The Wet Fish Café under the microscope

This was a whole new venture. Not one, but two tables for the first #whampreview of the autumn. Seventeen of us assembled at The Lion beforehand – and it was great to see so many new faces alongside one or two of the usual suspects.

Tom escorted his table of eight across to The Wet Fish Café first, where an entirely separate party of 12 was already seated. There was no doubt this was going to be a challenging night for both the kitchen and the front-of-house staff. But how can you not love a restaurant that has the “#whamp” twitter hashtag secreted on its menu?

By the time my table of nine appeared some 30 minutes later, the place was already buzzing and the chat from Tom’s table suggested they were having a good time – reinforced by the generous free glasses of Prosecco that we all received.

As well as being the first time we’d gone for a larger group and staggered tables (to help the kitchen), it was also the first time that a restaurant knew we were coming to review it. As I explained in the set-up post, I am moving these evenings slightly away from an attempt to anonymously review local eateries, and more towards a sedentary (and gastronomic) way to meet fellow whampers.

Not that this means we won’t be talking about the meal in the write-ups!

New menu
The Wet Fish Café has just launched its autumn menu, and there are some new faces in the kitchen. Owner André is feeling bullish about the coming months after what has been a tricky period for lots of local businesses who have been feeling the economic squeeze. The ethos of the menu is still much the same as it tries to deliver on the restaurant’s tagline of “modern comfort food”, but it’s been pared down slightly and a couple of lighter dishes have been added. It reads well, and has a contemporary feel to it – unpretentious and very appealing.

On my table, the pear and stilton salad was proving a popular choice and everyone seemed to enjoy it: “excellent,” said James, and Carl said it was “beautifully presented”.

Three of us shared a half-dozen Colchester native oysters, which came with the requisite shallot vinegar and lemon. Maybe a bottle of Tabasco could be put on the table too? Tom’s table shared a couple of the main course platters for starters, which they found a little disappointing, especially as the advertised ciabatta and olives were missing completely. The platters aren’t really big enough to share between more than two people, but at least everyone got to try the chorizo, which was the undisputed hit. Eugene praised its “unusual chilli kick”, while Carl suggested all the other West Hampstead restaurants come to see how chorizo should be served. Ant simply said “10/10”.

Zoë and Anna’s crayfish cocktail and calamari starters looked nice enough, but they weren’t blown away by either.

The main attractions
Given how busy the small kitchen was, we weren’t expecting super quick service, so we tucked into the wine. Both the tables liked the house red – a Merlot-Corvina, and I think the house white is one of the better value white wines in West Hampstead. The next red up the list – a Cabernet Malbec, divided opinion. Tom really liked it, while Kat was unconvinced.

Tom’s table were a course ahead of us, so we watched as they enjoyed their mains. The broad consensus was very positive, with a few quibbles. Kat had the sea bass, which initially arrived without the broccoli and mussels, despite correctly having potatoes instead of noodles as requested; Eugene’s sea bass came out perfectly, so presumably this was just a communication mishap caused by the switch. The table also had trouble with a side order of kale, which arrived cold and undercooked. I had kale with my main and it was fine, so seems like a glitch rather than an intrinsic problem with cooking kale.

The salmon, which was popular on both tables, seemed to be the most consistent dish. Tom described his as “beautifully seasoned and cooked, and it worked with the wonderful intense celeriac”, while Claire T also described it as beautifully cooked. Next to me, Sarah’s salmon certainly disappeared quickly and this looked one of the most attractive dishes. Ryan agreed it was fresh and a good size.

The tempura cod, one of the new dishes on the menu, was another popular choice. Debbie was very pleased with hers, as was Claire D, who confessed she likes ketchup with most things, but this didn’t need it! James enjoyed his, but admitted that he wasn’t sure that the fact it was tempura batter made a huge difference. He did, however, say it gave him “a warm feeling on a cold night.” Jen’s was tempting enough that Anthony wished he’d ordered it.

Zoë sadly experienced a foreign body in her food: a small piece of plastic, maybe off a piece of tupperware. It rather put her off her grilled vegetables with quinoa main course, although she also said – with some justification – that it would be better described as quinoa with grilled vegetables given the relative proportions, and it needed more feta.

Ana and Ant both had the fillet steak – a large hunk of meat for both. Ana, who had been on a fish diet for some weeks, seemed to devour hers at pace. Ant, having ordered it medium-well, thought his steak was undercooked. He also thought it was a bit too chewy, which is certainly odd for a fillet steak. I know André is really pleased with this particular cut of meat, so something clearly had gone wrong here. Ant did say that the potaotes were good, and the sauce was delicious, and that he’d have welcomed more of it – perhaps even served on the side.

We tested most of the menu out. Brad had the pasta of the day, which was “tasty” and “filled me up quickly”, Carl had the platter, and I had the braised oxtail, which I enjoyed immensely. The meat fell off the bone perfectly and the proportion of meat to mash to veg was just right.

By the time my table had finished our main courses, it was getting late and only two of us opted for dessert. Tom’s table had been more eager. Tom himself chose the carrot cake with ice cream, declaring the cake “moist and substantial” with a big kick of ginger. Debbie and Ant enjoyed the warm chocolate cake (“Yum! Best thing of the evening,” said Ant). Kat and Claire tried the fig and honey croissant pudding, which had “a very light and spongey texture, not overly sweet and with a subtle crème anglaise”. I had poached pear with ice cream – or at least I tried to, but when I popped back from the toilet, half of it had mysteriously vanished and there were some guilty faces around the table.

One might argue that three big tables within 45 minutes of each other was an ambitious ask for a neighbourhood restaurant but, by and large, the food delivered the comforting feel the menu promises. WIth its subtle lighting and well-judged soundtrack, it’s easy to see why Anna said that she wanted to love the Wet Fish, even if she’d been a bit underwhelmed on this visit. However, she did say she’d give it one more go because it’s such a nice place.

The price per head differed considerably between the tables. Tom’s bunch of alcoholics ended up paying £42/head, while my relatively abstemious group only had to shell out £30 each. Anthony (paying £42) felt the prices were a little high, while there was a sense of a welcome surprise around me that our meal had come in under budget.

In the days of old, we used to score food, service, value and overall enjoyment separately. That would take too long now, so everyone just gave an overall score out of 10.
Tom’s table: 6.9
Jonathan’s table: 6.3

Overall, the evening was definitely a success – plenty of new friends were made, the chat was suitably silly and entertaining, and the Wet Fish atmosphere won the day. I still think that for a “special” meal out in West Hampstead, this is the place to come.

The Wet Fish Café
242 West End Lane
T: 020 7443 9222

(photos courtesy of Brad and Anthony)