Half an hour before our booking came a text: ‘You’re due at The Sea, The Sea in 30 minutes,’ helpfully confirming that the spot is indeed named The Sea, The Sea. Perhaps someone thought that the person rubber-stamping it was deaf.
‘What are we calling this place?’ says the distinguished Earl of Cadogan, sitting in his library perusing a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. ‘The Sea,’ yells his young assistant. His grace says nothing. ‘The Sea,’ cries the man again. ‘Ah,’ replies his Cadoganship, ‘The Sea, The Sea,’ and he writes it down and signs off the name.
The Cadogans are all-powerful around here and have been for centuries. They own and manage much of this part of Chelsea, so maybe they agree the names of the restaurants for which they grant leases. The Sea, The Sea (in fact the name of an Iris Murdoch novel) is on a street that once provided stabling for the gentry, but has recently been tarted up by the Cadogan estate to create a ‘London village’. There are several restaurants, cafés, a bakery, a butcher’s, a general store and, where we are dining, a fishmonger by day and fish bar by night.
But this is no ordinary village. Unless you charter yachts without blinking, do not plan your weekly shop at the general store. A packet of cereal costs around £10.
At The Sea, The Sea, a smattering of dishes and a bottle of wine won’t leave you much change from £200. So if that’s beyond your budget then I’ll ask you to steel yourself and oblige me to be your surrogate.
So let us enter The Sea, The Sea, whose title doth draw from within us the lyrical, the yearning, the mournful soul. Over the ocean’s spiteful daggers came yonder ship, cutting through the frothy blades. Drawing nearer, nearer. The crew, holding fast as the vessel ebbed forward, fighting the drag of the mighty ocean. Carrying on her bows those glinting, silver treasures of the deep. Until, at last, crossing the harbour wall to calm, to peace, to glad profits from 10 days of Mother Nature’s harsh reproach… OK, I’ll stop now. But you try saying The Sea, The Sea without going off on one.
Come evening, the counters turn into high tables with bar stools. It’s a pleasant sight to see, as men in overalls appear to stand in a line as they shuck oysters and prepare a host of rather unusual dishes. There’s also a large fridge where fish – whole turbot even – is dried and salt-cured.
I whetted my appetite with half a dozen decent and creamy oysters, and then out came the first of several dishes to share. It was a sandwich of mussels and girolle mushrooms held between thin and flat square crisps made with miso and topped with grated nuts.
If it sounds gross, it wasn’t. The mushrooms and mussels vied for attention with their similar textures, and it was a fabulous concoction of crunch and creaminess, salt and umami. There was a similarly constructed sandwich: a lobster rice sandu. The lobster sat between hard sheets of nori seaweed with sticky rice attached to it. It was another triumph of intriguing textural surprise.
We ate a beautiful (and large) dollop of dressed crab with dry waffles made, also, with seaweed. And a startling dish of confit red mullet came as little rectangular cuts of fish, with crunchy skin, the flesh tasting more like cure than confit, with two little piles of contrasting caviar and capers.
After this strange but successful inventiveness came a huge whack of brioche toast, oozing caramel and covered with hazelnuts and cream – tasty and rich but totally out of kilter with the rest of dinner. Perhaps it’s intended to soften you up for the bill; an epithet of cruel awakening.