There’s fish and there’s fish. On the one slab you’ve got all those familiar Pisceans – the cod, the haddock, the plaice; as familiar as people you knew at school; the ones you’ve never lost touch with. Then there are the others; the mackerels, the sardines, the pilchards; the slightly unappealing, greasy fish who you’ve just heard from again on friendsreunited.com (Soused Herring - didn’t he sit next to you in Physics; grey complexion, buck teeth, pony tail, liked the Archies?) Then there are the exotics; those you read about in the pages of Hello, and the Society Pages of glossy magazines; the ones that Fish hoek in Chiswick is trying to introduce you to. A glance at their menu is like vetting the guest list at a Eurotrash cocktail party where you can cross fish knives with the Bianca Jagger and Anita Pallenburg of dead-eyed fishfolk, as well as with numerous odd and unusual slippery characters who, frankly, you have never heard off. Never mind, you can drop their names at dinner parties for months afterwards and feel terribly sophisticated that you’ve eaten a fish whose name sounds like a bad case of croup.
The restaurant is a modest, clean cut neighbourhood establishment housed in a small, beige wood-panelled room with the under-heated atmosphere of an Ikea-converted garage, just off Chiswick High Street, hung with Persil white photographs of 1950’s South African fisherman holding members of the Jaws family. It is owned by the same people who opened the Springbok Grill nearby where you can eat macho meat like braised antelope and zebra kebabs, as well as more familiar steaks for the faint hearted. At Fish hoek, it is also possible to forgo the more adventurous liaisons and stick with what you know, albeit dressed up with simple pacific rim ingredients. Wimps can have roast Devon Mackerel, with paw paw, lime and mint salsa, grilled John Dory fillet with pumpkin, coriander and seared lime, or pan fried skate wing with lemon chilli butter. Elsewhere, though, walk carefully. You know not where you tread. Though not a fan of the over effusive menu where chefs take pains to tell you which shelf of the supermarket the produce was found on, and what it sat next to in the store room, unless you know your snoek from your Cuban sail fish, some explanation would really help here. The menu would benefit from being shorter and easier for both the customers and staff to understand.
‘What’s a red gurnard?’ I asked the waiter.
‘Well, em, b’sically, it’s a game fish,’ he replied in his clipped s’th ‘frican accent.
‘b’sically it’s quite meaty, quite strong, em I don’t really know how to ‘xplain it more than that - I’ve just started and I don’t know all the fish yet.’
‘Well what about a Kobelijou?’
‘Em well b’scially it’s a lot like the one I just told you about.’
Despite his vagueness, he was a star; a harrassed star, but a star nonetheless. Other staff were equally fish challenged. I asked the waitress who plonked a plate of mystifyingly anonymous looking fish down in front of me what it was. ‘Oh I don’t know’ she replied, thrusting the plate towards me, saying: ‘..here, hold this, while I go and find out.’
The fish is served in half portions and full portions with side dishes of vegetables and salad at £2.50 each and we took a stab in the dark and chose a good selection of unusuals. My friend Steph no longer keeps Kosher but doesn’t eat shellfish (as I discovered after insisting she tried my flabby, flavourless black mussels, supposedly steamed with Chenin blanc and lime leaves but with scant evidence of either). This ruled out scallops, Mozambique Pink Queens and Tiger prawns, as well as the Canadian lobster. Instead she chose the Cuban sailfish which turned out to be a white, densely fleshed, rather tough fish which when cooked, and tasted, I remarked whilst chewing fiercely, a bit like dried out pork. ‘I wouldn’t know,’ she replied, putting her fork down hastily. Oh dear. The anchovies, enjoyed by both husbands, were the stars of the evening; so fresh they were almost nibbling your fingers off, fried until crisp and served with a rocket and coriander mayonnaise.
To follow we had the delicate Red Gurnard, similar to a red snapper balanced on a tiny squashed purple-skinned potato while the Mister snapped up the Omani barracuda with ginger and lime sauce. “Do you know what it looks like?” asked Steph’s husband, dubiously. ‘I live with one,’ replied the Mister looking tenderly at my bared sharp teeth. The selection of vegetables including squash and roasted peppers were hearty enough to fill any spaces left by the fish. Puddings on offer all seemed to include Amarula which our waiter told us was ‘b’sically a bit like Bailey’s’. Enough said. We passed. No more dodgy liqueurs till next Christmas, please.