Monday, April 22, 2013

Sheekey's: Posh Seafood in London's West End

In the heart of London's Covent Garden, Sheekey's has been offering the finest fish, oysters, shellfish and other fruits-de-mer since the 1890s, when Josef Sheekey, a local market stall holder, was given permission by Lord Salisbury to serve fish and seafood on his property along St Martin's Court, on the condition that he supplied meals to his lordship's private post-theatre dinner parties. Over a century later, the restaurant retains its late-Victorian charm and very often buzzes with famous faces and celebrity clientele.

Kate Moss and Jamie Hince leaving J Sheekey

No longer owned by the Sheekey family, the restaurant is now controlled by Caprice Holdings, the highly-respected group of restaurants developed by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin — of Wolseley fame — whose theme of restoring faded restaurants to their former glory culminated with the purchase and renovation of J Sheekey in 1998. Bought in 2005 by billionaire-restauranteur Richard Caring, the Caprice empire also owns other London celebrity hangouts such as Le Caprice, Scott’s, Bam-Bou, Daphne’s, Rivington and the Ivy, and most recently Keith McNally's NYC restaurant empire which includes Balthazar that just hit London. The restaurant business seems very incestuous indeed.

Sheekey's doorman

From the moment you're ushered through the heavy red doors by the top-hat wearing doorman, J Sheekey's impresses you. Outwardly unassuming, it has an enviable pedigree that’s quickly apparent as you enter the restaurant. Black and white portraits of film and theatre stars line the walls, and the warren-like interior of elegant wood-panelled rooms house discreetly placed tables, making it a great spot for intimate dinners. The decor is modest, and seemingly untouched by time, with oxblood red leather banquettes, paneled walls and an impressive art collection. 

An original Tristram Hillier painting hangs in the front of Sheekey's

London’s top restaurants produce some of the finest food imaginable, but they're also treasure troves for rare and exciting artwork, and the Caprice Group’s restaurants are no exception. They've always had a close association with the contemporary art world, featuring works by leading British artists including Damien Hirst, Polly Morgan, Tracey Emin and Tristram Hillier — diners however, are often unaware of the significance or the story behind the works hanging on the walls around their table. 

The Maitre D' at Sheekey's

As we arrived for dinner, my husband noticed a Tristram Hillier hanging on the wall and mentioned it in passing to the Maitre D', who was obviously surprised that he would recognize the painting, and after a moment said "It's my favourite piece in the whole restaurant!". When he also discovered that my husband was in fact the artist's grandson, we were elevated to celebrity status and promptly escorted to table #1 — a lovely table — one of the few round corner banquettes! I guess it pays to know someone, even if he's my husband.

Our 'primo' table at J Sheekey — we were upgraded to Table #1 when the Maitre D' 
found out that my husband is related to his favourite artist — Tristram Hillier

Undoubtedly one of London’s favourite restaurants, J Sheekey offers some of the best fish and seafood in the capital. Some of the menu is posh comfort food like Fish and Chips and Sheekey's famous Fish Pie, but there are also more sophisticated dishes such as Dover and Lemon Sole, Brill, Bream and Salmon, Roast Lobster with SweetbreadsSalt Baked Bass and old favourites like Potted Shrimps, Skate in Brown Butter and Lobster Thermidor — everything you could wish for, right down to the sort of traditional puddings that reduce grown-up British schoolboys to tears of nostalgic joy. 

A silver bowl of wonderful warm and crunchy sliced baguette is served 
with a chilled silver dish of butter — that and my Martini — what more do you need!

A Hendick's dry Martini with a slice of shaved cucumber

While enjoying our Gin Martini and glass of Prosecco, we indulged in some of Sheekey's crunchy baguette and butter that both arrived nestled in smart silver bowls. After perusing the menu, we decided on a first course of Fritto Misto with herb mayonnaise and Steamed Mussels with coconut, chilli & lemongrass, along with a bottle of 2011 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie from the Loire. For entrées we ordered Sheekey's famous Fried Fillet of Haddock with chips and mushy peas and their grilled fish of the day, which was a lovely Sea Bream, with a side dish of Steamed Spinach and Wild Arugula Salad with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Fritto Misto with herb mayonnaise

Steamed Mussels with coconut, chilli & lemongrass

We enjoyed a bottle of 2011 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, 
from la Moriniere in the Loire

Fried Fillet of Haddock with chips and mushy peas

Grilled Sea Bream which can come filleted or left whole, which is the way I love to eat fish

Steamed Spinach

Wild Arugula with Parmigiano-Reggiano

With a name like Spotted Dick, we couldn't resist ordering this traditional English steamed pudding. Served with a knob of butter and drizzle of golden syrup, it arrived with a silver tureen of warm custard. Warm, spongey and studded with soft currants, the warm pud was lighter than I expected and absolutely delicious. We also ordered a delicious 2005 Montellori Vin Santo from Tuscany which came with two little biscotti — 'loverly!' 

Spotted Dick, a traditional steamed pudding with butter and golden syrup

I ordered a glass of Vin Santo, a delicious 2005 Montellori from Tuscany

Two lovely biscotti came with my glass of Vin Santo

Just last year, Sheekey's published their first cookbook, 'J. Sheekey Fish,' a beautifully photographed bible of its best-loved recipes. A good, solid and practical cookbook with over 100 recipes from the restaurant's renowned kitchen, J Sheekey Fish is "320 pages of fishy, crabby, scallopy, lobstery, shellfishy, haddocky loveliness," quipped John Walsh of The Indpendent.

J. Sheekey Fish Cookbook features more than 120 recipes 
from Britain's best-loved fish restaurant

Caprice Group Chef Director Tim Hughes teamed up with legendary food editor Allan Jenkins, and celebrated photographer Howard Sooley to create this lovely cookbook, which shows the secrets to cooking fish, shellfish and lots of other dishes, including chapters on starters, sides, savouries, puddings and even what to drink with fish. Among the recipes is the secret of Sheekey’s Famous Fish Pie and Spotted Dick, which I've reproduced below, so you can enjoy these famous dishes without the hassle of flying over the "pond"!

"Some people add lobster, prawns or peas to their pie" 
says Sheekey chef Tim Hughes - "We prefer this purer version."

J Sheekey's Fish Pie
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy J Sheekey 

8 oz cod fillet, halibut or monkfish, skinned and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
8 oz salmon fillet, skinned and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
8 oz smoked haddock fillet, skinned and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
1/2 small bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped

For the sauce:
2 oz unsalted butter
2 oz plain flour
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups fish stock
1/3 cup double cream
1 tbsp English mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp anchovy essence, or Asian fish sauce
1/2 lemon, juiced
Salt and ground white pepper

For the topping:
2 lb floury potatoes, cooked and dry mashed
2 oz unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk
Salt and ground white pepper
1 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
3 tsp freshly grated parmesan

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a low heat and gently stir in the flour. Gradually add the wine, stirring well. Slowly add the fish stock until you have a silky smooth sauce. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. To finish, add the cream and briefly bring to the boil again. Stir in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy essence and lemon juice. Check seasoning, adding more mustard and Worcestershire sauce if you like it spicy.

Gently fold the fish and parsley into the hot sauce, and pour into a large pie dish, leaving a space of about 1-inch from the top of the dish. Leave to cool, so the topping will sit on the sauce when piped.

Pre-heat the oven to 375°F. Mix butter and milk into the mashed potato until soft enough to spread over the fish mixture. Season. Pipe or gently fork to cover the fish. Bake the fish pie for 30 minutes. Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and cheese, and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden.

WINE PAIRING: A perfect excuse to bring out a Chablis or other good white burgundy or other luscious, creamy cool-climate chardonnay.

Spotted Dick with Butter, Golden Syrup & Custard
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy J Sheekey 

2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/4 lb suet
1/3 cup soft light brown sugar
3/4 cup currants
Zest of 1/2 a lemon, grated
1/2 tsp mixed spice
3/4 cups water, approximately
1/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tbsp golden syrup
1 1/2 cups custard

Sieve the flour and baking powder together into a large mixing bowl with the salt. Add suet, sugar, currants, lemon zest and mixed spice, and just enough water to make a soft dough. Mix together with your hands.

Put the dough into a greased 1-litre (which is about 4 cups) pudding basin, or use small ramekins for individual puds. Drop the basin or ramekins in a steamer over boiling water. Cover the saucepan and cook for 1 1⁄2 hours, ensuring the pan doesn’t boil dry. Top up with boiling water if necessary.

Remove the pudding by inverting it onto a plate and cut into generous slices, or presented as individual puddings. Serve with a knob of butter and drizzle of golden syrup, with warm custard on the side.

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