West Mersea Oyster Bar
Home to the best seafood in the world. And that's coming from me!
The only other time I've written a restaurant review was when I panned the bar I used to work at after they refused to pay me when I left. So this is a new style of writing for me. We'll see how this works out I suppose.
Situated on the waterfront in West Mersea, the Oyster Bar is a simple wooden building that backs on to Allan Bird's oyster purification shed. From the outside it looks exceptionally humble and plain, with its blue painted wooden boards, and the masts from the yacht yard behind, towering over it. Inside the atmosphere of the restaurant becomes apparent. A long kitchen line stretches down the far side of the shed, open to the dining area, with big windows opening out onto the boat yard, and sea view. A bevy of plain, wooden tables fill the floor with some seating on bars up by the windows. A cold cabinet displays the fresh shellfish that can be bought on site like a fishmongers. The cracker barrel styling is lightened by the hangings on the wall, all from local artists, many of which depict scenes of island life, and the oyster industry. I sat at the window, looking out onto the boat yard and the sea beyond with a heater pumping out into my legs, warming me through and adding to the cosy feel of the place. The atmosphere of the restaurant changes as it fills up, there are no soft furnishings or interior walls to mute or muffle sound, so when full, the dining room is a throng of noise from the patrons and the kitchen, if you are looking for somewhere quiet to dine, peak hours here are best avoided, however if you do avoid those times you'll lose the huge community ambiance that forms. Chatter from table to table over the dishes, and typically between locals brings the space alive.
The food on offer comes from a simple menu, it is seafood and nothing else. But this simplicity means that the kitchen knows the menu well, and each dish is crafted with pace, but equally with care, passion and skill. I ordered a round of six Colchester Natives, the local oyster as opposed to the invasive Pacific Gigas, as well as the seafood platter for one. Service was quick and friendly, makes you feel at home with its honesty. The lack of pretentiousness and pomp to the place makes it easy to relax into the experience and enjoy it for what it offers.
6 Colchester Natives. Only available in months with an "R" at the end. This stops them being fished when they are germinating, keeping the population healthy.
As fresh as they can possibly get, grown in the Blackwater Estuary that surrounds the island, these native oysters are absolutely fantastic. Slightly smaller than the gigas, but flavour wise superior. The portion of natives I had were fantastically briny with a delicate seafoody mineral taste. Their meat is nicely dense, but not so that they require a hard chew. This meatier mouth feel makes for a better oyster experience, as its less like a blob of goop, more like an actual mouthful of sustenance.
Starting on the left, going clockwise; whole prawns, rollmop herring, chilli prawns, mussels, peeled prawns, cockles, crayfish tails, smoked salmon, smoked mackerel. Centre; half a dressed crab. Served on a small salad.
The Seafood Platter
Want to try a little bit of everything? This is the dish to order. Perfectly sized per person, you can order them for one person, up to four. So we'll work our way around the plate, starting with the whole prawns. A nicely cooked, fresh prawn is a treat in reality. Often at lesser restaurants you'll get frozen prawns which ruins the texture, but these prawns are nicely done, simply cooked up, and fresh and light in flavour, with a firm bite to them, plus there's the fun of peeling them.
Rollmop herrings. A personal favourite of mine. Pickled herring rolled up, in this case around finely chopped pickled onion. Which might sound all too much on the pickle front, but when done properly and with the two components pickled differently it achieves a wonderful roll of flavour. The tart bitterness of the pickled herring is bright and refreshing, while also the act of pickling perfectly preparing the meat, softening it but retaining the bright whiteness of the flesh, as well as its inherent fish flavour. The sweeter pickling of the onions balances out each mouthful, making the whole bite not seem all to pickly.
Chilli prawns. My only complaint here is that there wasn't enough. I am a lover of prawns, and I love sweet chilli sauces, especially ones with a bit of a bite to them. These chilli tiger prawns are perfect, as per the shell on prawns they are firm and meaty, and the chilli sauce isn't so overpowering it masks the flavour of the shellfish it rides on. Perfectly dressed, and as per, well cooked. Just NEED MORE!
Mussels. Despite having served more than my fair share working in restaurants I still love mussels. Number 4 favourite seafood dish. I find you cannot really beat having them in northern France or on the Belgian coast out of a bucket in a simple cream and white wine sauce (Moules Marinière if you want to get all bilingual!). But on this platter, they are once more, cooked off, shelled and served cold. A blindingly simple way to serve them, but effective on the platter. They bring a splash of colour, and a bite of flavour, almost smokey, best described as musky, with a salty, oceanic hint. A neat addition to the plate, and always enjoyable.
Shelled prawns. An amuse bouche really on this platter. As much as I love them, they stand out as nothing special on this platter. As good as they are, compared to the powerful flavours some of the other items make, they don't stand out as a brilliant addition, almost serving as a palate cleanser between different items.
Cockles. If anything were to taste like the beach, it's these. Gritty and meaty, these small packages are typically served with a dash of malt vinegar, but here in a plain boiled state they are allowed to shine with their delicate seafood flavour. Their main character is their texture though, oddly shaped and typically gritty they are a curiosity on the plate, and likely not to everyone's picking, but worth a go.
Crayfish tails are another interesting item on the platter, meatier and somewhat more aromatic in the mouth than the prawns they are a neat addition of colour. However do you pronounce it cray like the gangster twins or craw, as in the noise a crow makes with an added "R"? Let me know in the comments.
Oh now, the smoked salmon! Hot smoked, with a kick of spice to it as well. Absolutely fantastic! I like smoked salmon, it's well preserved texture, and aromatic palate as well makes it a really stunner of an item, and like prawns, is one of those foods that I could eat huge quantities of and not bore of. I need to get more details on who smokes this salmon, what with and where I can get more of it as the flavour it gave is hugely different to the smoked salmon you get at the supermarket. A 10/10 addition to the platter.
Smoked mackerel, another of my favourite fish styles, and once again, packed with flavour and coming on a wonderful flakey texture. Perfectly spiced, but once again, not so greatly that it ruins the smoked flavour of the mackerel. That is one of the key things with smoking food, it prepares meat and fish so well, retaining the texture or it more so than cooking in other methods where the temperature can impact the feel, but equally it adds a layer of flavour to foods as well. MMMMMmmmm, smoked mackerel here, fantastic.
And finally, presented as a centrepiece on its salad bed, is the dressed crab. Meaty, rich, slightly peppered, and wonderfully flakey it is appropriately the crown of the plate. Crab is something I only have rarely, crab sticks can never really compare to a nicely cooked crab, hot and with butter is wonderful, but cold and dressed in a very faint seafood sauce it is exceptional, and the crab at the Oyster Bar is no different.
All that is served up on on big plate with a slice of lemon and a basket of chunky cut fresh bread and butter. Ideally paired with a white wine of some sort, full or medium bodied and slightly acidic. Each of the components on that plate could be paired up individually, for example crab goes really well with riesling, but if you want one wine that'll do the job, sauvignon blanc is the way to go, especially with oysters.
Haddock and Chips. If you just want fish and chips. You'll struggle to find a better 'chip shop'.
Fish and Chips
If you aren't a fan of shellfish and don't fancy oysters there are other dishes on the menu at the Oyster Bar. Key among which is the fish and chips. And as in all good 'chippies' there is an array of fishes to choose from; cod, haddock or skate. I personally prefer haddock as it offers a fisher meat, which when paired with the earthiness of some good chips, well fried, and a simple tartar sauce, the bitterness of which completes the trifecta. So we'll break it down. The fish was nicely fried, and was a nice piece to start off with, fresh and nicely prepped. Break past the crisp, deep golden batter and the fish beneath is hot, flakey and smells wonderful. To taste it is spot on, it hasn't lost any of its gentle flavour and isn't overwhelmed by the saltiness of the batter. The chips are excellent as well, with the rich earthy potato flavour not being obliterated by the frying process, and as any good fry cook will know, they are salted straight out of the fryer to really enhance the flavour. And the tartar sauce? I don't know if that's from a jar, or made on site, but it's the only sauce to pair with fish and chips (fight me in the comments!), with tomato sauce being acceptable to go with left over chips. Despite its simplicity as a dish, nailing fish and chips is a bit of an art, trust me, I've tried. And here at the Oyster Bar they have it down pat.
Time for the bill.
Potentially helped along by rose tinted spectacles, filtered with childhood summers past the West Mersea Oyster Bar is a simply fantastic restaurant that pairs a simple family charm with an equally simple, yet fantastic menu of well prepared and well sourced dishes. Add in the fact that it is incredibly reasonably priced for the quality of food you get and the entire package is one that will have you coming back.
West Mersea Oyster Bar
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