Fish is one of the simplest things to cook, yet also one of the easiest to get wrong. Thankfully, the chefs at this civilised Marylebone fixture know exactly what they’re doing. Their cooking is nigh on faultless but comes at a price, and even their sure-footedness falters slightly come dessert.
Marylebone feels like a chic village plonked down in W1. Its high street features upmarket kitchenware and food shops, and attractive restaurants and bars. FishWorks fits right in with its Farrow & Ball-esque blue-green and cream paintwork, planked tables, leather bentwood chairs and Nora Jones soundtrack. The deep, narrow room has been cleverly broken up with partitioning, and nautical nods include a sailing ship on a window blind and a naïve harbour painting in the gents. You enter via a small fishmonger’s, available for those customers who prefer to cook.
There’s plenty. Even early on a weeknight, nearly every table is taken. Customers are civilised locals with a smattering of Marylebone’s bohemian contingent. The fishmonger wanders through periodically in his wellies bearing more produce for Chef, providing a welcome touch of theatre. Service is well-paced and friendly without being overly effusive.
It’s hard to see how anywhere in London could serve seafood and fish better. Marinated anchovies with mint, chilli and crostini (£6) delight in every way. Pretty little fillets are fanned out and scattered with tiny dice of chilli and mint. The precisely balanced combination of flavours – very-fishy anchovy, chilli heat, fragrant mint – isn’t the most obvious but it works brilliantly. The bread is nicely charred, and crunchy salad leaves are anointed with unusually good olive oil.
Calamari is no bargain at £8.25 but is, again, faultless. The coating is enjoyably grainy and impeccably crisp, and the squid is just chewy enough and has great flavour. A little bowl of saffron aioli is swoon-inducingly unctuous. There’s a specials board which might offer grilled tuna, whole grilled plaice, pan-fried turbot and monkfish steak.
From the permanent menu, a fried ray wing (£14.50) is perfectly moist and tasty, with a crusty, browned exterior. The beurre noisette has been daringly blackened and there’s a generous sprinkling of vinegary capers. A whole sea bass (£15.25, offered off or on the bone) provides soft, creamy flesh, and it has been slashed and studded with rosemary springs which brings real flavour. A side of fat, crisp chips (£3.75) is big enough for two - ditto the winningly undercooked spinach with punchy (maybe too punchy) garlic, at the same price.
Desserts don’t quite live up to what goes before. Crumbles are always a problem in restaurants; they need to be cooked – or, at least, finished off – individually, as ordered. That seems to rob them of the gorgeousness of granny’s big, communal version, bubbling from the oven. Sure enough, the topping of mixed berry ginger crumble (all desserts are £5.50) isn’t quite right texturally, though the ginger flavour is a nice idea. The berries beneath have held their shape and are just sweet enough but – oh, calamity! – the little accompanying bowl of custard is stone cold and thin.
A baked chocolate pudding (chocolate fondant, in fact) fares better. An extra 30 seconds in the oven might have improved the cake-to-liquid-centre ratio slightly but it’s still delicious with deep chocolate flavour, and a little ramekin of pouring cream.
There are plenty of temptations on a wine list that features a fair amount by the glass. A muscadet (Pavillon, £5.95 for 175ml) partners seafood perfectly with its grassy minerality. Entry level Picpoul, another white (£5.50 for 175ml) is pleasantly fruity and more than good enough for a house offering. There are plenty of teas and coffees, including fresh mint tea. Glasses of tap water are assiduously refilled.
The Last Word
This place offers thrillingly assured fish and seafood cooking. Its dishes are unfussy yet occasionally innovative and it gets pretty much everything – ambience, décor, service, even portion size – right. It’s a pity such simple (albeit delicious) fare has to set you back £50 a head or more for three courses with half a bottle of modest wine but it’s evident large numbers of locals think it’s absolutely worth it. Those chillied, minted anchovy fillets, among other delights, make it difficult to disagree.