There is a sublime moment during the tasting menu at The Sportsman in Seasalter when your knife but whispers at slip sole bone and pearly, iridescent flesh pares away with nary a fight. This morsel – underside ridged from contact with ribs but pristine; outside speckled green with seaweed butter, arrives at your mouth moist and perfumed with the nearby sea and melts away leaving a trace of iodine, sweet meat and eye-rolling joy. The Tom and Jerry fish skeleton of a thousand instagrams is testament to the perfect cooking, devoid of clinging dry or pulpy raw flesh; clean as a beach pebble every single time. Which is the point that I’m gently meandering to for I’m guessing that The Sportsman have cooked tens of thousands of slip soles and I’d bet that each was as starkly beautiful as the last. I’d bet all the money in my pockets that each and every slip sole is delicately plated and given the slightest push with the warm finger of a chef who just knows. I can’t say for sure but I’ll bet there are no probes to take the ‘core’ temperature and if there’s a sous-vide machine for fish in that kitchen I’ll eat all the money in my pockets and the sundry detritus of yours. You feel when a fish is cooked right. You know, or you don’t and The Sportsman do.
Which brings me to Rick Stein in Barnes, by the river where The Depot used to be. It’s a handsome restaurant, but it always has been, a pretty courtyard awash on a cold November night with fairy lights and fog is enticing, as is the dark water flowing slowly, tar-like, past the far side widows. Early, we sat at the bar for a Negroni upon which is perched a soft pickled walnut, about which I simply cannot make my mind. It was a stunning addition or a calamitous folly. I don’t know which so we’ll go with the former lest you reach the end of this and think me unkind.
I took fifteen minutes to drink my Negroni, walnut and all and for that entire time, four plates of food sat on the bar, at my elbow – two plates of sashimi and two of fresh white crab. I’m guessing that the cold starter station is behind the bar, perhaps to aid logistics, perhaps for a bit of theatre but plated starters of raw and delicate, fresh sea food, wilting in the heat of a public bar for twenty minutes seems strange and speaks to me of a culture not obsessed with perfection. Cooking the same slip sole, the same way, thousands of times is about kitchen culture. It is about perfection and zeal and shame. In some kitchens the idea of waste, of incorrect cooking, of cutting corners is anathema. The culture infects everyone from the Head Chef to the porter and at all the levels in between each of a hundred jobs is done with quiet skill, application and pride. We moved to our perfectly nice table.
The wine list is a thing of beauty, keenly priced and interesting. They have Burklin Wolf Riesling, an Estate that I visited in my youth and swam, drunk and naked in a ceremonial pond with a wine merchant pal who was genuinely bitten by a snake. Thirty two quid for some of the best Riesling that you can buy that retails for about thirteen is fantastic value and a nostalgia trip all at once. I order the cheapest starter but the one that will tell you more about the kitchen than any other, Fish soup with rouille and croutons. The soup was OK but was not possessed of the ‘funk’ that true Provencal fish soup attains. The tang of small whole fish, of guts and heads and bone, boiled, crushed and strained. Anise and orange zest adding flora. This was a polite fishy soup rather than a fine fish soup. Perfect, I’m sure for the Barnes lunch crowd but I want my fish soup to slap me in the face with pungent piscine aggression. This was a theatrical air kiss of a soup, prim and proper and just a bit dull.
And then I got cross because I paid forty-eight pounds and eighty-eight pence (including service) for a piece of Turbot, some chips and some cavalo nero. A quid shy of fifty notes for a plate of food. I implore you not to think that I am the kind of person who minds paying fifty quid for a plate of food. I don’t. I’ve rarely had to mind, even at some of the best restaurants in Britain (that slip sole is a tenner, a la carte), but whenever I have, every element has been faultless. If I pay fifty quid for a premium ingredient, perfectly cooked I’m happy as a clam. My turbot was a bit overcooked. That’s all. Maybe a minute or two, maybe it had sat under a hot lamp for too long (the plate was literally scalding). It was a wee bit over done. It’s not the end of the world and yes it’s a first-world problem for a middle-class chump in Barnes to spend the weekly budget for some families on a piece of slightly over-cooked fish but fuck it. It’s my fifty quid and they overcooked my turbot.
I’m not expecting (my ACTUAL food hero) Rick to cook my fish in his restaurant, or even his son, but I expect, when you’re charging Michelin star+ prices, for the culture to be right and it just wasn’t. The service was kind of sweet but scatty and no one knew anything about the wine list. The food left on the bar, the burning plates and the imperfect soup. A bog standard pudding of chocolate ‘pave’, crushed peanuts and bought in Jude’s ice cream (dull) and top end prices all left me feeling a bit sad. I’d hoped that Barnes might finally have a jewel to behold and be proud of but beautiful, shimmering Rick Stein, Barnes is more costume jewellery than precious gem. Its a shame therefore that here, in Barnes that won’t matter and it will be fully booked for years and years to come.