The Old Boat House
I’d happily travel a hundred miles for fresh fish. Sadly the closest many people get to it are the vacuum-sealed offerings on the counters of Waitrose and Morrisons. Spread out on ice with bits of plastic parsley and bowls of defrosted scallops, it may look fresh enough, but it’s nothing like the real deal.
I’ve never understood why our region doesn’t have a proper fresh fish shop in every town. It’s so sad that they’ve all closed, because the North East is supposed to be famous for its fishing.
The best way to enjoy really fresh fish in the North East is to find a very good restaurant, preferably close to where the boats come in. And you can’t get any closer than The Old Boat House in Amble.
Started almost a year ago by Martin Charlton and Richard Sim, it occupies an old RNLI building right on the harbour wall. Compared to North Shields, whose fishermen’s huts, or “shiels”, were built in the 13th century to supply Tynemouth Priory, Amble’s harbour is relatively new to fishing.
It was designed for coal, but has been used by fishermen ever since and I’m delighted to see that the industry is alive and well today. Earlier this week, Amble announced it had secured a £1.8million grant to help it develop a harbour village and “seafood centre”.
The Old Boat House will be at the heart of it. It’s a silver-scaled gem. Anyone who loves fish should make it their special place. I’ve been twice in the last fortnight. But that’s because I had to.
When it first opened they put up a sign describing it as a “Rustic Bistro”. It’s certainly basic.
Set in an old boat shed, brightly lit, with pine floor and tables, it has an open kitchen with a wood-fired oven, marine artwork and photography, and big windows with sea views. It also has the most inviting fish selection I’ve seen outside London or Padstow.
The regular menu offered mussels, crab cakes, lobster and so on, but our main focus was on the two big blackboards that listed specials of the day, largely influenced by the catch from the boats moored on the harbour wall below the restaurant.
There was wood-baked lemon sole, pan-fried local turbot with garlic crevettes, whole plaice with clams in Vermouth and parsley cream, sautéed monkfish with chorizo, baby onion, olive and tomato stew, black bream with wood roasted lemon and samphire butter – and this was just the mains, all at around £14.
It’s all imaginative, interesting stuff, with several meat dishes too. By and large, the cooking matched our expectations.
Mrs Diner’s Amble sea trout with mussels and cockles on a herby mash came with an excellent cream sauce; my bream was cooked with garlic, a balsamic glaze and nicely salty new potatoes.
I’d started with salt and chilli squid with a slaw of Chinese napa cabbage and some good chilli jam, while Mrs Diner had cuttlefish with peppers slightly overpowered by balsamic.
Afterwards we shared warm sunken chocolate cake and white chocolate ice cream, a seductively moist sponge cake and a passion fruit meringue and cream concoction, all fresh, delicious and nicely presented. Yes, that's 3 desserts.
The only real problem was the fish. It was rather overcooked.
This was both a surprise and a disappointment. It was hard to believe that a place with such a great menu, atmosphere, and friendly service could get both our main courses wrong. Maybe their chef was off this Tuesday evening.
Normally I would simply downgrade the rating to three, or even two stars. But something about the place made me suspect this was just a one-off. So we went back to check. I’m really glad we did.
A couple of weeks later we sat enjoying huge, meaty sticky crab claws with chilli sauce, and razor clams.
The clams had their muscle still attached so were a bit fiddly but the accompanying cream sauce was good, and our main courses were excellent, including perfectly cooked turbot with juicy prawns and fresh, plump mussels.
Mrs Diner tried the black bream with the very special samphire and lemon butter. It was all perfect.
The sun was shining over the sea. We drank Spanish white Verdejo from Rueda – appropriately called Green Fish. Like the meal and the restaurant, it was very rustic and bistro, and excellent value.
This place has certainly put Amble on the culinary map.