The Crab House Café, Weymouth, Dorset
By John Walsh
Saturday, 29 July 2006
Perched on the southern tip of Weymouth, just before the A354 becomes a long narrow arm taking you to Portland’s foot-shaped peninsula, the Crab House Café is, at first sight, a joke. I mean, just look at these outdoor tables with their pink umbrellas dancing in the wind off Chesil Beach. There are also straw hats on the wall, from which the fastidious lady luncher can choose one to protect her neck from the Dorset sun. Inside a stranded fishing boat, clumps of thyme and rosemary make up a cute little herb garden. It’s all fantastically twee.
The restaurant itself is unprepossessing, a single-storey wooden shack, painted a stagnant sea-green and hung with fishing paraphernalia – nets, rods, coiled ropes, lobster carcasses, spiny-shelled crustacea – such as you’d find in any seaside town. All that’s missing is a glass lighthouse filled with different-coloured sand. But even as you try to sneer at the fixtures and fittings, you’re aware of a curious jolliness about the place, a buzz of contentment and anticipation. On a Sunday lunchtime it was full inside and out, the customers mostly families, couples and local ladies with fluffy white hair.
I confess I’m not a big fish eater – years of Catholic cod-on-Fridays jaded my appetite – nor a crab and lobster enthusiast, so I approached the menu with caution. It was reassuringly varied and ambitious – south American eel blackened in the Cajun style, pan-fried squid with garlic and spring onions, smoked kipper with a ginger jake topping (lime juice, dill and pickled ginger rubbed on the skin beforehand) – but I went first for the house speciality of fresh “Crab to crack”.
On a fish-shaped metal plate, you get two whopping claws, a bisected fiddler crab and the business end of a third marine decapod – and some implements of destruction. The charming young waiter solemnly lays before you a coal-hammer, a fork, some nutcrackers and a surgical probe, and talks you through their use. Five minutes of banging, scraping, crushing and tweaking later, I had a plateful of white meat (delicious with a twist of lemon) and brown gunge (slightly disgusting but OK on bread). My companion’s Thai fish cakes were completely unlike the flavourless spongey abominations served in any “authentic” Thai joint in London; they were home-made, swooningly multi-flavoured, spicy and sweet with chilli jam. Just as we were agreeing that these starters constituted a meal fit for a horse, the main courses arrived.
Such a cornucopia! Such an epic, Homeric, three-ring spectacle of fishy magnificence! The Anglo-Norman chef, Christian Lohez, does not stint on flavour or portion size. My sand soles with lemon butter, caraway seeds and guacamole were two big creamy soles (allegedly smaller than the Dover variety, not that I could see it), their about-to-melt flesh post-orgasmically draped over lumps of perfectly cooked courgette and baby new potatoes. One taste told you that Monsieur Lohez is a magician, not just at adding sexy flavours to bland pieces of fish, but at drawing out the hidden juices of his raw materials. I thought the guacamole a little slithery as an accompaniment to buttery fish, but any negative thoughts soon disappeared before the taste onslaught.
The skate with chorizo and spring onions was a visual explosion: they served up the whole skate, its long bones spread apart like a gigantic crimson fan, dyed with chorizo oil, cubes of the spicy sausage dotted about the plate. It was spicy, moist, steeped in sinful flavours, reeking of decadence.
Hard to imagine how anyone could eat a raspberry after such largesse, but the pears poached in honey, lemon and lavender went down a treat, while the lime and mango fool was a delicious sign-off to a stunning meal.
The Café used to be the Abbotsbury Oyster Bar, which struggled to keep going in the bivalve off-season, and finally collapsed. But it was noticed by Rick Stein, who praised the place’s “rustic charm”. The refurbished Café’s owner, Nigel Bloxham, took over in April last year. He buys his supplies from local fishermen. Somewhere between his choice of pollock and huss, skate and mackerel, and Lohez’s wicked way with flavours, they are doing amazing things with piscine cuisine. Gordon Ramsay’s protégée, Angela Hartnett of the Connaught Hotel, came down to Weymouth recently to check them out. Others will follow. There is no foodie in England, probably no fish connoisseur in the world, who wouldn’t benefit from a trip to this remarkable beachside shack.
The Crab House Café, Ferry Bridge, Portland Road, Weymouth, Dorset, (01305 788867)