed this with skate, which she could not remember having had before. She found it easy to slide the flesh off the membrane of the skates of the skate’s wing and particularly like the accompaniments of chorizo, spring onions and paprika as well as more conventional vegetables.
As you might expect, the wine list is mostly white and mostly French. We found that a 2005 Sancerre from Paul Prieur went well with all the food we had chosen.
For pudding, Mrs Freddie was tempted by the rice pudding with fruit, but the helpings at the Crab House Café™ are generous and she had found the skate quite filling, so she opted instead for a light and refreshing combination of melon and champagne jelly. I chose fresh peaches which came in a syrup that had been given an added kick by what taste like a copious slug of amaretto and which were accompanied by some excellent ice cream.
The Dorset restaurants which enjoy a wide reputation are a select few but despite being open for only three years, the Crab House Café™ is fast joining their number. Complementary reviews are appearing in the national press and fish enthusiasts are travelling long distances to discover that the compliments are justified. For this reason the restaurant is always busy and buzzing: it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and on Sunday evening, and don’t even think of turning up unless you have booked the best part of a week ahead.
Perhaps it has something to do with the prices, which are decidedly reasonable with a three course meal coming out at around £25 a head without drinks. I think it is more the case that Nigel Bloxham has got all the basics – cooking, décor and service – right and added to them a quality and an approach which make the place uniquely special. As Mrs Freddie said wistfully at one point, ‘I wish I lived nearer.’
- Dorset Life