Sexy Fish. Sexy Fish. Sexy Fish. Wherever you put the emphasis on Richard Caring’s new Mayfair restaurant it sounds terrible. I suspect this might be the point: it’s wilfully crass, intentionally boorish, purposefully provocative. It’s flippant but memorable, the restaurant equivalent of the GoCompare advert, and it makes for snappy newspaper headlines.
Everything inside, too, is designed to fill newspaper columns. Damien Hirst has created some sexy fish especially for Sexy Fish in the form of a rather revolting bronze relief of a mermaid swimming with a shark. There are more bronze mermaids (also Hirst) on either side of the bar and a water-wall and a 13ft mirrored crocodile designed by Frank Gehry and a coral mural on the ceiling and OH MY GOD THIS IS SO BLING. It’s like taking ketamine in an oligarch’s man-cave.
The doormen are dressed in flat caps and camel jackets like well-to-do 19th century street urchins, while the waiters wear rakish, Tom Ford-esque dinner jackets in varying hues and geometric designs. While Caring’s recently redesigned Ivy has mellowed into a grande old dame of the culinary world, Sexy Fish seems intent on winning back the young slebs from Chiltern Firehouse. Rita Ora did an underwater photo-shoot to promote the opening, which she then sang at; art and fashion VIPs received strictly limited edition Sexy Fish keyrings; Moss eats there, obvs.
The hype appears to be working: when I arrived – after a wait of a month – a woman in sequinned platform shoes and a daringly small dress (even given the mild November we’ve been having) was arguing with one of the chiselled street urchins about why she wasn’t being allowed in. She just wasn’t, OK?
I, on the other hand, was led into this flamboyant Willy Wonka’s fish restaurant, offered a drink at the semi-aquatic bar before being led into the gloom of the dining room. This is where it gets a bit strange: you start to notice that beneath the veneer of bling it’s actually rather understated. The mermaids make way for toffee-coloured banquettes and art deco light fittings. You might assume that Sexy Fish’s raison d’être would be convincing people to take pictures of their dinner to stick on Instagram, but you’d be wrong. It’s too dark. Any pictures of your dinner – or of, say Nancy Dell’Olio sitting at the next table – will look terrible. You’d be ashamed to put them on Instagram. And even if it were lighter, you probably wouldn’t bother anyway because it’s not that kind of food. It’s surprisingly simple – fresh, clean, unfaffy.
The quasi-Japanese menu has a “concept”, the concept being, as it always is, that there is no concept: dinner will arrive when it arrives, in whatever order it happens to tumble out of the kitchen. If you’re lucky, the sweet stuff will be out last. The unwieldy menu is split into various sections: oysters, small dishes, caviar, tempura, cold dishes, hot dishes, skewers (“don’t forget the skewers,” advised the waiter), market fish, robata (a Japanese charcoal grill) and vegetable dishes. How much should you order? Hard to say. Loads – you’re probably supposed to order loads. This is, after all, a place to flash the cash. A seafood tower for two, for instance, will set you back £110, but it will make Nancy Dell’Olio jealous.
I didn’t order the seafood tower: here’s what I did order, in the order it arrived. Buttery folds of yellowtail sashimi with avocado and a faint kick of jalapeño. Very lightly seared tuna with pickled cucumber. Rock lobster tempura, which wasn’t as delicate as I’d have liked but was beautifully presented in the exoskeleton of its former owner. A magnificent miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with artichoke puree and fried artichoke crisps – substantial and creamy with a lingering, umami aftertaste. Meaty smoked eel “salad” with frozen foie gras, which wasn’t really a salad at all, but contained some chunky, seriously tasty, entirely boneless slices of flesh that you really must try. Two duck heart skewers, which had a total of zero frills but did allow me to subsume the animal’s soul. Two divine maple-glazed pork-belly skewers with a yuzu-ranch dip – an unexpected highlight, substantial enough to qualify as a “small dish” but only costing £4.50, which is a rare bargain.
This turned out, through luck rather than design, to be exactly the right amount of food, although the pacing was a little off, with dishes tending to arrive en masse followed by a long wait. I’d wait a week for the desserts, though. The chocolate fondant was transcendentally good – a squat barrel of chocolate batter that oozed like a lanced boil when pierced with a fork, a sliver of gold-leaf on top surfing onto the plate on a river of molten praline. The tart, precise granny smith and sake sorbet is another minor wonder.
I liked it. I liked all of it. I came close to loving it. This is one of the most surprising restaurants in London: its cooking is elegant, straight-forward and entirely, hopelessly at odds with the room in which its served. You should go and check it out. If you book now you’ll get a table some time around 2025.
First published in City A.M.