Mad about fish

Mitch Tonks

The piscatorial empire of Mitch Tonks, pictured above.

Fish seems to attract many of us in ways that meat does not and probably will never be able to.

It excited my late father more than even my late mother’s roast beef. Chefs, on the whole, find it more challenging to cook fish distinctively than meat and so fish tends to provide the more exciting vehicle for their talents. Josh Niland, the hugely talented chef from Saint Peter in Sydney, Australia (whom I interview in next weekend’s FT Weekend Festival), has even discovered hitherto unknown parts of many fish and turned them into highly enjoyable and stimulating dishes, as the world faces seas increasingly devoid of many species of fish. Fish can also be as expensive, if not more so, than meat. Today, I am reliably informed, the wholesale prices of many fish have doubled over the past 20 years, and can spike even higher at Christmas.

Then there is the sheer attraction of being in the fish business, whose charms, I have to say, are lost on me. But that did not stop the late William Black from earning his living driving an empty refrigerated van every Monday from London to Boulogne, home in those days to the most sophisticated fish market in northern Europe. Armed with orders from the leading chefs of the time, including Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire and Martin Lam of L’Escargot, he would fill up his van and then drive home by Tuesday lunchtime. I remember riding with him on one occasion, stopping at his favoured restaurant for turbot with hollandaise, before driving back. We made a film about Black in 1991 as part of our series Matters of Taste for Channel 4. It was an episode, not surprisingly, called ‘Mad about fish’.

A programme of the same title could still be made today although its subject would be very different. It would be about Mitch Tonks.

Tonks is a difficult man to classify. He opened his first restaurant in Bath in 1998, without too much formal training, before meeting Mat Prowse, then cooking at The Olive Tree. From this friendship a small restaurant empire opened up. Fish Works combined fish retailing with a fish restaurant behind, similar to many such outlets in Italy and northern Spain (I loved the branch on Marylebone High Street) before over-expansion killed them off. Then in 2006 Tonks opened an email entitled ‘Pizza restaurant for sale, Dartmouth, Devon’. The Seahorse restaurant was born. 

In May 2008 I was the first national reviewer to visit Dartmouth and The Seahorse and I can still recall Tonks’ and Prowse’s enthusiasm, the fact that the lobsters were being delivered as I was being made welcome, and the overall warmth of the whole place. As well, of course, as the quality of everything I ate.

Since then Tonks has grown again, although this time eschewing the lights of London. He established his own fish-processing business, which allows his company access to the Brixham fish auction, as well as his own boat The Rockfisher. Tonks realised that there was nowhere between a fish and chip shop and a top-end restaurant for the customer to enjoy fresh seafood – a problem that has confronted and overcome many chefs and restaurateurs in the past.

But with what he considers to be the world’s best fish being landed along the coast near him, Tonks decided to have a go and opened his first Rockfish restaurant in Dartmouth in 2010. Since then he has opened eight more, all by the sea and in great locations, and all offering the same simplicity and excellent-quality dishes such as Lyme Bay mussels and char-grilled Brixham squid with lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil, dishes that have always been at the core of Tonks’ vision.

And it is strictly not the case that Tonks has eschewed London. He has played an important part in the success of the Hawksmoor restaurant group. Having met Will Beckett, one of the two partners behind Hawksmoor, Tonks was asked whether he knew of someone with the same fastidious approach to sourcing fish as they had to sourcing meat. Tonks volunteered himself and they have been working together for the past six years, putting together the seafood section of the Hawksmoor menus and training the Hawksmoor chefs in the more delicate art of grilling fillets of fish. The respect is obviously mutual as Beckett became chairman of the Rockfish restaurant group.

The almost year-long closure of all restaurants has obviously had a big impact on Tonks, although the Rockfish restaurants each proudly proclaim that they are currently taking bookings from 17 May (‘abw’, as my aunt used to say, for ‘all being well’). As a result, there is a Seahorse At Home box, delivered nationwide every Friday.

Ours arrived last Friday, to our apartment, where enthusiasm for fish is split. While I inherited from my father a love of everything connected with the sea and rivers, HRH is far more lukewarm – the result of a childhood spent close to the River Eden, where salmon were plentiful and relatively inexpensive.

Both of us were impressed by the menu. A colourful, three-page affair depicts happy customers, with a large red crab centre stage. It opened up to reveal on the right-hand side the slogan ‘a good lunch begins at 1 pm and ends up in Monte Carlo a week later’ and on the left were the signatures of all the chefs, under the heading ‘best fishes’. In the middle were the details of the five-course menu, with a separate piece of paper listing all the cooking instructions, depending on whether your kitchen has open fires and a charcoal oven or, far more likely, a gas or electric oven.

As with all such menus, we found the quantity offered would see us through the whole weekend. Friday night was the main event. The monkfish tail, perfectly prepared, just needed to be taken out of its plastic container, wiped dry and cooked in a hot oven alongside a dish of Florentine fennel gratin complete with breadcrumbs. We finished with a very boozy tiramisu whose sweetness was offset by some of my own stewed new-season’s rhubarb. Saturday lunch saw us enjoy six scallops in garlic butter; Sunday evening the brie aux truffe; and we still have the antipasti to look forward to as well as most of a bottle of agrodolce and an entire bottle of olive oil.

This box, priced at £87 including delivery, provided great eating and a lot of fun. It also felt good to be eating so well and healthily and at the same time providing some form of assistance to an obviously talented kitchen 220 miles (350 km) away.

Speaking as a restaurateur, Tonks explained that, ‘recently we have experienced price increases on wines and spirits which we will just have to absorb’. For a ‘fish entrepreneur’ the outlook is more complex. ‘The fishing industry has lost markets in Europe’, said Tonks, and as I outlined in Fish – what’s in a name?, ‘and the ban on the export of live shellfish is obviously hurting. But perhaps now is the time for all of us to appreciate just how good British seafood is and to value it. It would ease the problems of the market and give us food security.’