J Sheekey's, London
25 April 2014
Eversheds partner Bruce Dear visits West End celeb haunt J Sheekey’s and finds the fish (and wine) in fine form
“Sienna steals my style!” said Kate (allegedly). My client and I are dining on the celeb front line. Behind J. Sheekey’s gold-dusted and swirled silver windows, those four little words mean that Kate Moss and Sienna Miller must always have very separate tables. Sienna, a blonde blaze of polar-white teeth, is still a Sheekey regular. So is Kate, Kevin Spacey, Keira Knightley and (heaven help us) Kelly Brook.
Once a notorious bare knuckle back street, the dank alley where Sheekey’s stands is an unlikely celebrity runway.
“Big Ben” Caunt ran The Salisbury pub here. A 6ft 2” 18 stone Victorian leviathan, he “mixed with people of mischievous disposition” and was England’s bare fist champion. He finally lost the title over 96 (!) rounds: Victorian “rounds” only ended when one fighter sat down, exhausted. Ben Jonson, the Jacobean play-wright, also grew up here: “[it was] a lesson in quarrelling, ale and tobacco”.
In this edgy and potentially lucrative (beer and shell-fish fuelled London) courtyard, Lord Salisbury licensed Josef Sheekey to open an oyster stall in 1894. The only condition was that Josef supply fish to Prime Minister Salisbury’s legendary post-theatre parties.
Nod to the top-hatted doorman, and you enter Sheekey’s interior: a cosy panelled haven of four linked and congenial dining parlours. The effect is half favourite local inn, half exclusive West End Club. Black and white portraits of old regulars, Niven, Olivier and Chaplin, look longingly past their autographs at the perfectly cooked fish they used to enjoy.
My client is a leading in-house property lawyer, who specialises in complex lease negotiations. But he also really knows his food. He is the Paul Hollywood of his company’s fiercely fought in-house bake-offs. Will Kevin Spacey’s favourite fish restaurant win his approval?
He started with the chargrilled squid, Padron peppers, avocado, lime and coriander. “Excellent clean flavours, well matched: smoky squid, sweet creamy avocado, and the Padrons’ [mild Spanish tapas peppers] slightly crunchy bitterness”.
My starter was smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish. It was firm, and pleasantly muddy-fishy as only good eel can be; neatly offset by the beetroot’s smooth sweetness. But the horseradish was too fierce for the subtle eel. Now I am a big horseradish fan – even the way it burns your sinuses – but it was out place here, like a chilli in a Renee tablet.
From Spain to Cornwall: my client’s main was Cornish Hake with grilled octopus, cherry tomatoes and green olives. “Unusual combination, but very successful. Subtle hake, meaty octopus and acidity from the tomatoes and olives.”
Fish and chips was the great comfort food of my teenage years. We’d get some in, and watch BBC 2’s Friday night Horror Double Bill – Wolfman and Dracula in distinctly unfrightening monochrome. Sheekey’s haddock and chips with mushy peas didn’t disappoint, taking me back to family evenings in 1978. You can’t ask for more.
To Amalfi for dessert: a semi-freddo lemon bar for my client, and lemon and mint sorbets for me; both “simple, direct palate cleansers”. My client, a committed Chelsea fan, commiserates with me over Arsenal’s lack of trophies; I dull the pain by biting on my dessertspoon.
We took one modest glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as accompaniment. Okay, you’ve caught me out. My client took one glass, and I took two - if you find a good thing; chase it. Jilly Goolden (for older readers) would have called the Sauvignon “gooseberryish and full bodied, with just a hint of pear drop”.
This was business lunch hour, so we were mostly celebrity free. But in a nearby snug Ben Macintyre was quietly interviewing a retired intelligence officer about Cold War and Cambridge Spy Ring days. I’ve just read Macintyre’s brilliant Philby affair book, A Spy Among Friends. Philby would have loved Sheekeys. His typical 1940s oyster bar lunch began with bourbon on the rocks, proceeded through lobster and fine wine, and culminated in brandy fumes and cigar smoke.
We live in more restrained times. Lunch invariably ends now with both parties staring into Blackberries, not brandies. My client and I both rush off to afternoon meetings. J. Sheekeys had been a very enjoyable, but brief, refuge from London’s property market maelstrom.