I’ve always found that there’s something inherently appealing about eating wild seafood within sight or earshot from whence it came. Whether eating freshly-peeled Brown Shrimp sandwiches, as a boy, in our Suffolk beach hut, delighting in a sumptuous Breton Bouillabaisse, as Atlantic rollers cream their way towards your table, or savouring the sweetest Corfiot prawns at the Agni Taverna, boats gently rocking at your side and the sun sparkling off a glass-like Ionian Sea, it continues to mesmerise and enthral me.
We’re here in Brixham for the much feted and fabulous annual trawler race. A unique maritime carnival where the local fishing community, so intrinsically entwined with the town, parade their passion and their pride around the waters of Torbay, in a procession of vessels that are synonymous with the fishing industry in this part of South West England. A weekend, then, spent in the company of those whose professions are spliced into the fabric of Brixham society through one all-pervading theme – the production and sale of fish and shellfish.
I first meet Mitch Tonks and his partner Mat Prowse at the Fish Market, having just been afforded a guided tour of the site by the charismatic Barry Young, MD and Chief Auctioneer. It strikes me immediately, that their world revolves around not only the seafood that they espouse, but the people who facilitate its harvest and sale. As we chat, I get the feeling that my knowledge of the industry is about to be enhanced further still by these esteemed advocates.
Mitch is a man with a background steeped in seafood. Having left the world of finance and started a new career in fish mongering in his early twenties, he progressed, through a desire to cook, to opening up and eventually selling, the hugely popular and successful “Fishworks” chain, the legacy of which, left him as a leading proponent of seafood cookery and a well-respected piscatorial authority.
With my passion enthused by the market visit and the wonderful finny sights to behold therein, my ardour is further heightened with the suggestion that we join the duo for breakfast, consisting of coffee and smoked haddock, which after a knowing glance and nod from my host, I quickly accept. We stroll a matter of paces to the ground floor of Rockfish Brixham, where a couple of skippers are seated at a central bar, enjoying their early morning repast.
A fillet of Grimsby Haddock arrives, which Mitch assures me is a legendary smoke from a traditional and much distinguished Lincolnshire house, whose pedigree can be traced back over 100 years. It is indeed a fine and subtle flavour with a beautifully rich oakiness, that with a drizzle of melted butter coating its flakes, brings the customary smile to my face.
The culinary twosome chat with us, the skippers and the staff and flit seamlessly between restaurant issues, fish and market talk and lively local banter. Barry departs for his office and whilst polishing off the remainder of my rapidly disappearing breakfast, I discuss with Mat Prowse the ethos behind their business and probe his mind-set as to how their venues differ from other seafood establishments.
I learn that honesty and integrity pervade every aspect of their model. Mat is keen to point out that although their widespread acclaim has attracted national recognition, modesty and sincerity are key with little hint of celebrity status. Over the six establishments that make up their organisation, the sustainability that they promote in their raw ingredients, is reflected entirely in their structure, with local staff, suppliers and contacts key to their being.
“We just do what we do without being too precious about it,” asserts Mat. “There are far too many people in this industry who are often just in it for themselves – for the status. We love our business and we’re very proud of it. We also hugely value all our clientele and their opinions. If something isn’t right or a customer’s not happy we need to know right there and then, at the time and not have to read about it on TripAdvisor ! Quality feedback is paramount, it’s the way we improve.”
Passionate and honest words from a man who equally shares the dynamism in a successful partnership and friendship that has stood the test of the last 15 or so years. With an enduring legacy of over 20 different restaurants, the pair have striven to populate their menus with seasonally and responsibly caught fish and shellfish, all satisfyingly served up in mostly waterfront locations.
I thank them both heartily for their words and hospitality and pick my leisurely way back round Brixham old harbour, whilst reflecting on the last few hours spent in the company of men who know the fish trade inside out. I’m also hungrily aware that in 24hrs time, I’ll be back at Rockfish and this time to dine.
Later in the day, on an impromptu excursion, we find ourselves aboard the Dartmouth Lower Ferry, crossing the River Dart, boarding at Kingswear. On arrival at Dartmouth, and by now the smoked haddock seeming like a distant memory, we stroll along the embankment, on the lookout for a suitable place to lunch. I’m, of course, more than aware that this picturesque and gentille Devonian port, plays host to the Tonks/Prowse jewel in the crown i.e. The Seahorse Restaurant, but with no reservation and really no intention of gracing one of its tables, it’s by sheer chance and fortuitousness, that within fifteen minutes of driving off the Ferry, we’re ordering our starters from the Seahorse menu. I hesitate to add, that this in my mind, is perhaps not so much of a chance and opportunist luncheon, but more of a predestined occurrence, which I’m to make the most of.
The menu is of slightly European-influenced, quality. I choose the local unadulterated Spider Crab to commence, followed by the Plaice, which appears on the carte du jour, served with a delightfully piquant and delectable persillade. Opposite me a starter of Scallops, roasted in their shell in white port and garlic (a Seahorse standard and signature), is matched by a following serving of Fritto Misto, the deep fried Soft Shell Crab element of which, I’m the lucky recipient.
I have to say I’m a huge Spider Crab fan, as recent posts bear witness. It is quite simply, to my mind anyway, one of the most iconic and recognisable seafood flavours, equally as distinguishable as that of freshly boiled Lobster. To get the best from it, you need to do the least and here was a perfect example of just that. A twist of lemon, a grind of coarse black pepper and a dollop of gloriously yellow homemade mayonnaise to complement and enhance its exquisite notes.
The Plaice; well, on its day and cut from a sizeable fish, this popular flattie can probably go head to head with Brill or even Turbot, doing itself huge justice. Another firm-fleshed favourite of mine, I have enjoyed Plaice caught from whichever of our seas all my life. Accompanied by a simple house salad, some locally dug and buttery new potatoes and a spoonful of my wife’s divine side dish of Florence Fennel Gratin, it delivers both freshness and flavour in equal measure.
Our attentive waitress is at pains to ensure that our lunch is not only massively enjoyable but also memorable, answering any queries with ease and experience. As the hours drift away, we engage ourselves in conversation with a local retired couple from Kingswear whose endorsement of the Seahorse, only goes further to cement my rapidly forming opinion that this has to be one of the best places in which I have ever eaten. Staff start to leave, service having finished and suddenly we find ourselves the only two patrons left lunching, as I sip my espresso.
Another day, another dinner and with the fervour and excitement of the Brixham Trawler Race to occupy us during the daytime, we disembark the Lady Maureen early the following afternoon, having witnessed one of the most flamboyant and archetypal marine festivals that exists. Slightly stunned and hugely happy we while away the remaining few hours of the Saturday afternoon, before making our way once more to the harbour, now bursting with inebriated revellers, to Rockfish and the culmination of our visit to this charm of a fishing town.
The Seahorse and Rockfish are literally like chalk and cheese. The former a stylishly-refined and more formal dining experience. Rockfish its antithesis.
There’s a slight feeling at Rockfish of entering a well-heeled club. Greeted at the stairwell and names checked we duly make our way to the upper floor of the establishment and are shown to our table overlooking the fish market. Lofty and boarded, the spacious upstairs is laid out in an efficient and workable style and with a subtle New England tone, the heavily glazed harbour-front side, affording views of the fish quay and market. An exterior decked area gives diners the opportunity to dine al fresco, the tables being lit by marine navigation lamps. Nautical art of huge variety adorns the walls with sea charts, posters and fishy prints all providing a highly atmospheric flavour, which oozes an understated coastal style. A spacious and accommodating bar at one end ensures swift service for diners.
Now here’s the magic.
Brixham is a fish town. An industrial port of commercial landings which exemplifies the UK Fishing Industry, its history well documented and its current status assured as England’s premier fish market. Rather than open a venue in yet another moneyed and chic seaside resort where affluence is influence, this inspirational partnership have opted for integrity and provenance by establishing a restaurant that, although abiding by the standards attributed to all their venues, slices through any preconceptions and affords a wholly inclusive dining experience where local residents, holidaymakers, foodies and fishermen alike can eat.
As we contemplate the menu, I gaze over toward the fish dock and can see the Lady Maureen tied up alongside the Barentszee (both owned by local trawlerman Dave Langdon) which only hours earlier, we rounded Torbay in, as we raced against the other beamers in the fleet.
Mitch is present, evidently relishing the atmosphere and circulating among friends and patrons alike. I ask what led him to open a restaurant situated in a building that actually forms part of the workings of the harbour.
His reply is delivered with the accompanying notion it’s something he saw as destiny.
“There was a restaurant here before. It didn’t really cut it and when it closed, I heard that Rick Stein was interested in opening a cafe. I phoned Rick directly and asked him to confirm whether that was the case. He laughed and said he had no such intention, so I seized the moment and here we are today. We’ve only been open a few weeks but the support has been phenomenal. I can source all our fish requirements here from just literally feet away. I know the skippers, the auctioneers, the merchants and the buyers. You couldn’t really wish for a simpler and more direct supply. ”
I can see from our table that is certainly the case. The place is now full and busy and there is a lively, almost party atmosphere that I’m guessing is not just because it’s race day.
We order. Our waitress is charming and helpful noting our choices on her smart-pad which gives an amusingly innovative and technological edge to ordering very traditional fayre.
I opt again for crab, this time Brown Crab though, served as with the Spider, in its shell with the requisite mayonnaise and home baked bread accompaniment. Although not quite the crab aficionado that Mr Tonks is, I have caught cooked and eaten them since a boy and I have to say that, although I adore our East coast and Cromer specimens, I’m always inclined to feel that West Country crab has the edge, flavour-wise, coming from entirely different water and ground on essentially an Atlantic Coast.
This particular offering lives entirely up to my expectations and delivers the ultimate hit in taste, simply and honestly prepared with minimal fuss.
Crab finished, I’m onto my selected main dish; this particular fish holding special appeal currently, not just for me, but specifically for Cornish and Devon fishermen and the buyers of their catch.
Hake, traditionally an exported commodity, but having gained more popular appeal lately in the UK, has only just this week been awarded MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) accredited status for the Cornish fishery of Newlyn, a badge that has taken years of hard work, data monitoring and assessment to achieve. In essence, it means that in that particular port, Hake can be sold having been caught observing MSC protocols and attracting not only more premium but a wealth of selective buyers. However, although the same fish can also be landed at Brixham from the same boats, it’s not currently afforded the same prestige- the chain of custody preventing it until more work can be done. Hopefully just a matter of time.
So Hake it is then. With properly deep-fried chips, a zingy tomato and red onion salad and a side order of aioli. Cooked, obviously to perfection, it’s a true illustration of the ultimate traceability and sustainability of this fishery. It’s what this restaurant and its concept represents so well. Fish landed, bought and hauled by box only yards from where it was hours earlier hoisted to the quay. The texture, so different to other Gadiform species like Cod or Haddock is complemented by an equally different but distinctive flavour, which I have no doubt will continue to grow on the fish-loving UK consumer. As an island nation, we owe it to ourselves to celebrate and savour the bounty of seas and not be afraid to experiment with different tastes.
A bottle of cleverly-selected Rockfish Sauvignon Blanc, crisply hits the mark to enhance what again, is a truly great dining experience. As the sun sets across Torbay, Mitch expands on his philosophy and raison d’être in this part of the world.
“I love Brixham. I moved here to be close to what I enjoy most. I sail, fish, cook and work here. Most of all my family and I live here. I can walk to work in 15 minutes around the harbour and really, for me, there’s no better place to be.”
It does seem that Mitch Tonks has not only placed himself firmly on the culinary seafood map of Britain, but in doing so has carved out a special niche, not only for his clientele but also for the men and women who work within the local fishing industry.
True sustainability really. The integration and support of industry into the community. A viable working edifice for people, planet and profit. Rockfish is the epitome.
For me. Well I can only say, the perfect weekend for a hopeless seafood addict.
With apologies to Giles Coren:
If asked to dine at the Seahorse or Rockfish, I too, would willingly drive there at a moment’s notice. However as we’re in Suffolk and not London it might take a tad longer- probably about six hours.
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