There’s a wonderful disparity at The Little Fish Market. Appropriately located on the site of a former fishmongers, opposite the old fish market in Hove, the restaurant is unpretentious – in a rustic, sea-faring type way. It’s a bit like stepping into a trendy beach hut, with fishy paintings, the smell of the sea and furniture that might have been hewn from Sussex driftwood.
Contrary to the understated décor – here, the food is the star. Bold, bright, beautiful and brave. While many restaurants raise expectations with swish interior design but serve dishes that disappoint under the glare of the fancy lighting, at Little Fish the spotlight is exactly where it should be: on the food. Luckily for us, head chef and owner Duncan Ray is not a man to follow the masses. In fact, he’s so keen to do things his own way he runs his kitchen as a very tight ship of one, doing everything himself to guarantee consistently high standards.
Another way Duncan keeps strict quality control is by limiting numbers to around 20 covers. That way, he can give every diner a memorable culinary experience, plus there’s enough space between tables to allow private conversations to remain that way. But word is still spreading fast, so it’s important to book well in advance – as much as two to three weeks ahead for a table at the weekends.
From the outset you’re in safe hands. Rob, Duncan’s gracious waiter, is as charming as he is knowledgeable, while Duncan is Michelin trained and worked at Heston Blumenthal’s lauded Fat Duck as well as Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, where he gained three AA rosettes.
The menu is simple and straight to the point, with no extraneous adjectives to describe what comes down to the failsafe formula of well-sourced, quality ingredients, cooked with precision and flair. The wine list is also carefully considered, and after some discussion with Rob we chose a red, which Rob assured us would go well with our fish – which it did.
There are four starters, four mains and four desserts, and after some deliberation I went for the crab risotto with sweet corn cream. The risotto had a robust flavour and was very tasty, but the delicate crab was a tad lost in the dish. I enjoyed the dish and overall flavour but also gazed enviously at my companions’ plates, each containing a variety of textures and ingredients.
The mackerel with quail egg, French beans, saffron potato and tapenade was like a modern twist on the classic Niçoise salad and was described by my companion as “perfectly cooked fish and crispy skin, such a great combination of flavours. Tastes are really balanced and I love the tapenade. Wow!”
My other friend’s choice of cured salmon with avocado, pickled cucumber, horseradish, crispy oyster and basil was beautiful to behold and taste – apparently the best starter on the table, from the delight on his face and comments: “This is everything you could wish for from a starter; light and refreshing, hinting at great food to come. The horseradish is a wonderful counter for the salmon and works incredibly well. The salmon is amazing, not fatty at all: firm but delicate. The oyster is a revelation. I rarely eat them but this is a parcel of joy.”
For our mains my companion followed his his salmon starter with the sea bass with black olive, fennel, tomato and aubergine, which he said was perfectly cooked and an all-round “delightful dish that reminds me of the joy I’d feel eating great food on holiday in the Mediterranean.”
Meanwhile, two of us had the monkfish with pork belly, carrot and star anise purée, squid and pine nuts. Monkfish is a wonderfully firm fish that can hold its own when paired with strong flavours. The pork belly was delicious and well executed; crisp crackling with soft, unctuous meat. The revelation on the plate, however, was the carrot and star anise purée, which not only added a vivid colour but had such an astonishing sweet, aniseedy flavour it lifted the entire dish to godly heights and brought everything together in a surprising but wonderful way. Genius.
After a little break and a lively chat about the food, we tried the apple dessert wine and chose a dessert for two of us to share – the chocolate, fleur de sel, caramel and hazelnut, which was a combination of different ice-creams with a crumbled brownie, a caramel sauce and hazelnuts. Again, presentation was spot-on and the fleur de sel took the edge off the sweetness. A brilliant end to a fabulous meal.
Little Fish has been open since the start of the year and is a welcome addition to Brighton’s thriving restaurant scene. With Duncan at the helm, it’s no surprise The Little Fish Market is making waves.