A Sneak Peek At The New Rockfish Exeter
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photos by Sofy Robertson
There are few things better than finishing work on a Friday and knowing that the fullness of the weekend lies ahead. This Friday, I had the additional pleasure of heading straight to the new Rockfish Exeter for a sneak peek (and of course taste!) of the Rockfish Group’s latest venture.
Already a firm fan of the ‘original’ Rockfish in Dartmouth, the honesty of the brand’s ethos surrounding sustainable, fresh and local seafood is expressed succinctly through their motto; “Tomorrow’s fish are still in the sea”.
The moment I walked into the new Rockfish Exeter I was struck by the smells of sawn wood, fresh paint and the char of sea food. The layout conveys a sense of openness and space with the open plan kitchen at its heart, meaning that no matter where you are sat in the restaurant, the theatre of cooking is viewable by all.
Contributing to the sense of openness are the glass walls of the restaurant, allowing for an indoor-outdoor feel. I took my seat in one of the restaurant’s long booths with the swooping arcs of the wooden curves reminiscent of row boats and vintage-style ferries.
We were warmly greeted by Mitch Tonks, a seafood ambassador, as well as the acclaimed restauranteur and chef behind the Rockfish Group and The Seahorse, which has been featured in the Top 100 UK restaurants for its tenth year.
Mitch explained the genesis of the latest addition to the Rockfish group, saying that two and a half years ago, he was in search of a location in Exeter when he was told about this patch of land, formerly the garden space of Bar Venezia. In his practical, no-nonsense manner he said “Well, let’s build a restaurant” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mitch explained his original vision for the new Rockfish Exeter, saying:
“We put planning permission in originally for a lovely wooden building that I thought would be great, but the planners just didn’t want that. They wanted this glass building. It’s not something I would ordinarily want to put a restaurant in; it’s just hard to make character work so we had to work exceptionally hard to try and make it feel like this could be a fish restaurant.”
A significant part of this was the layout of the kitchen; “We tried to make the kitchen very open,” said Mitch. He felt it was important for diners to be able to see their fish being grilled or fried and emphasised:
“This is definitely not a fish and chip restaurant; we have fish and chips on the menu but it’s a seafood restaurant.”
There is no doubt that this has been a labour of love for Mitch, as have his other Rockfish restaurants. He joked:
“It’s always like a new baby, when you see a restaurant. I wasn’t in love with it yesterday, but slowly today I’m falling in love with bits of it.”
With just our party, the staff and trades people occupying the space at present, I understood Mitch’s cautious love of his new baby. We both knew that the true test would come with the events planned in the lead-up to the restaurant’s opening on March 18th, including the 50% off evenings from the 14th to 17th that would truly put the space, and the staff, through its paces with the restaurant at capacity.
Although it may have taken a little time for Mitch to warm to his glass-walled restaurant, its potential is becoming clearer the closer Rockfish get to opening to the public:
“I think it’s a great spot to sit and enjoy sea food. I think Exeter’s got a pretty buzzy scene.”
Talk quickly turned from the décor to the food as the staff bore wooden boards of Portland Fleet oysters and mini-dishes filled with an array of tapas-style treats to our table. Mitch explained:
“We’ve introduced a little appetiser section to the menu so people have something to nibble.
“I went to Spain to source the products and I sourced these amazing peppers – Guindilla peppers – and they are sweet, sour and salty. I’ve got this thing that if you’re eating fried or grilled fish, you need a pickle with it. I just think that everybody who has a piece of fish in this building should be munching on one of these because they’re just fabulous.”
I’m inclined to agree; I can’t order fish and chips without asking for one of those giant, vinegary gherkins to go alongside. It feels so inherently British. That being said, however, I felt transported from the wintry England evening as I tried the Boquerones (white anchovies) alongside the tangy sweet Guindilla peppers and the juicy Manzanilla olives. I could quite easily have been in a Mediterranean country with these vibrant, sunshine-inspiring flavours.
As if oysters and an array of tapas weren’t enough to get us salivating, out came plates of bread with a pâté-like dip. Mitch told us that this was their own Anchoïade;
“It’s something that we have served at the Seahorse since we’ve been open, around ten years now. It’s anchovies with capers, built up with olive oil, egg yolks and a little bit of mustard and everyone in the Seahorse just loves it. We used to put it on to dip chips in and now we’ve put it on so you can have it before your meal, and we’ll see how that goes.”
With an incredibly smooth texture and a delicate salty fish flavour, I can honestly say that I have never tasted anything like.
After we had all taken copious amounts of photos of the food (the down-side of dining with fellow journos and freelancers), we were merrily chomping away as Mitch talked to us about the white wine that we were enjoying – a Xarello from Catalonia.
“I’ve been blending this wine since I met a guy in a bar in Barcelona and this guy started pouring me Cava. It turned out he was a Cava producer and I went back to his house where he had his vineyards and we were drinking a wine similar to this. So I asked if he would blend one for our restaurants and we did and we’ve worked together for twenty years now.
“So last year, I thought it would be a really good idea when we have our annual party called Rockfest with our staff, to take eight people who have done extraordinary things for the company out to Barcelona to spend some time together, but also to blend the wine.”
This included Joe, the manager at Rockfish Exeter, who was behind the pass as Mitch explained the wine’s origins. He continued:
“It’s something that we’ve got going in the restaurants now, getting staff to blend the wines and make it incredibly real. It’s easy to pick up the phone and just buy it from the wine merchants, but why do that when you can go and blend it yourself and do something truly amazing.”
This feeling of authenticity seems to exude from Mitch as a person into his wine and his food. It is rare to be in the presence of someone who holds both experience and passion for what they do, so much so that when Mitch disappeared after the starters were served, it was no surprise to any of us to see him behind the pass, attending to the cuttlefish on the grill.
Mitch’s introduction of this second round of culinary delights had my mouth watering as I impatiently snapped my shots and arranged my knife and fork ready for the attack.
First I tucked in to the Hand Cut Sashimi Style Smoked Salmon which had been cured in brown sugar and was served with rye bread. I have never had smoked salmon cut thickly and I certainly wish all supermarkets and restaurants did this as the texture and flavour produced was beautiful, so much so that it converted my fellow salmon-dubious diners. My only note, and in fact the only one that I had all night, was that the rye bread was unnecessary as the salmon spoke for itself.
Next came Prawn Ceviche; a combination that I have never had before. I love a ceviche; the zingy flavours of lime and coriander can perfectly complement and cure the raw fish. This, however, was an entirely different beast. Before eloping to the kitchen, Mitch had explained that they squash red prawns between acetate to make the membrane-like disc. At its heart, smashed avocado, lime, chilli, coriander and onion provided a citrus lift, giving the dish as a whole a pure and refreshing quality. For the second time in a matter of minutes, I felt I had experienced seafood in a way that I have never tried before.
The third and final starter offering was Crisp Fried Salt and Pepper Squid with a Singapore Style Chilli Sauce that I found myself addicted to. I can only describe it as having been seasoned with ‘magic dust’, which amused my fellow diners, as I tried to place the flavours that were involved in the seasoning. I was able to ask Mitch on his return and he explained that it was a unique mix of four different peppers, including a Nepalese grapefruit pepper. Eager for us to try this unheard of spice, Mitch rushed off to get us some whole peppercorns. The immediate taste was of citrus, and in particular the sharpness of grapefruit could be appreciated, which was sharply followed by a tingling hotness which left my mouth constantly watering for the next thirty minutes or so. After admitting this at the table, I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t just my mouth that was on saliva overdrive!
As the mains were served, Mitch re-joined the table and we struck up a conversation about cider, the third love of my life (my husband and the cats should take the top spots, really), as he was headed out in Exeter that night and was looking for recommendations. On discovering a shared love of the Hourglass and its beautifully dry cider, Burrow Hill, Mitch asked our server to bring over a few glasses of Sea Cider from Heron Valley. Crisp and dry, it was a lovely match for round three.
Our table was once again laden with vibrant plates of food; Traditional Battered Fish and Chips, Cuttlefish or Chargrilled Brixham ‘Calamari’ on the menu, Whole Seabass Chargrilled with Rosemary, Garlic and Salsa Verde, Grilled Courgette Salad with Lemon, Mint and Feta, Tomato Salad and Som Tam.
The fish and chips ticked every box for the Great British classic; crispy batter, perfectly cooked flaky fish and chunky chips with fluffy inners and crispy outers. A little Rockfish vinegar, a sprinkle of sea weed powder and a sip of Sea Cider and I was pretty much in food heaven.
The Brixham ‘Calamari’ was another first for me with a texture akin to squid, but slightly meatier, the dish was drizzled with a beautiful garlic oil and the simple chargrilling of the fish kept the flavours honest.
I didn’t even get a look-in at the seabass, so it must have been good. As for the salads, I could almost have considered just eating them in isolation, they were that good. The courgette salad reminded me of summer barbecues and the Som Tam with its spicy yet fresh notes was the ultimate inspiration for me to get out my spiraliser and have a go at recreating this dish at home.
Just as I was feeling adamant that another morsel could not possibly pass my lips, Mitch began to talk about dessert. I have to hold my hands up at this point and say that I am not a pudding person in the slightest and I will always opt for a starter over a dessert. That being said, I had just experienced three courses of food wonder, so who was I to rule out pudding?
Our promised pud was Baked Alaska and Mitch explained that they had worked hard at the new Exeter Rockfish to design a dessert that was gluten free. He had explained at the beginning of the evening that the entire menu is available gluten free, as one dish that many with a gluten intolerance miss most is that humble dish of fish n chips.
Traditionally, a Baked Alaska has a sponge cake base, but in order to make it gluten free, the team at Rockfish have made theirs with a caramel-cornflake concoction. In my opinion, it’s a huge improvement on a very traditional dish, bringing a crispy, chewy texture and the nutty flavour of caramel. The sweetness of the dish was nicely balanced with the addition of passion fruit curd and I contemplated sneaking a sample to my passion fruit-loving sister, before not too guiltily consuming the lot.
I have always thought that food is best enjoyed when shared, a point that Mitch whole-heartedly agreed with as I chatted about family meals in Switzerland that would last hours. He explained that he was conscious of portion sizing, wanting to create dishes that could be enjoyed together and enjoyed over time. I have never considered before the impact ones personality can have upon food but having sat next to Mitch for most of the evening, his presence was readable in the dishes as well as in the laid-back openness of the setting.
With the fullness of the weekend ahead of me and the entirely satisfied fullness of my tummy, I was in no doubt that we can expect great things from the new baby in the Rockfish family.