When Jay headed to the Wright Brothers’ new outpost in Spitalfields, the last thing he expected was to catch crabs
8-9 Lamb Street, London E1 (020 7377 8706). Meal for two, with drinks and service: £110
A wet Wednesday lunchtime and I am making a life or death decision. On my say so, a creature will breathe its last. This isn’t very different from most mealtimes. Usually when I order lunch something has to die. As far as the vegan community is concerned I am steeped deep in blood. I recognise the point of view. I believe that those of us who eat things with a face need to understand what this means. Accordingly I have worked in an abattoir; have heard the squeals of stuck pigs and dragged their bleeding corpses down the pig tank to be de-bristled. I have watched cattle take the bolt, pulled skins off the still-warm carcasses of lambs. I have literally had blood on my hands. It did not change my eating habits one bit.Nungwi Village
Then again none of those animals ended up on my plate. They were proxies for those that have. Today is different. Today I am staring into a tank of water at a heap of fine Cornish brown crabs, very much still alive. I am trying to decide which one should be lunch. You don’t have to do this at the new Spitalfield’s outpost of the Wright Brothers seafood restaurant group, where the steel-blue tanks are the centrepiece. You could just sit with your back to them, airily order a whole crab and carry on your conversation without noticing the chap come round behind you with the bucket. Or Mister Death, as doubtless they call him in the steel tank.
But where’s the fun in that? So, now I stand over the water and point at a good-sized crab. I would like to pretend I know what I’m looking for, but I don’t. One of them has to go, and that one there is a nice shade of brown. Look, it’s hardly Sophie’s Choice. Perhaps it overheard me for, as the cook brings it up, the crab clings to a couple of its neighbours, like a legless teenager out on a Friday night. There are now three big crabs, interlinked, claw to leg, leg to claw. The cook tries to disentangle them, but as he prises open one claw, another slams shuts. With a forced laugh in my voice, I suggest my first choice has won the right to live. I choose a less clingy specimen from the corner.
I would like to say this was a “So what?” moment, but it wasn’t. Not really. It was curiously intense. Of course, we’ve been able to do the same thing in Chinese restaurants for years. But those staff tend not to engage with you and the whole process is drained of moment. Spoil sports. If I’m going to kill my lunch I want eye contact, damn it.
And so to the big question: did this improve the experience of eating the crab? Yes, because it really was fresher and sweeter than any crab I have eaten before. It had that clean light fishiness, as of the air scrubbed clean by the ocean. The same applies to the rock oysters in the tank. They had more clarity and briskness to them, shucked straight from the water, even beneath a silky jalapeño dressing.Nungwi Village
On the other hand: I did have to wait well over half an hour for the crab to turn up, which they didn’t warn me about. But then perhaps such a process should never be quick. Certainly by the end of the wait all my qualms about choosing the one I was to eat had been replaced by hunger. Which means it didn’t die in vain. Happily, this new Wright Brothers is a nice place to linger. The original in Borough is all clatter and elbow. The Soho outpost can feel a little slick. This one, tucked into the edge of Spitalfield’s covered market, has a certain classiness to it. You could easily imagine mislaying an afternoon here on one of the banquettes with a bottle of prosecco.
It is dominated by a huge marble bar, its homage to the glorious Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, where men with arms like other people’s legs spin shellfish across the bar as if shucking were industrial grade manual labour. Here, the waiters are a little too poised for that, but the bar is an impressive lump of glittering stone. Somehow it manages to avoid looking like a Stanmore bathroom. In short this is the restaurant Wright Brothers always wanted to be when it grew up.
There’s some of that about the food, too. Crab croquettes are all brown meat with that rich seafood funk people who genuinely like fish hunger for. Stuffed olives are bafflingly large – think golf balls – but turn out to be a mixture of chopped olive, anchovy, lemon and parsley, formed into a ball and dropped in the deep-fat fryer. Pricing is uneven: £12 for a whole crab is OK; £41 for a whole lobster, less so; £7 for those crab croquettes feels within the bounds of London normal; the same, for just one scallop, feels enthusiastic. Though, to be fair, it is a glorious scallop, draped with a thin slice of lardo, the cured back fat of the pig just beginning to melt from the heat.
From the list of specials comes a pearly tranche of hake with a mess of buttery leeks and mushrooms. And then that cracked crab, no longer a moral dilemma, now just so much lunch. It comes with implements and a pot of mayonnaise. Stubbornly, Wright Brothers refuses to do chips. I’m not sure why – it’s shamefully chippist. But at least they now go halfway there with a thick, salty, crisp potato galette. It does the job.
Dessert requires me to murder nothing but my resolve. There is a very good take on the rum baba, with a Grand Marnier syrup instead of rum and a cooling blanket of whipped cream. Another plate brings defiantly adult flavours: thin shards of dark chocolate-coated Florentine, nose down in a heap of cream whipped with custard, studded with sticky bits of candied grapefruit. It is bitter and sweet and full on. That one dessert defines the place. It is a serious seafood restaurant for people who really do like the stuff. The live crabs and lobsters in the tank are a statement of intent. It means business. So do you really have to choose which animal will die for you to get that full experience? No. But it probably helps.
Jay’s news bites
■ For more serious man-on-seafood action, visit the classy ground-floor seafood bar at Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s just off London’s Piccadilly. There’s a smart upstairs dining room, but I’m not quite sure why you would bother. Pull up a stool at the counter downstairs and watch chaps with scarred hands shuck oysters to order. It’s not cheap. It’s not even on nodding terms with cheap. But it is very good indeed (bentleys.org).
■ For those of us addicted to Vitamin P – that’s P for pig – there’s a new, must-buy American book available via import online. Bacon 24/Seven by Theresa Gilliam apparently contains every bacon recipe you could ever need including one for apple pie with bacon strudel and another for bacon baklava, plus a method for a bacon Manhattan. Boy, could I use one of those. Don’t judge me.
■ Spare a thought for Harrow in north-west London: it’s the site of the first in a new chain of Dunkin’ Donuts. The US brand attempted to launch here in the 90s, but the reception was so underwhelming they pulled out. Now they’re trying again. Poor Chelmsford will follow (dunkindonuts.co.uk).