Is this the best seafood restaurant in the world?

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,

 

Is this the best seafood restaurant in the world – Yes!

Apologies in advance to all of the great restaurants we’ve eaten in around the DeanWye and the world, but when it comes to seafood –  “the winner is….” – La Halle on the dockside in Dunkirk on the Place du Minck. We’ve written about this place before and it has been my personal goal to test this fish and shellfish joint to the maximum. The first year I was so excited with my find, I thought it may be a fluke. You know the novelty of a new place and the ambiance of it all etc. Anyway, third time lucky and there is no need for the jury to go out. It wins. And if it never ever changes – it still wins!

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
Landrover parking section, La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

Looking at it know with the hindsight of having fully scoped Bologna’s food scene on our latest Italian research trip and what’s happening in food service there, La Halle fits perfectly into the real food trend. A restaurant in the back of a fishmongers – perfect synergy of supplier meets restaurant. Actually since my last visit the restaurant has well and truly expanded into the shop with another half dozen permanent covers creeping into the fish counter rather than just at the weekends.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

Sea fish and seafood has, without too many exceptions, the most delicate of flavours and it’s hard sometimes to find recipes and sauces that are sympathetic to the fish which is why there are just those few staple sauces. So at La Halle they serve whatever variety of fruits de mer (a dish traditionally served after midnight mass in France),  you have chosen with a small pot of hollandaise and a small cup of vinaigrette. If you want to use them – it’s up to you.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
Breton Homard, La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

The concept is simple. They sell great produce over the counter for you (and local restaurants) to cook at home. Or….they’ll cook it for you and serve it up on a bowl of ice. Actually they’ll also now grill the lobster for you and also offer a natty range of cold smoked fish platters – this one is for you our Norwegian and Finnish pals.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

Personally, unadulterated is the way I like it. I get to taste the fish and shellfish without the adornment of anything other than a squeeze of lemon.

I love oysters (Huîtres) and I’m not a big fan of doing anything to them other than eating them. However, I have to say that from now on I will try a few with the La Halle simple onion vinaigrette!

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

So, my fruits de mer think time around: Breton lobster, crab claws, langoustines, whelks and half a dozen of Utah Beach’s finest oysters. I dressed the whole plate with fresh lemon and ate the lot with the occasional dip of hollandaise when I was feeling racy.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

What can I report in this sea food flavour spectacular blog? Well, the lobster was firm sweet and delicate, the prawns the same (especially the super sweet hard won leg meet), the crab claws… just sublime and shows what an underrated meat this is, the whelks – meaty and robust and very “whelky”, and the oysters were the very freshest essence of the ocean. The flavours of the actual produce alone were delicate and absolutely fantastic! Accomplished cooking skills on display – Oh yes! Fine dining, tweezers arranged garnish, decorated with foraged edible flowers and lovingly crafted sauces? No. They just aren’t necessary here.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

The produce itself was the support act, the introduction, the symphony and the crescendo! If the seafood here isn’t fresh enough for you – it’s time you bought a fishing boat and an alarm clock and cooked aboard a la Rick Stein!

I’m sure too, that if you knew anything about wine – which I don’t, the wine list scribbled on a blackboard would be similarly impressive. I’m a bit of wine oaf if I’m really honest and more in the Count Arthur Strong school (..what a lovely drop of splosh) than in the “I’m getting aroma of acacia wood camp fire roasted wildebeest” school. So wine pairing is not my personal strength. But I do know what I like and I like Sancerre, so I had two glasses of that with my lunch.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

You can’t reserve a table by Facebook, only by phone, so I did – I think. So with equal amounts of optimism and trepidation I showed up just before one. In my best class 6F French, I introduced myself and the fact that I had a reservation – result: bemusement! That heady mix of Midlands and Mancunian wasn’t doing the French mother tongue much good it seemed. I tried again and upping the ante and went all in on the Gallic. Still not getting too far. OK says I, to Madame “that is as good as it gets, un moment while I get the translator out!

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
Dockside view, Dunkirk, France

But, somewhere in all those hours on the hard chair in the drafty classroom back when school was school (and not some holiday camp, bla, bla……) listening to those scratchy records with the headphones on, something must have stuck and the light bulb came one for the young guy in chef’s blacks behind Madame who now beckoned me forth. You speak English?! She said to him with amazement. “He secretly speaks English” I responded which instantly had the English speaking French diners in fits and taking the mickey out of my lovely host, new best mate and now translator on all things to do with my visit, my travels, how long I was in Dunkirk and why I have such a big camera.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
The freshest Scallops, La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

Do they speak great English? No, you’re in France get over it, dust off your school time French and have a laugh – the staff here are great fun.

Is it possible to hold the accolades of World’s Best Seafood Restaurant and World’s Best Fishmongers simultaneously? We don’t know, but if it is – you should already have a tenner at the bookies on this place while the odds are good and before the word gets out.

La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France, David Broadbent copyright holder, www.davidbroadbent.com,
La Halle fish restaurant, Dunkirk, France

 

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Coming next….. we have a nice little piece about a perfect little Gloucestershire gastropub that’s a big hit with locals….

Call of the Kipper

David Broadbent Photography, Northumberland, Beadnell, Seahouse, Swallow Fish, Craster Arms, Salt Water Cafe, food, drink, local, Kipper,

 

As you may know if you are a regular reader, we have occasionally to take WyeDean Deli Confidential on request tours (see our Tuscany title link). I know, tough life! Anyway, most recently we have been Beadnell on Northumberland’s heritage Coastline. Beadnell is a very pretty little seaside village with a small harbour which is (just) still in use by a few small scale crabbing boats. It has an historic lime kiln, a few pleasure craft beached by the harbour entrance and is flanked by a glorious long sweeping sandy beach on one side and some of Britain’s best rock pooling on the other. So pretty is the village and steeped in the Northumbrian idyll that a new housing development just back from the beach car park is already completely sold before it’s even got out of the ground.

David Broadbent Photography, Northumberland, Beadnell, Seahouse, Swallow Fish, Craster Arms, Salt Water Cafe, food, drink, local, Kipper,
Beach Cafe, beadnell.

It’s on these trips “dear readers” to paraphrase Keith Floyd the TV cook in whose style everyone else has since followed, that our food&drink-dar, so long honed and tempered to perfection, really comes into its own seeking out the great and the good places to refresh ourselves. A lot has changed in Northumberland food since my last visit. Some of the great and familiar is, thankfully, still going strong. There are too some new venues on the up as well and the general quality has improved immensely in an area positively shoaling with some of the best produce there is.

David Broadbent Photography, Northumberland, Beadnell, Seahouse, Swallow Fish, Craster Arms, Salt Water Cafe, food, drink, local, Kipper,
Swallow Fish, Seahouses, Northumberland. UK

Beadnell, our chosen base for both trips is a microcosm of the changes in the wider area and a tribute to how well the local tourism economy is doing in these staycation times. Its two village pubs are both open and doing well, no mean feat in the general environment. There has recently been a new café opening, leaning heavily on the freshest of sea food available, and also a street food via shack has hit the beach.

David Broadbent Photography, Northumberland, Beadnell, Seahouse, Swallow Fish, Craster Arms, Salt Water Cafe, food, drink, local, Kipper,
“Bait” seafood street food, Beadnell

First though to revisit old favourites along the coast at Seahouses to calm the nerves that too much has changed and it’s time for lunch and a quick drink in the Old Ship. Opinions are always personal and for me, this is the best bar in the world. Any inadequate written description from me wouldn’t really do it justice. The floor is still plank but the real fire has been replaced with a more convenient and presumably safer, electronic under study. But the bar is still the same, the seating arrangement and the snug, the ceiling stills drips with fishing memorabilia and the faces in the old black and white prints of fishermen of old still look remarkably similar to the old locals propping up the bar. The town’s brilliant and ever busy fish and chip shops stakes are all still going strong with Neptune ahead of Pinnacles and Lewis’ all with take out and sit-in facilities.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Neptune Fish n Chips, Seahouses.
David Broadbent Photography, food and drink, Seahouses,
Quite simply, the best bar in the world, The Olde Ship, Seahouses.

Back in Beadnell and we have sampled The Craster Arms on several occasions. The bar manager Connor Taylor oversees activity and can certainly run a bar and staff properly. We really have a thing about service. In Connor Taylor there is no such thing as a private conversation in works time that has to be concluded before noticing a customer. There is no element of his management responsibilities, be they staff, stock or admin, which come before establishing what the customer wants. And, he possesses the skill – seemingly impossible for a journeyman barkeeper – the ability to remember your last order and preferences. You cannot get through the door without him spotting you coming in and mentally placing you in the bar service queue. If it’s busy you get the reassuring acknowledgement that you aren’t invisible and you won’t get missed out. And when you are served there is bonhomie, help, advice and genuine personal recommendation based on sound product knowledge and actual tasting, on tap should you need it. This guy can run a bar!

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
The Craster Arms, Beadnell Bay, Northumberland.
David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Linguini, prawns and mussels. Craster Arms.

Why is it that – unlike Connor, the rest of Europe and in particular the States –  often in this country we produce bar staff that just can’t run a bar or couldn’t really care less about their inadequate skill set?

The Wye Valley & Forest of Dean Tourism Association is hoping to address this very point in our local area by helping members to interact with schools and would be apprentices to drive home the idea that careers in catering and the associated service industries are “proper” jobs to take pride in, to aspire to be good, if not the best, at. More on that in later blogs.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Beadnell Bay Sea trout

In The Craster Arms service is brisk and the food is great varied pub staples. The cod in the house fish and chips is gargantuan and each fish must have taken a couple of burly fishermen or Fisherlasses to wrestle it on board, but well-cooked and presented. Our personal favourites were the fish pie main and the simple seared fresh scallops and the Cullen Skink (smokily aromatic smoked haddock, cream and potato soup) starters. For other mains we sampled Beadnell sea trout caught 500 yards from the pub kitchen and seafood linguine with prawns and mussels – all fab!.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
The Salt Water Cafe

Across the road from the Craster Arms is the recently opened (and our now favourite) Salt Water Café. Open from early morning onward, take your pick of breakfast, lunch or dinner or just drop in for the best espresso for miles. For dinner, Salt Water Café offers a great hot fish platter for two but we had Monkfish, samphire and cream sauce – beautiful.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Monkfish and samphire

All extremely interesting and very, very tasty. But there was one job, as yet, left undone. One reason good enough to justify a visit alone. A place no cook neglects when passing by this Heritage Coastline – Swallow Fish in Seahouses. The walls of the modest shop in the back streets are be-decked with the photographic who’s who of cookery. The fish counter is stuffed full with oceanic greatness from along the coast. Many years ago on one visit I remember, the then smaller counter, with its seafood display all crammed to one end to accommodate the massive Turbot they had fresh off the boat that morning. We were here to buy Kippers.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Swallow Fish, Seahouses, Northumberland. UK

We arrived in the late afternoon light as the small smoker on the left of the shop was about to be lit. For years this windowless black hell hole has produced some of the finest smoke imbued goodness there is. The smoking racks were full and the paired Herring hung from the black oily bars ready to produce the Kipper. High in Omega 3 this is a sustainable fish once out of fashion but now firmly back on the menu and the Marine Conservation Society’s eat list. And so with nothing but a few strategically placed piles of sawdust and a flaming copy of The Sun, one of the lads started a centuries old chain reaction of smoke curing to produce a fish-lovers breakfast and high tea staple.

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Swallow Fish, Seahouses, Northumberland. UK
David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Swallow Fish, Seahouses, Northumberland. UK

We purchased several pairs of kippers the day before we left for the DeanWye from the Swallow Fish postal service. Allowing us the amusing comedic notion of our next day’s breakfast chasing us down the A1. The plump and oily kippers arrived safe and sound the very next day, packed so tightly in vacpac no odour could escape. We opened and grilled a pair immediately accompanied only by some white pepper and a slice of bread and butter – wow!

David Broadbent Photography, food and drink,
Kipper

The vacpacs keep for a surprisingly long time but we put them in the freezer where they freeze really well and we can very much vouch that there is no difference in taste or texture. All of the retail figures on the humble kipper are up – All Hail – the return of the Kipper.

 

David Broadbent Photography, cod, graffiti,
In Cod we trust