If you share the cooking duties with a flatmate who vehemently dislikes seafood, you seize any opportunity within reach to enjoy all things delicious from the sea. Trust me, I’ve been there. When I went home for family dinners I would always demand, I mean politely request, something fishy… sambal prawns or whole steamed snapper with soy and ginger were among the usual orders! I even resorted to implementing ‘the seafood rule’ where the fish dish at any restaurant was given the first right of refusal before I even looked at anything else on the menu. No exceptions.
These measures worked quite well and seafood-hating-flatmate and I lived otherwise harmoniously together for several years, but I must admit, it’s quite nice to now share the cooking duties with someone who loves seafood as much as I do. The bonus for me is that a certain someone came to the party with some fish cooking skills, whereas I had barely cooked any seafood before, unless you consider tossing tuna through a salad cooking? I’m getting better though and we now have fish on the cooking menu at least once a week, but my old habits die hard and I find myself employing ‘the seafood rule’ without even knowing it.
Partly because I am still such a novice when it comes to cooking seafood… I’ve got the prawn pasta and monkfish curry mastered but the repertoire could do with some expansion. However, it’s mostly because I just love the stuff. So much so I was positively ecstatic at the prospect of trying out two of London’s most popular seafood restaurants. The seafood menu and the Soho location aside, these two restaurants couldn’t be more different in style – one the stalwart that’s been operating for almost 20 years, the other a hip young thing that’s been on the scene for around a year!
Let’s see how they stack up…
Randall & Aubin
It’s got the reputation, the queue developing as early as 6pm on a Thursday night, and the undeniable lure of a dining room full of diners. We passed our short wait outside with a beer and a glass of the slightly sparkling vino verde, before being seated in a little nook near the back of the restaurant. The Randall & Aubin crowd looked like they have been coming here for years, in a nice, familiar sort of way, with a couple of tourists and newbies thrown in the mix; all giving the atmosphere a wonderful buzz.
The menu also looked like it’d been there for years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – simple seafood is good seafood in my book. To start we ordered the Randall & Aubin crab cakes, grilled queen scallops, and langoustines roasted in garlic butter with pommes frites. The crab cakes came encrusted in a well fried crumb but once you broke through there was a pleasant crab filling. Both the scallops and langoustine were enjoyable; I thought the little bit of pancetta with each scallop added a necessary but not overpowering level of saltiness, and when has garlic butter not enhanced… well, anything really.
The starters were followed by the crab and lemon risotto and the bouillabaisse, two classic dishes you’d think an experienced establishment would have perfected by now. I’m quite partial to things in a broth, I obviously really like fish, and I really like croutons so naturally I quite like bouillabasse and while this one was enjoyable I thought it could have been bolder. Where was the hint of aniseed from the fennel? Or the little kick of spice from the cayenne pepper? I did wonder for a sec if I was eating tomato soup with bits of fish instead of a rich fish stew I was expecting. Though I shouldn’t complain, I could have ordered the risotto… it was swiftly sent back to the kitchen and swiftly forgotten about.
Overall, our experience at Randall & Aubin was decent but I don’t think I’ll be rushing back in a hurry. Though the service and atmosphere were excellent, the food was just a little lack lustre for our tastes but I know people wax lyrical about it… particularly their oysters so perhaps we missed a trick there?!
Rex & Mariano
This new restaurant has raced out of the starting blocks and is already gaining a strong reputation for delivering top notch seafood at very affordable prices. Quality and cost aside, the other major talking point at Rex & Mariano is that their service is more technological than most… yes, there are still paper menus and yes, there are still wait staff but if you really tried hard, you could get away with speaking to no one at all and ordering straight from the iPad. I think it’s an excellent system particularly if you’re with a group of friends: you’re catching up, you don’t want to be interrupted but also don’t want the dishes to stop flowing!
A few swipes of the iPad and a screen tap or two later, our first order arrived… a carafe of house wine on tap, house bread, a couple of oysters, and the famous tuna tartare. Regular readers will know I have a fondness for eating my fish raw so I’ve consumed my fair share of tartares and ceviches; this rendition was fantastic. The succulent tuna cubes were zesty with a little chilli kick and perfectly balanced with the creamy avocado. Almost sneakily ordered another plate…
More swiping, more food. The crab cakes were delightfully light and full of good, honest Cornish crab, and the scallops with cauliflower puree were realistically odd sizes and utterly creamy and delicious. A plate of crispy fritto misto was easily devoured alongside the mixed salad, fries, and what is probably one of the most Instagrammed dishes of the year, Rex & Mariano’s red prawns with olive oil, salt and lemon. We opted for them grilled, salty, and I thought rather moreish, though some at our table found them a little lacking. Then because I am greedy and wanted to use the iPad, I ordered a plate of the seabass ceviche which as karma works was completely disappointing and unnecessary – there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Novelty backfire aside, we had a great experience and would happily come back and sample more of their raw offerings. The human service was efficient and friendly when they were at the table, and when the restaurant was full, it was really cooking!
So in the battle of The Stalwart against the The Newcomer, I think it’s clear that my choice is Rex & Mariano. Both restaurants offered fuss-free dishes aiming to showcase the seafood in all its glory but for me, Rex & Mariano pipped Randall & Aubin in style and execution!
Have you been to both? Which did you prefer?
Thank you to our friends at Zomato who kindly chipped in and covered half our bill at Randall & Aubin, but as always, all opinions are mine, mine and mine alone!