Fish without fuss draws diners in
The menu at the Crab House Café in Wyke Regis on the outskirts of Weymouth on the south west coast of England changes daily, sometimes twice a day, depending on what locally caught fish and shellfish are available.
The restaurant operates on a very simple concept. All the fish and shellfish prepared and served on the premises are caught that day within a 40-mile (64 kilometer) radius.
“Regular boats land to us,” said Nigel Bloxham, Crab House Café owner. “Plus we use the markets as back up — but again we only buy from certain boats. We use what swims in the [English] Channel. We buy from English fishermen on English boats and that way we benefit the English economy.”
This is what Bloxham means when talking about sustainability. For him sustainability refers as much to providing local fishermen with an income and providing money for the local economy, as it does to protecting the future of local wild fish stocks.
Typical fish species served in the Crab House Café include lemon sole, plaice, mackerel, grey mullet, pollock — “Pollock is more popular than cod these days due to all the publicity about alternative species,” said Bloxham — sea bass, turbot, sand sole and megrim sole. Huss, gurnard and ling also feature. “People will eat something here that they wouldn’t have at home.
“Main courses are cooked in a traditional way, but we can be more adventurous with our starters because they don’t cost as much. And if someone doesn’t like a dish, we will always replace it.”
The most locally caught species on the menu is the Royal Portland Oyster, which is grown in net bags on the foreshore outside the Crab House Café. A notice on the restaurant wall reads, “If you want to see where our oysters come from, then just look out of the window!”
Bloxham takes sustainability a stage further than just fish. The bread served in the restaurant comes from a local baker and the Crab House Café’s own label ale and stout are brewed locally; even one of the sparkling wines on the wine list comes from a winery very close by. “By doing this, we are sustaining the local community,” he said.
Vegetables and herbs are grown in a greenhouse and garden behind the restaurant, and for the future Bloxham is going to forage for ingredients and is looking for local sites to farm seaweeds. “Seaweeds are so much better for you than spinach which we hear a lot about.”
In addition to the daily printed menu, dishes featuring “odd sizes, one-offs, fish which we only have three of, etc.” are chalked on a blue board above where the chef works in full view of diners. What fish are on the menu that day are also in full view behind a glass partition on the equivalent of a fishmonger’s slab.
Also on display, befitting the restaurant’s name, are large cooked crabs. “During the ten years we have been open, we have not had crabs on only three occasions,” said Bloxham.
Recipes from the Crab House Café, including signature dishes, will be published in what Bloxham describes as a “semi cook book, semi ‘coffee table’” book called Nigel Bloxham’s Crab House Café at Christmas. “The aim is to encourage people not to be frightened [of cooking fish], to have a go at home,” he said.
What is now the Crab House Café started out as a garishly painted concrete building that housed a café as well as storage tanks for oysters farmed by a company called Abbotsbury Oysters.
The operation was run down when Bloxham bought it. “To start a restaurant was something that I’m very passionate about and had always wanted to do,” he said.
Bloxham had trained as a chef, but then became involved in the seafood business setting up a company called Sea Fare Products that marinated seafood such as cuttlefish and squid for sale to the catering industry. However, he had never run a restaurant before and built the Crab House Café “on a wing and a prayer."
The restaurant is now “shacked up” with wood covering the concrete walls and what was the former café has been extended.
“People from all over the world come to eat here,” Bloxham said. “I never dreamt it would be so successful, so well known.”