Scott’s Mayfair – Exquisite Sea Food
Scott’s restaurant is one of the world’s premiere locales for decadent fish, shellfish, and specialities from the deep.
A chap from Scott’s London restaurant, the famous old Mayfair fish restaurant, invited me to come and eat elvers, I had a moment’s pause while I wondered whether it was worth the trip. And that was before I had remembered what elvers were.
Elvers? I mused. Elver, elver, elver… a man who catches elves? Has net will travel. Knocks on the door of Irish landowners and offers to rid them of the troublesome little sprites that have been gallivanting all over the end of their garden? Or is elver a Middle Eastern almond confection? A cream sherry? A spreadable compound of egg and silver?
No, of course not. It’s a baby eel. You knew that. Even if my computer’s spellcheck didn’t. I remembered what they were because I had eaten them in Spain a few times, standing at dilapidated bars with a glass of something paraffinny, lifting them, piping hot and oily, from a small glazed terracotta dish with a wooden fork: thin, fishy, unremarkable. “Angulas”, they call them.
At this stage, when they are about 3in long, transparent but with a visible spine, two eyes and a very faint line of mouth, they are known as glass-eels or elvers. They then carry on inland where they become pigmented, grow to about three feet long, and then turn around and head back to the Sargasso sea to spawn. The larval, or “elverine” stage of development has long been beloved of gastronomes in the Basque country, and Atlantic coast France – though they have not been popular in Britain since the days when kings surfeited on lampreys, and oysters were so cheap that skinheads used to throw them at coppers to save on gob.
Elvers can be fished only at night and during a thin moon, because they fear light and will not otherwise leave the gravel of the riverbed. Numbers have declined since the Seventies due to the northward displacement of the Gulf Stream, pollution, barriers to migration and shoddy European fishing practises, and in the Eighties an old Basque company called Angulas Aguinaga responded to the crisis by pressing cod (now pollack) on factory ships, processing it in spaghetti machines, and painting spines (and even eyes) on with squid ink.
Elvers must come into the kitchen alive, prices are running at about £275 per kilo just and the season is so short that it probably ended while you were reading this superfluous paragraph.
And that, my friends, is what I call a delicacy.
So I said: “Yes, thanks, that would be lovely,” and went down to Scott’s and ate half a kilo of them.
They were the best things I have ever eaten.
McEnearney first brought them to the table alive, perhaps 30 of them swimming in a brandy balloon of water. They writhed and meshed in the foaming scud: a battle of translucent leviathans seen from space; a conger eel barn dance through the wrong end of a telescope; a Lilliputian Medusa staying in to wash her hair.
He killed them, almost biblically, with salt. And then he sautéd them with wild garlic vermouth and cream. They came in a tangle of about two dozen, now grey white, the colour of fresh anchovies. No fish smell. Dark-green edges of garlic leaf visible between the snakelets, spackled with cream. A mouthful of five, each one clearly distinguishable in the mouth. Firm. Uncrunchy. Don’t think of whitebait just because it’s a spine-and-all job. Unsquelchy, the flesh yields if you insist. You might think of a milk-poached oyster. And it tastes of, well, it tastes of fake elver. But a bit less fake. The cream gives the dish richness, the vermouth gives it a lift, the garlic is nice and gardenny.
But the fish came out best in the plateful that was sautéed in butter and served with lemon, like a princess’s dream of baby codfish, lightly fried. And these were garnished with some that had been floured and deep-fried. When held by the tail they stood erect, caught mid-writhe as if on film, their little bug-eyes scowling reproachfully up at you. And were a little more crunchy. All three styles were well, well worth the money. What with it being free. If I could get them free every day of the week, then I would experiment a thousand ways and finally settle on serving them in a seeded bun with tomato ketchup, gherkins and mayo. A style I would call “elvers Presley”.
My free meal also involved a good fillet from a proper, big wild sea bass and some darling little newly hatched Jersey Royals, those elvers among spuds, and doing a fair impression of a delicacy themselves at £4.50 a portion. Then there were two brilliant soufflés bursting from their pots, one of pistachio and one of Grand Marnier. And fine wine.
I’ve always liked Scotts fish restaurant, but on this showing it seems to have developed ambitions to be really very good indeed. I’ll go back on my own money, just as soon as the elver season is over.
Scotts Restaurant address: 20 Mount Street, London, W1K 2HE
Opening hours for Scotts restaurant London: daily from 12pm-10.30pm
The menu for Scott’s London changes from season to season and may be found on their website.