When I first moved to south Shropshire it always amazed me that a foodie town like Ludlow did not have a fresh fish shop. There was one for a couple years but to be fair it was never really that good and there was a stall on Ludlow Market for a couple of days a week.
It was with some relief that back in 2010 Louise Hackney took the plunge and set up The Fish House in the historic Tolsey building in the Bull Ring. A third generation fishmonger from a well-known Black Country fish dynasty, she created a haven for fish lovers with fish and shellfish as fresh as you can get them in landlocked Ludlow. Buying from Whitby, Brixham and Scotland, the fish arrived daily brought straight from the boats to her chilled counter.
What was even better was her next foray into selling a selection of cold fish dishes at lunchtime – plates of juicy prawns with mayonnaise, dressed crab, properly smoked salmon, the best oysters and huge Plats De Fruits De Mer, among others.
She decided to call it a day after six very busy years and the town was left wondering what would happen. The good news was most of the team were to remain with new owner James Stanton and especially David Mansell and Habib Malik-Mansell. David was a dab hand at the cold dishes and Habib made an excellent front of house along with the other excellent staff.
So the cold collations continued and then . . . The Fish House announced it would also be doing hot dishes at lunchtime, usually just a couple and they were delicious.
Even better, evening meals were introduced on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A couple of sample menus caught my eye and the temptation of dishes such as Mediterranean Seafood Bouillabaisse, Lobster Thermidor and Baked Wild Turbot Steak, I had to try for myself. Only slight reservation I had was that chef David was ‘self-taught’. Could mean great or disappointing times. Having said that his lunchtime forays into hot dishes had scored high marks with me and a number of my friends.
Three of us caught up over what turned out to be an almost perfect meal! The menu is small and that’s no bad thing because you know you will get quality and freshness.
To start I had the Lobster Pot – substantial pieces of lobster in a rich, cheese sauce with creamy mash on top and a nice chunk of wholemeal bread. This would make a perfect light lunch, by the way . . .
Some of you make think a prawn cocktail is a little too retro but don’t be snobby about this dish especially as served in this restaurant. My friend described her The Fish House Prawn Cocktail as faultless. It is not served in the retro way of basic prawns in Marie Rose sauce on lettuce in often as not, a wine glass! This was a full presentation on a plate with much more than lettuce including a fantail of avocado.
Although I loved my Lobster Pot, my partner’s dish was so tempting. Pan-fried Mackerel fillet was served on a beetroot salsa. Crispy skin and not overcooked mackerel on slightly spiced and still firm beetroot. Sensational, was his comment.
I remember having seafood linguine in Venice (no, not bragging this is to show comparison) which I can remember in minute detail although it was many years ago. Al dente pasta with the freshest of seafood and, of course a charming Italian waiter, are a lifetime memory. David’s dish was not quite as memorable but very good. The pasta was well-cooked and there were plenty of scallops, squid, mussels, prawns and clams. And now my only criticism. A little more seasoning was needed and the flat-leaf parsley used as garnish looked a little clumsy.
Friend Gay had Fillet of Hake with a Caper and Watercress Mash with a Saffron Sauce. Brilliantly white fish revealed its freshness and the flesh was still firm and shiny. The watercress perfectly enhanced the fish and the mash was fluffy and buttery and not overwhelming.
Our third main dish was Tuna Steak with a Mediterranean Bean Stew. Some might say the beans sound a little too heavy for the tuna but let me say nothing, absolutely nothing was left in the dish. Tuna can often be overcooked, like so many other fish, but this was sealed on the outside and perfectly pink inside, hardly need a knife to slice into it. The beans were well-flavoured and spiced and on themselves would have made a very nice dish for a vegetarian.
Time for a little break before pudding and time to take in the new look of The Fish House. New tables, chairs and settles and a darker decor have made it into a lovely little spot, especially in the evening. It is also a perfect spot to look out and watch the world pass by in this beautiful medieval market town.
A sip of the well-priced Chablis at £29.95 a bottle and on to sweeter things.
There were three choices and we had one of each. Continuing with the Chablis theme, Gay had the Chablis and Raspberry jelly. So full of flavour, yet light and refreshing, and of course with plenty of fruit from the wine and raspberries!
Partner fancied the Warm Triple Chocolate Brownie with Scottish ice cream but demurred at the possible portion size. He was almost replete from starter and main and he hates leaving food on his plate. No problem, said Habib, we can do that as a half portion – however still a fair slice and it was charged half price! It was moist and not heavy and the partner who lives in Scotland was pleased with the ice cream’s nationality.
I love plums and tarts and so the Plum and Almond tart with sour cream had my name on it. I’ve had Habib’s pastry before (in his crab tarts) and it is crisp without you having to take a massive stab to break it up. And it was good this time with the sweeter filling.
So the self-taught chef whose interest in food started out with baking and cooking with his grandmothers, demonstrates training and qualifications are not the be all and end all. From starting out washing dishes at The Olive Branch just a few yards away, through gaining hands-on experience at a number of Ludlow establishments, David can now call himself a ‘proper’ chef.
But it’s not all about the cooking, the atmosphere plays a great part in the dining out experience and The Fish House has that down to a T. And then there is the service from meet and greet to serving. Top marks on all fronts there. And above all it is a relaxed place to be from chatting to the staff to the strangers sitting next to you.
The menu changes to suit what inspires David from deliveries of the quality array of fresh fish delivered that day. So even if you become a regular, you won’t get bored with the menu. Tantalising fish delights from salmon, cod, haddock, silver hake, prawns, plaice, lemon sole, scallops, tuna, swordfish, gilt head bream, mackerel, trout, Dover sole, brill, turbot, red mullet, clams, mussels, seabass, herrings, sardines.and the list could go on and on depending on season and, of course, the weather out at sea!