“Eating an oyster can quadruple your sperm count within a couple of hours,” said Ed Baines, brandishing a knife in one hand and waving one of nature’s most unlikely aphrodisiacs in the other. We were all squeezed into a kitchen with the wildly charismatic ex-judge of ITV’s Britain’s Best Dish, who is also 50% of the team behind Randall & Aubin, Soho’s most venerable seafood restaurant. He expertly flicked up the shell of the oyster in his hands and handed it to a girl who – presumably – needed more spunk in her spunk.
“Everything we do is done by hand. Lots of new chefs come in with new ideas as to how we can make the job easier, and then they rapidly learn that’s not what we do,” Baines laughed, tossing handfuls of spent shells into a large pot for a shrimp cream. He was demonstrating to us, a handful of lucky Zomato food bloggers, how really nothing goes to waste in the kitchens of R&A. Carrot tops, celery trimmings and crustacean husks are boiled in butter before being strained and finished with a generous slosh of cream – “double cream,” said Baines, who has little truck with calorie-counting while dining out. “Food you cook in restaurants is not really all that focused on health, health, health. It’s taste, taste taste. When you’re at a restaurant like Randall & Aubin, you want an event, you want an occasion. You want something spectacular taste-wise. Have a fruit salad the next day and you’ll be fine.” Well, quite. We all looked on, hungrily.
The elaborately concocted shrimp sauce was only the finishing touch on the dish of the day, fresh pan-fried cod with a melt-in-the-mouth softness and a motley crew of seasonal sidekicks: Jersey Royal potatoes, asparagus and samphire, all just in that morning. And we were having it for lunch.
R&A, which has been going for nearly 20 years, is a real labour of love for head chef Baines and his business partner Jamie. Running a seafood restaurant, it must be said, sounds like a bloody nightmare. The raw ingredients are expensive, easily spoiled, and highly sensitive to environmental factors…which include rain, apparently, an unfortunate obstacle when you’re based in the UK and need to source fresh seafood every single day.
“As soon as it rains somewhere we cut off the supply,” said Baines. Why? “Because it stirs up the seabed, and bottom-feeding species end up eating lots of sand. The best seafood comes from deep in the ocean, like this crab…” He tapped the shell of a huge, brown armoured beast on the counter. “You see it’s got a thicker shell too, that’s how you tell it’s come from a long way down. And the meat is much sweeter for it.” He cleaved the (dead) crab in half and cracked its muscular claws with a practised hand. We scrabbled for the meat like seagulls and he was right: it was the sweetest, most buttery crab I’d ever tasted.
After the demonstration, which was as informative as it was mouth-watering – who knew your average man-crab is sporting two schlongs? – we left the kitchen behind for the restaurant upstairs. The aesthetic is ‘rustic nautical’ save for – bizarrely – an enormous disco ball hung in the centre of the room, which at 2pm on a Sunday was as packed as a sardine can.
We ordered our starters and a round of oysters. I, seduced by my soupçon of crabmeat in the kitchen, chose the Devon crab with shrimp, avocado and pimento salsa with a slither of toasted brioche (£12.85), which although on the pricey side for an entrée was plenty enough for two to share. (I mean, I didn’t share. But I could have, if I wasn’t such a greedy bastard.)
My fellow diners chose the Classic Moules Marinières (£10.85), Grilled Queen Scallops (£8.95) and crab cakes, delicious balls of sweet crustacean with lime mayo and radish salad. (£9.85):
I would hugely recommend ditching the French fries and choosing the zucchini fritters with basil mayonnaise. (And it takes a lot to part me from my potatoes.)
The cod we’d seen being prepared downstairs was as delicious as it looked, and the asparagus and samphire complemented it well. I was sat next to Erik from Just Another Foodie, who – like me – is not usually a fan of green food. “It’s nice to taste something green that’s got balls,” he remarked. Amen, bro.
Encouraged by Baines’ promise downstairs that we wouldn’t leave uncomfortably full, I ordered the vanilla cheesecake (£7.50) for dessert, swapping the salted caramel ice cream for dark chocolate. (Fantastic decision, by the way, if you generally find salted caramel a little too sickly.)
Alas, the usually-reliable chef was chatting complete tosh – the portions were enormous, especially the Chocolate Sachertorte (£7.50) and the Sticky Date Pudding (£7.5o), which came in slabs the size of encyclopedias and more than big enough to share.
Phew. If you only fancy something little, a big scoop of dark chocolate ice cream will only set you back £2.00. 🙂
It was an amazing experience, and getting to meet the occasional chef is one of my favourite perks of sharing my
savage gluttony gastronomic adventures online. Learning about R&A’s stringent waste-not-want-not policy made the food all the more spectacular, and it’s a fantastic venue especially for romantic occasions. Alas, they do not take reservations, but you’ll usually be okay if you go before 7pm. Don’t forget those zucchini fritters.
Randall & Aubin, 16 Brewer Street, W1F 0LA.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.