J Sheekey Oyster Bar
Treat yourself to some gleaming seafood in one of the most beautiful Art Deco restaurants in London at J Sheekey Covent Garden.
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J Sheekey (the J is for Josef, the market stall-holder who in 1893 was graciously allowed by Lord Salisbury to sell fish and shellfish on his new manor of St Martin’s Court, provided he served meals to Salisbury’s theatre-going pals) is a legendary eating-house. I remember my aunt pointing it out as a London landmark, along with Fuller’s Cake Shop and Fortnum. The mash carefully piped round the perimeter of your sea-bass was always the best mash. I once saw Anita Brookner lunching there with her agent, holding a cigarette in the same hand as her fork and taking puffs between mouthfuls: the epitome of ladylike decadence.
It started life as an oyster bar and the ancient premises expanded in November to accommodate a spanking new bivalve bistro – a gorgeous, Art Deco mini-palace, slightly crowded but wonderfully intimate, like the state room of an ocean-going liner. Smoky mirrors with orange sconces and monochrome photos of faded actors evoke a lost world of glamour; the reflective-mesh ceiling catches the lights from little table lamps and throws it over a vast bowl of exotic shellfish. Once you’re settled at the new bar, you wonder if you’ll ever leave.
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The clientele is interesting in being comprised of two niche demographics: around the bar sits what seem to be a platoon of adulterous couples, expensively attired and tightly coiffed, while the banquette sofas are exclusively occupied by elderly ladies, possibly the original beneficiaries of Lord Salisbury’s patronage. A trio of joshing Essex businessmen near the door seems quite out of place. The young couples eye up everyone who comes in; the old ladies watch the amorous transactions as though following a play. I’ve never known a restaurant where the punters checked each other out so much.
The food, though, the food. Naturally one starts with oysters. The least expensive are Strangford Lough Rocks which, with a glass of Roederer champagne, will set you back a mere £15 for 6, and very delicious the combination was: the oysters creamy and slithery, served with ceremony, crushed ice, and the usual spicy botanicals, and extremely filling. Hurrying past the Beluga/Sevruga selection (£250 and £125 for 50g) you find that the menu is eccentrically, though pleasingly, studded with cheap-ish starters and snacks in no particular order: goujons, crab bisque, gravlax, steamed mussels, even jellied eels are on offer alongside the posh lobster dishes. j sheekey
My Cornish fish stew was a treat, seething with flavour, freighted with lumps of halibut, mussels on the shell, whole king prawns and sliced potato for extra ballast. My date’s Atlantic prawn curry, served on a copper skillet, tasted fine – the prawn never overwhelmed by the cumin – but was boringly tepid. We sent it back and a replacement arrived after a long pause. It was an annoyance that brought the first wrinkle of anxiety to my brow. How could such a hot restaurant offer a lukewarm fish curry? This was Sheekey’s bar, for heaven’s sake.
By 2.15pm the place was almost deserted – inexplicably, unless the older patrons had gone for a little lie-down and the adulterers for an early-afternoon shag. It was good to have the Oyster Bar to ourselves, to spot John Sergeant heading for the cloakroom, to exchange badinage with Gordana, the maîtresse d’ who used to adorn the Groucho Club, and to swig a glass of Sauvignon de Touraine. The ambience is so charming, we almost forgot about the food. j sheekey bar
J Sheekey Oyster Bar address: 28-32 St Martin’s Court, London WC2 N 4AL
J Sheekey Atlantic bar opening hours: from 12pm-10.30pm daily.