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The first thing you need to know about The Sea, The Sea is that it’s got dead fish hanging in the window. Not shiny-eyed fresh fish lying on a bed of ice, but proper stiffs, hanging on a hook and ageing in a glass case like prime joints of meat.
I think they hang them there because they are proud of them, though it may also be a partial warning to unwary punters that this is anything but an average fish restaurant.
The Sea, The Sea is set up like a Japanese sushi bar — a counter with seats and a couple of communal tables — but the food actually isn’t Japanese. It’s raw fish, but it’s not really sashimi.
In fact, it’s a tremendously exciting take on the ideas of executive chef Leandro Carreira, whose previous restaurant Londrino seemed to have been loved by every critic in London, except me.
I found it competent but cold, promising but lacking in soul, too Michelin-hungry to delight — which is why I was pleased to see what he could do with a set-up so informal and offbeat.
Monkfish liver parfait will never not thrill me. Some places call it “foie gras” but if they are herding monkfish somewhere and force-feeding them the way they do geese, I’d pay extra to see it.
In fact, it’s a smooth paste, extra rich with fats and oils and profoundly satisfying. It is served as one would hope, on brioche toast, which in this case looks strangely like a waffle. “Yes,” says the chef behind the counter, “we don’t have a toaster back here, so we put the bread in the waffle press.”
Next up are three perfect flanks of sardine, which the chef slashes, places on a wire metal grill and sears with a blowtorch. Couched on little beds of toast (waffly) and topped with shreds of pickled pepper, they smack of the ocean and are some of the best I’ve eaten.
The dishes come too quickly, and we ask the staff to hold back a little. There is wine and some amazing sake to be drunk and their admirable enthusiasm isn’t leaving sufficient space for appreciation.
There is a brief pause, then dressed crab on a waffle — an actual waffle this time, sweet and flecked with seaweed. It is a great combination though a bit under-seasoned and, if I’m honest, the waffle theme is beginning to baffle me.
Six-day, dry-aged kingfish is the big bugger hanging in the window. In Japan, they’d call him Hiramasa. He joins us sliced into thick, raw chunks, with a dollop of fermented corn and a sprinkling of powdered almond and, dear Lord, he is good.
Perhaps we Brits aren’t ready for this — but Carreira gets it. Culturally, we see “fishiness” as a bad thing and so miss the point that ageing makes fish not more “fishy”, but just infinitely more seriously “fish”.
The chef begins preparing a bowl of cockles, steamed in a broth of their juices and a vegetable-based XO sauce. He’s flogging himself senseless over a tiny pan on a ridiculous little induction ring when I suddenly realise what’s going on.
This excellent room, freshly fitted out in a fashionable new “retail quarter” off Cadogan Road, has no kitchen extraction. There is no range, no deep fryers, none of the accoutrements of chefdom — just the talents and creativity of a Michelin-quality chef effectively operating with the tools of a small snack bar.
They say that great art is born out of the limitations we place on the artist. All I can say is that restraint suits Carreira well and has forced him to shine brightly.
The cockles are barely cooked, popping with sea-fresh fat and counterbalanced by the stingingly spicy, deep funk of the XO. I pick up the bowl and suck down every last drop of it — chasing it seconds later with a superbly sharp and cleansing plate of raw tuna and tiny tomatoes in red-pepper miso.
The only bum note is a piece of halibut with hispi cabbage in a very pleasant fish sauce. All lovely, occupying a healthy-sized plate and looking like it would work really well in an average fish restaurant . . . which this really, really isn’t.
It feels that there’s some kind of reverse moral in this. The problem I had with Londrino was the uptight sterility that was distracting a brilliant chef from doing brilliant things. I don’t know the business circumstances that caused Carreira to close Londrino and to open in a space so small and oddly equipped but, as far as this fish lover is concerned, it might be the best thing he’s ever done.
The Sea, The Sea
174 Pavillion Rd, London SW1X 0AW020 7824 8090; theseathesea.net; Starters £3.50-£21
Main courses £7-£16
Tim Hayward is winner of the Restaurant Writing Award at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2019
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