Tom finds fish fresh off the boat at a no-frills seafood restaurant in West Sussex.
Worthing on a wan Wednesday afternoon. Sorrento, it ain’t, but the place has a genteel, faded charm, with its neat Edwardian villas, the ornate wrought-iron balconies attached to the handsome Regency townhouses, and that picture-postcard pier. It’s also home to Crabshack – a few steps back from the pebbly beach and slate-grey Channel – all bare bricks, distressed wooden flotsam and piles of paper napkins. Knives and forks sit in the middle of the table, held in an old sardine tin, while service is as swift, sweet and warm as an illicit South Coast embrace.
The fish is as fresh as prices are keen, with daily specials scrawled on the board – whole plaice for £20. Flounder for £15. They pride themselves on using local fishermen, and the kitchen does justice to the quality of their catch. OK, so a prawn cocktail, although generous with the crustacea (small pink commas, of course, plus a couple of whole crevettes), is a little under-seasoned, but it’s nothing a flurry of salt can’t solve. Extra points for chopped iceberg lettuce and the softest of buttered brown bread.
Cockle and shrimp popcorn, crisp and clean, with a warm sigh of smoked paprika, is immaculate. This is a kitchen that knows its way around the deep fryer. More prawns, cooked pil pil style with chorizo, bathed in a sprightly tomato sauce. A decent blast of chilli too. Whole dressed crab arrives on a red plastic tray, caught down the coast in Dorset (the crab, that is, not the tray), gloriously fresh and forensically picked. There are claws to crack and suck, while brown meat, all rum-swilling, sea-shanty slurring swagger, is mixed with ethereally sweet white. It’s a seaside symphony of blessed simplicity.
Crabcakes contain more crab than potato, which is exactly how they should be, fat, gently fried and barely able to hold themselves together. Rather like me after a decent lunch. We drink ice-cold Muscadet, and dip good French fries into mayonnaise and watch the regulars, old and young, chitchat and hobnob with the waitresses.
The room is packed with locals and day-trippers alike – no mean feat on this bleak February lunchtime. They certainly know a good thing when they see it. As do we. Worthing’s gilded age may have long passed. But who needs society when there’s Crabshack.
About £30 per head. Crabshack, 2 Marine Parade, Worthing, West Sussex; crabshackworthing.co.uk
DRINKS: Olly’s seafood sips
Condrieu is a scrumptious French white wine made exclusively from Viognier. Expect silky peaches and apricots with a heady waft of jasmine. With limited hectares in production, prices can be as steep as the granite vineyard slopes themselves. But save a few quid by choosing Viognier from outside the Condrieu appellation while still getting an idea of its mellow luxuriant style. Fish and seafood are classic pairings.
VIOGNIER ARDÈCHE LOUIS LATOUR 2019 (13.5%), £15.99, winedirect.co.uk. Sumptuous and peachy with deftly thrilling precision. Top quality for the price.
LA BUTTE D’OR CONDRIEU ALAIN JAUME 2020 (14%), £34.99, Majestic. Silky, sublime and as uplifting and refreshing as peach blossom in a springtime breeze.
LE PIED DE SAMSON DOM GEORGES VERNAY 2020 (13.5%), £35, yapp.co.uk. A personal favourite: an apricot framed in lemon peel, this is stunning for a treat.
CONDRIEU LE GRAND VALLON FRANÇOIS VILLARD 2019 (14%), £41.08, Lay & Wheeler. Bold as a nectarine swinging from a sunbeam and irresistibly bright in style.