The World Is Your Oyster
For all the many times I’ve been to the Company Shed at the harbour in West Mersea, I’ve not previously been to the West Mersea Oyster Bar, in spite of it being bang opposite the Victory pub. In part that was a conscious decision because I love the down-to-earth spit-and-sawdust communality of the Company Shed and felt the Oyster Bar was more of a “proper” restaurant. Well, yes and no, for reasons I’ll come to shortly.
Admittedly you can book at the Oyster Bar, they have a car park, and also table service, but the real point is that, oysters (local rocks and natives) and seafood platters apart, these two restaurants are complementary – and the volume of business from people who travel many miles for a good fishy supper of one sort of another more than justifies the existence of both.
On this occasion, the earliest I could book lunch was 2:30pm. The place was humming, not least as sanctuary since the weather outside was foul. Since the front door banged open in the wind, I’d politely suggest that building a porch would be a good idea to improve the comfort of those in the dining room.
The dining room itself, built into a compact wooden hut, is tightly packed with functional wooden tables and chairs with nary a tablecloth in sight. To the far end, the long wall comprises an open kitchen, and in the far corner toilets. The walls are decorated with arty seaside photographs, quaint oyster plates, and a range of fishy decorations – including one of those singing fish things that was mercifully switched off.
Also a sign displaying the message at the top, aptly enough, and another giving facts about oysters and celebs known to eat Mersea oysters (did you know oysters have two beating hearts, and change annually from being male to female and back again?) Two blackboards featured, respectively, the daily specials and the other the desserts.
In short, this might be a restaurant in the proper sense, but it is lacking in snobby flourishes, the sort of pomp and circumstance designed to win Michelin stars. Not quite the earthiness of the CS, but still welcoming with its population of black-clad male waiting staff.
Ah yes, the serving staff. They spoke little but did their jobs efficiently, which is as much as you can hope of any waiters. What endeared me to them was this: mum and I were put on a table for four, which in view of the Company Shed tradition made me wonder whether another couple would be invited to share.
Ah, but it later turned out that we had been put on the wrong table, so a waiter asked ever so politely if we would move to a table for two just before the main course arrived, promising even a free dessert. The free dessert we did not need, but the fact they offered it and were so charming made all the difference. No way was I going to refuse, though I suspect there is a school of patron who would have been truly snotty about such a request. As it was, they took the coffee my mum ordered off the bill without being asked – and for that alone they are guaranteed warm praise and a return visit.
Of course there are better reasons for requiring a return visit, the first of which is that the menu obeys Millward’s first law of restaurants: that menus where you are plagued with indecision because everything looks so good are generally found at restaurants which make an effort to deliver top quality goods. Conversely, those where you are struggling to find anything you fancy are probably not trying very hard.
We chose the starter easily enough: crab chowder times two, in preference to a half pint of prawns, crayfish salad, natives and rocks. For mains it was a real struggle: there were excellent fish and chip options, including a splendid skate and chips lurking on several surrounding tables; crab linguine with cherry tomatoes, spring onions and chilli butter I could have ordered in an instant; the scallops and crevettes both looked divine; best of all, the lobster was the real deal. The couple at a neighbouring table ate huge half lobsters that left me drooling, but by then it was too late – we had ordered skate and chips.
Going back to drinks for a second, mum chose tap water, to which request the waiter did not turn a hair. Since the oyster bar is licensed rather than BYO, I went for a half litre bottle of Efe’s Turkish draft, not something you expect to find in a seafood restaurant on the Thames estuary. Not a great brew but a refreshing accompaniment to the seafood.
Crab chowder proved to be a proper chowder; that is, thick and packed with chunks of potato, celery, sweetcorn and crab in a lightly fishy broth. The crab meat was sweet and succulent; you knew it was freshly picked through the unplanned inclusion of various pieces of crab shell. We both polished off our plates, and several slices of OK crusty bread, possibly not the best available but in a supporting role quite acceptable.
Following our unscheduled move, the mains arrived – two plates groaning with perfectly cooked skate and chips, accompanied by homemade tartar sauce and the obligatory slice of lemon. Admittedly, no sign of the advertised mushy peas, but a monster portion to satisfy appetites, and very fair value at £12.95.
In fact, we were both granted not one but two chunks of succulent skate, fried to a perfect golden brown so it was just cooked on the bone. I can’t ever remember having fried fish cooked more perfectly, and that’s saying something.
Better still, the chips served by the Oyster bar were masterpieces of the art. They were chunky but double-fried so the outsides were crisp and the insides soft and fluffy. That makes them better than 95% of fish & chip shops in the UK, most of which serve their chips soft and soggy.
Bottom line here is that if you should not visit the Oyster Bar if you want to be treated like royalty, but if you like competent delivery of fresh and superb quality seafood, sympathetically cooked and served, you won’t find better.
This is not a London-style restaurant, as witnessed by a bill of £42.90 for two, which in town, or for that matter Smiths of Ongar or the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company might well have added at least £20. What it does it does very well, for which honest endeavour I am happy to give a Millward award of 4.5 stars out of 5 – and the certain knowledge that I will bring back my other half someday when we have something to celebrate with lobsters.
PS. Apologies for the fact that I cannot take photos due to my phone being smashed. My thanks to the copyright owners of the pics I have borrowed.
PPS. My family, bless them, took me out for a birthday dinner at the Oyster Bar. We had rocks and natives; I had lobster, chips and salad, plus a rather excellent expresso panna cotta, they had a seafood platter. All went home happy!