Magazine article The Spectator

J. Sheekey

Magazine article The Spectator

J. Sheekey

Article excerpt

'J. SHEEKEY', said our friend's father, when we told him where we were going to dinner that night. 'I remember going there the night my wife gave birth to our first child. I ate a delicious potted shrimp and Dover sole while she was in labour and returned bearing a whole lobster.'

His wife chimed in, `After 36 hours' pushing, the sight of that red shell made me sick. So the lobster went into the fridge and we ate it to celebrate the next day.' Eccentric stories are part of every institution and J. Sheekey, the 102-year-old English fish restaurant in Covent Garden, is no exception. So when Jeremy King and Chris Corbin of Le Caprice and The Ivy took it over they took care to retain the name, the lobster and the old celebrity photos. Everything else has been gutted. Instead of plush red velvet, there are now cream walls and brown ribbed plastic banquettes (sound disgusting, actually quite stylish, only they might be a bit sticky for bare legs in summer). The windows are frosted, the bar serves caviar and blinis and there's no more grey fish looking like school knickers.

My husband and I weren't being fair when we went to review the new Sheekey's. It was a freezing Sunday night. We'd returned from the Caribbean that morning where they're supposed to consume lobsters like we eat fish fingers and we were jet-lagged. But the Caribbean island had mostly served caesar salads and goat-water stew. It suffered the same fate as many Greek islands. The fish is such a commodity that the best is shipped straight off to Tokyo, New York and London.

So we'd spent two weeks watching the sea without actually eating much fish and I had started dreaming about a lightly poached sea bream or a roasted sea bass. `Let's go to Sheekey's when we get back,' Ed said after one too many straggly island chickens. `It may not be on the sea but at least it's close to Billingsgate.'

The first omens were good. After years of watching restaurants having their innards ripped out, this architect has kept four small rooms, scattered with inspired pre-war art. Although the restaurant was only half full, it didn't feel empty, just intimate.

The old clients were still there. An Irish man with an eye patch and whiskers to match any Dublin bay prawn's was sharing his dinner with an elegant lady dressed in beige pleats, pearls and a broach. But now he was joined across the aisle by two hip New Yorkers in trainers and combat trousers, and a chain-smoking music PR girl.

The waiters still wear bow ties, only instead of being grouchy old Spaniards, they are now smooth, young British (an almost extinct species in most London restaurants). They slither around like excited eels, rather than scuttle into their holes like old crustaceans.

Two perfect kir royals arrived within minutes of sitting down, along with some nutty brown hunks of bread (no nambypamby limp bits of sun-dried tomato hanging off them). The wine list had eight white wines by the glass (perfect for lunch).

When I asked how large the whole Cornish cock-crab was, one was brought to my table without ceremony. At 9.25, it was 4 cheaper than the crab out of its shell, but as the waiter pointed out, it takes a lot of energy to crack a crab and I was exhausted so I feebly chose the prim 'dressed' version.

Truffled mixed artichokes, risotto nero and grilled baby squid with creamed polenta sounded more Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman than the colonel and his wife. The salmon fishcakes with sorrel sauce and Belgian endive salad were straight lifts from The Ivy and Le Caprice. …

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