If location location location is all important in property and retail, this is a pretty good location. The harbour area at Southwold is not quite London Docklands, but it has its charms and attracts plenty of visitors to what certainly has been an area dominated by the fishing industry. Maybe the industry is not what it was, but pleasure trips, a decent pub, a fish & chips shop and a mishmash of small businesses remain.
Among these is the Sole Bay Fish Co, a family run business offering a wet fishmongers shop, its own smokery and a restaurant offering a range of fresh fish and shellfish. In many ways it reminds me of the excellent Company Shed in West Mersea, about which I have raved on many an occasion. And I’m very happy to report that the Shed’s standards were maintained by the Sole Bay in an excellent meal to celebrate my sister’s 50th birthday.
Admittedly the start was not quite what we intended, since my brother-in-law had apparently booked for Sunday rather than Saturday. It may have been the fault of the restaurant, but at least they found us a table later on for what turned out to be a very late but very enjoyable lunch.
The ambience of Sole Bay is not dissimilar to the Shed, though maybe a tad more upmarket, perhaps helped by the fact that you can book tables. This shed is lined with reclaimed boards from fish crates stamped with “Property of Southwold Smokery” (or something similar – my battery had died by that point so I couldn’t record it for posterity.) There is a bar and a range of drinks on the menu, though you can bring your own – and we did have champagne and assorted other bottles, for which corkage is applied.
Apart from the open kitchen, and a homely dining room shorn of airs and graces, there is a large aquarium featuring shoals of fish (the eating kind) and lobsters; this may put some diners off their lobster but to me any sign that the products are spankingly fresh can only be a good thing. Overall the place came over as friendly and comfortable, aided by some charming service without even the vaguest hint of stuffiness or formality – for which blessing a thousand thanks.
The menu, like that of the Shed, is essentially built around cold high-quality seafood platters, now supplemented by a few hot specials. On the day in question, one such was a good value ensemble of fillet of sea bass served on samphire, though we tested two others: my niece sampled good old-fashioned home-made cod & chips, while I could not resist chargrilled lobster and chips, carpe diem and all that.
We started with 18 oysters, tasting of the sea and served merely with tabasco and lemon, plus good quality artisan bread from a local bakery – what more do you need? Worth saying that every restaurant claims to have a goal of doing simple things well, but very few achieve their aspiration.
The thing is that when you get a really top notch raw ingredient and get it to the plate as quickly and simply as possible, you don’t need fussy cheffy touches. Essentially, the more you try to do with the raw materials, the greater the possibility that your efforts will detract from the overall effect and mask the sheer beauty and natural flavour. By all means combine to enhance, but so often the effect is reversed and the result a series of flavours competing for dominance rather than becoming more than the sum of the parts.
No such problem at places like the Sole Bay, and all the better for that. At the Shed the combinations in hot dishes (scallops with chorizo and mussels with a parmesan crust for example) are classics and they work brilliantly, and if anything the Sole Bay keeps it simpler still. The sole garnish (no pun intended) for my lobster, infused with a slight smokiness from the charcoal grill, was lettuce leaf with a dollop of quality mayonnaise and one of those vogueish baskets for stacking chips vertically. These were properly cooked chips too – thick and chunky, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside. Perfect – why would you want to do anything different? That’s a question other restaurants and chippies should be asking themselves.
Even so, I hope Sole Bay continues to develop the menu and specials slowly and steadily, without losing sight of its mission to sell fresh, local produce as simply as possible and use traditional techniques like salting and smoking in preference to cheaper mass manufacturing. Quality counts, so it’s a joy and a pleasure to find a restaurant dedicated to maintaining standards.
Pricing is somewhere between the Shed (which is pretty darn cheap for top class seafood) and typical restaurant prices, but certainly not unreasonable. The platter prices for two people hovered between £25 and £35, cod and chips or grilled sea bass came in at £12 and native oysters at £1.50 apiece were well below London standards. My lobster (£28 for a whole crustacean) was about as costly as it got, but to my mind worth it for the sweet and delicious meat, cooked fresh to order.
In short, you can enjoy a really great meal and a great time here. Go enjoy, and return for more – but do try the Company Shed too if you’re navigating up the A12 past Colchester.