Seafood can be pretty scary to the uninitiated, and until recently I was a bit skeptical myself.
I decided a long time ago that the sea is not for me; I can’t swim for starters, but even if I could, the oceans are crawling with unholy natural terrors of all shapes and sizes.
Prawns are a perfect example. Scaled up to the size of a cat, these multi-legged abyss-dwelling hell beasts would send us running for the nearest flamethrower. Take them up to the size of a cow, and you’ve got a Pacific Rim sequel.
Yet, despite their fearsome appearance and the fact that they often STILL HAVE POO IN THEM, there are plenty of folks who can’t get enough of the hideous little buggers, twisting their heads off with Joffrey-esque glee before slurping them down. It’s the kind of thing that would give a kid nightmares.
In fact, as a youngster, the only seafood I ever went near was the battered kind that came with chips; fish that didn’t taste like fish, or much of anything else, really. And that suited me just fine. But then, in the immortal words of Sheffield’s favourite son, Something Changed.
Taste the rainbow
It was at a restaurant in that most renowned of Japanese dining destinations – Dublin – that I had my pescetarian epiphany. I, a simple valley boy whose culinary adventures spanned little more than the range of Findus Crispy Pancake flavours available in my local Kwik Save, was about to take my first step into the brave new world of sushi.
It wasn’t my first taste of raw seafood; there was that time on a French field trip at school where the whole class had been press ganged into trying oysters. They were predictably vile, like downing a nose full of ice cold salty snot. Equally predictably, a few hours later a perfect storm of overexcited mollusc-laden teenagers and an unseasonably rough ferry crossing lead to scenes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Event Horizon or the Exorcist. Chalk up round one to the denizens of the deep.
And so, a few years later in Ireland, here was my sliding doors moment; I could play it safe with a meek, inoffensive little salmon roll (the sushi equivalent of a chicken korma or a margherita pizza – a.k.a. a waste of fucking time), or I could bust out of the confines of my tiny mind and dive into the exotic looking rainbow roll. It had exciting but scary sounding things on it: Red Snapper. Yellow Tail. Eel. Eel for christ’s sake – I didn’t even know you could eat those.
Then it arrived, looking every bit as fearsome and fantastical as a serpent in the corner of an 18th century privateer’s map. Suppressing every screaming evolutionary memory of BRIGHT COLOURS=DANGER, I went for it.
And I bloody well loved it.
Fast forward to 2015. I’m at legendary Seattle seafood restaurant The Crab Pot, bibbed and malleted, having-at dungeoness crab legs like Thor playing crustacean-themed whack-a-mole.
For a reasonable-ish fee at this former Man vs Food destination, you too can get industrial quantities of steamed seafood lobbed in your general direction, then beat the ever-loving crap (and hopefully meat) out of it with a hammer.
I like to think I’m over my fish fear now, but it was still hard not to be a little taken aback when a literal bucket of aquatic critters was hurled onto our table.
It was like raiding Poseidon’s fridge while he’s nipped out to release the kraken; clams, prawns, two kinds of crab (massive and slightly less massive) plus some baked potatoes, corn on the cob and a bit of andouille sausage to appease the landlubbers. Oh, and butter. All of the butter.
I’ve never eaten anything that was such hard work – or that left me with such a sense of achievement. Turns out there’s a real knack to extracting the delicious edible bits from giant armour plated sea bugs, but once you’ve worked it out, it’s addictive; a bit like when you’re shelling pistachios, only to look up ten minutes later to realise you’ve eaten the entire bag.
That meal sent the last of my lingering qualms about sea food to Davy Jones’ locker.
All about the bass
Of course you don’t have to venture across the Atlantic for great seafood – last time I looked, Wales had water on three sides of it, and plenty of it’s own grotesquely hideous but delicious wildlife.
Fish at 85 is a great place to find out first-hand how good Welsh seafood can be. The tiny Pontcanna bolthole sells fish so fresh you’d be forgiven for apologising to it after you stick your fork in.
For the non-fish lover, it might be a bit intimidating at first; as you walk through the door you find yourself face-to-face with the catch of the day, as it’s a working fishmongers as well as a restaurant. Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone; you get a pep talk from the white coated in-house expert.
Seafood has the potential to be one of those ‘poncy restaurant’ things; if you grew up on a less than salubrious council estate like I did, there’s always that nagging Pretty Woman-style fear that you’re going to accidentally use the wrong fork, eat the poisonous bit or mistake the fingerbowl for soup.
So it was a massive relief on my first visit when the white-coated fishmonger who wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Harrods fish counter started running down the options in a proper tidy Kairdiff market boy accent. Phew.
Even the way you order your food is nice and intuitive; the menu works a bit like Subway, but with actual food. You pick your fish, tell them how you want it cooked, and then add whatever sides and sauces you like from the list. Got no idea? They’ll give you some suggestions, and without making you feel like an oik who’s just stumbled into elevenses at The Savoy in the 1900s.
That extra bit of personal attention and advice makes it a great entry-level seafood restaurant for those of us still a bit wary of all things aquatic. At the same time, their level of expertise means that if you want to go crazy and order something that looks like Cthulu’s afterbirth then they’d probably have you covered on that too.
After all that, if you’re still a fish-phobic I can heartily recommend one thing – do yourself a favour and jump in the deep end. The water’s lovely.
Does seafood float your boat or leave you green around the gills? Let me know in the comments or on twitter at @FuudBlog…