In the scant few days before we are finally wiped out by some rapidly mutating pathogen, let’s celebrate one of life’s little pleasures.
We’ve all daydreamed our way through interminable ‘meetings’, I’m sure, when even a full house of Management Bullshit Bingo can’t stave off tedium. One of my favourite reveries is the idea of sitting by the waves, getting stuck in to an endless supply of seafood. Not fish and chips, however majestic a dish that is when done well, but seafood. Seafood which is fresh and plentiful, perhaps dripping with garlic butter, with bottles of something cold to hand, and plenty of lemons to dress it all with, and perhaps a potent alioli to dredge it all through. Simplicity. Nothing fancy, no arseing about. Just simplicity. Perfect.
As the Guardian put it, in a recent headline about a retirement home for whales, ‘A tranquil setting and a seafood meal plan.’ That kind of experience is sadly rare in a country with 11,000-plus miles of mainland coastline alone, and shamefully so nearer to home, so Bath’s The Scallop Shell was always going to be something I’d struggle to resist.
Wooden tables, bare floor, tiled walls, blue and white striped tableware: it’s quietly tasteful. And, despite the hard surfaces and close-to-capacity crowd, quieter than you’d expect. The gentle hum of people enjoying their meal is noticeable. It reminds me of Barry’s Mr Villa’s, penenially overlooked by Cardiff types but prized by its regulars.
There’s a tempting range of ‘proper mains’, but today is all about mucking in. There’s even a meat pie for people who don’t want fish, though coming here and not ordering the fish would be like turning up at an advertised steak night and expecting cauliflower, and something with quinoa for those who absolutely must.
This place clearly attracts many as a proper ‘chip shop’: most have plates with impressively sized piece of cod and haddock and pollock, with mushy peas and tartare sauce a-plenty; but it’s the sharing and starters menu we are after. I want prime seafood, treated with understanding and care. I want seafood treated kindly.
However, the menu itself looks a little depleted today. The opening section- the one I’ve been looking forward to most, when I’ve been doing my due diligence- is half the size of the example on their site. After the initial disappointment we conclude this is a good thing, because they are clearly selling only what’s at its best, its freshest, with no compromises or concessions to convenience. Just what’s spankingly fresh. It’s on show, too, an today’s catch arrayed on display in an ice-filled enamel (wait for it…) bath.
It all arrives together, as requested. And it’s lovely.
White prawns come blisteringly hot and meaty and served with the minimum of fuss- just a sprig of thyme, sea salt and lemon- and a feeling we are in the right place at the right time.
Attention to detail. It’s right there in their chilli jam. It’s miles from the bottled gloop you might expect: vividly fragrant stuff, this is rugged with classic Thai flavours of chilli and ginger and garlic, tangy with red wine vinegar and lime juice. It has body, it has presence. They should be selling this stuff in jars, at farmers markets and local delicatessens- and more importantly, by mail order.
It makes for a compelling accompaniment to hefty prawns, crisp and light coated.
Half a crab is delivered, hacked into chunks and with sturdy crackers and picks. It’s another nice touch: you’re expected to know your way around the animal, though I’m sure they’d be happy to help if you needed it- and that’s half the fun after all, winkling out the sweet white flesh with the fork and giving it a seeing-to with the-lightly herbed mayonnaise. The body holds a hearty dollop of dressed brown meat: earthy and rich, it’s a decent consolation prize for missing out on the claw my friend has already snaffled with alacrity.
Mussels drip with buttery, aromatic juices. (A tweak needed here, perhaps a basket of warm, crusty bread for mopping and dredging, perhaps?) Minimum fuss, maximum flavour, is the obvious code here. The sucking and slurping may be undignified, but it’s no less essential for that.
All of this cries out for chips, of course, and rather good they are, too, the sort of chips which rustle and sigh and come with crisp little nut-brown shards lurking at the bottom of the bowl.
They ask if we have finished with the plates. We have not so much ‘finished’ as ‘annihilated’, in my friend’s words.
The bill- pennies over £26 a head, including a glass of a rather lovely Albariño- comes in a little treasure chest. This stuff just writes itself- ‘little treasure’ is perfect.. Even on a day when Bath just the other side of the window is lashed by wind and rain, The Scallop Shell is an understated hymn to the beauty of simplicity, to doing things well.
You’ll end up with fingers which are buttery and sticky. You may end up licking them clean. I shan’t judge: besides, if you don’t, you’ve wasted your time and you should have gone somewhere else. This is not prissy or dainty food, and should be enjoyed as such. But it is a thoroughly lovely way to spend an hour, the kind of place you’d need dust and ashes where a heart should be to not enjoy, and the kind of place a city can be proud of.
The Scallop Shell
22 Monmouth Place
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.