Tom discovers that tinned fish works as well in deepest Devon as it does in sunny Lisbon.
This week, I was going to write about Rockfish in Brixham. Where, sitting on a vast outdoor terrace under a brilliantly blue and cloudless Devon sky, overlooking England’s busiest commercial fishing port, we eat local cuttlefish clad in the most gossamer of batters. There’s a plump D-cut of turbot, gaspingly fresh, caught on the restaurant’s own day boat. And steamed lobster, winsomely sweet, from willow pots a few hundred metres out to sea.
It’s a splendid fish feast, with lashings of cool, crisp white wine, and one that stretches on, long and languorous, deep into the sun-baked afternoon. So why, I hear you cry, is Rockfish not the subject of my review? Well, the group is co-owned by my mate Mitch Tonks, the high priest of all things piscine. No problems with that, as long as I’m honest about our friendship. Anyway, I’ve already reviewed his flagship, the peerless Seahorse in Dartmouth, a few years back. No, the reason is that he’s with us for lunch and despite my paying the bill, things are not exactly impartial when the boss is at your table.
So The Wine Loft it is, back up the Brixham hill, a mix of wine shop, delicatessen and restaurant. There’s a handful of tables, where you sit, surrounded by Spanish chickpeas, olive oil and dozens of bottles of wine, as well as some of the finest tinned seafood on earth. The place reminds me of Sol e Pesca in Lisbon, a small fishing shop that just happens to stock about three dozen different varieties of metal-encased swimmers. And while the Portuguese and Spanish are masters of this process, the French have form too.
There’s chorizo and padron peppers on the mainly Iberian menu, along with sobrasada, burrata and mushrooms on toast. But we’re here for preserved fish, the rare stuff, like wood fire-grilled sardines from Gueyumar, a famed Spanish restaurant, rich yet subtle, meaty and magnificent. Nardin beech-smoked anchovies are plump, soft and exquisitely delicate, their smoked mackerel fillets similarly sensational. Both producers represent the pinnacle of the canner’s art. Just add hunks of sourdough (to mop up all that oil), and a glass of Portuguese white, and you could be in Bairro Alto. Except this is Brixham, not Lisbon, on this most glorious of summer days. And at this moment, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
About £25 per head. The Wine Loft, 42 Middle Street, Brixham, Devon; wineloftbrixham.co.uk.