Regular diners and drinkers around Cardiff and the Vale probably couldn’t fail to notice a proliferation of numerically named establishments. I’m not sure if it’s a popular naming convention everywhere, and I just notice it more because of my interest in the area, but either way, we have Bar 44, Pier 64, Lab 22, 33 Windsor Place and the latest (I think) addition to the numerical stable, and subject of this review, Fish at 85, in the leafy Cardiff suburb of Pontcanna.
I’d already been lucky enough to sample some of the fantastic fresh fish from Fish at 85’s retail operation, and when I popped in to pick it up and met fishmonger John, I was really keen to try the restaurant as well. My first visit was a month or so ago with some fellow bloggers (Nikki from Your Last Mouthful and Bev from Eats for Wales) and I enjoyed it so much that a couple of weeks later I took Mr W there for a meal.
The first thing to say is that if you don’t like the smell of fish, you really won’t like eating in at Fish at 85! Essentially, you’re eating in a fishmonger’s shop, and although there are various restaurants that have a fresh fish counter, this is nothing like those, with the fish as fresh as it comes, packed in ice and otherwise out in the open to exude its aroma into the air! It’s a small and intimate venue, with only a few tables, so I’d recommend booking if you want to visit.
Although, as with everything, there’s a time and a place for fishy smells, personally I think it adds to the ambience and rusticness of Fish at 85. The décor is in keeping with the casualness of the place – a blue and white theme which feels seasidey but doesn’t try too hard or stray into the realm of cliché, no table cloths and a daily menu simply typed in the style of an old fashioned typewriter. Our table did feel a little bit sticky – I wasn’t sure if this was intended as part of the rusticness or not, as one we adjourned to outside for coffee afterwards was the same (either way it was one feature we could have done without and probably my only complaint over the course of the evening!) Being there feels as if you’re in a Cornish fishing village, or even somewhere on the New England coast, which is one of my favourite places in the world, so it’s unsurprising that I really like it and going there makes me feel as if I’m on holiday!
With this in mind, to me it’s not really a place I’d go on a Saturday night, mainly because I like to get glammed up for dinner at the weekend, and Fish at 85 feels much more relaxed. It’s ideal for a weeknight dinner though, especially if you fancy treating yourself to something simple, but very, very special, or even for a long, leisurely lunch – especially if it’s a nice day and you’re lucky enough to get one of the two tables outside.
The menu offers a selection of starters and a selection of ‘special’ main courses with set prices. In addition to the mains listed, you can choose any fish from the fresh fish counter, cooked however you choose, with a sauce and accompaniments of your choice. In this case, the fish is sold by weight and the accompaniments are extra – but once you’ve chosen your fish, they’ll come and check with you to ensure you’re happy with the cost.
To start, I chose a mackerel pate, served with toast and a small salad. This was very nicely presented and equally tasty – coarse and flavoursome. There was a generous helping of pate and a generous portion of toast too (often, restaurants get the ratio wrong and you find yourself balancing enormous helpings of pate on a tiny piece of toast – not so at Fish at 85!)
Mr W went for a favourite of his – grilled sardines. These were served exceptionally simply, with a green salad and some sundried tomatoes, allowing the flavour of the fish to speak for itself. I tried a small mouthful of one of the sardines, and although not normally a favourite of mine, I really enjoyed the taste and texture.
For our main course, we toyed with some of the specials as they all sounded very good (especially the battered fish and chips – I can’t imagine there are many better places in Cardiff to have this dish!) but the fresh fish just looked so tempting and simple that after a run down from our server of what they had on offer today (it’s dependent on what’s been caught) and a few recommendations we chose fillets of brill and skate wings respectively.
We both had a portion of fat chips (skinny are also available!) which I’d tried on my previous visit and found to be some of the best I have ever tried, bar none. These were just as good and I don’t think I can wax lyrical enough to do them justice! Although my fish was delicate and tasty enough not to need a sauce, I asked for some of the excellent Rouille to dip my chips in – heaven!
Mr W chose a simple butter sauce to go with his skate wings. We both had our fish pan fried, and for something so simple it was an exceptionally tasty meal. We were also lucky enough to be given a portion of rock samphire to try, as it was something special that they had on offer that day. I enjoy the flavour of samphire, but occasionally find the texture a bit ‘woody’ so wouldn’t necessarily have chosen it, but I was really impressed by how good it was – not even a touch of woodiness – and would definitely have it again.
Given that we had two portions of chips between us, despite the fact that we could have managed with one, but felt compelled to eat most of them as they were just so good, we didn’t have room for dessert, but I’ll treat you to a picture of three lemon possets that Bev, Nikki and I enjoyed on our previous visit! The dessert options change regularly, but the lemon posset seems to be a fixture – good news as it’s so good!
I absolutely love Fish at 85. It’s a prime example of why good quality ingredients really don’t need to be messed around with – but can be made or broken by how they are cooked. Excellent, simple cooking, in an innovative and pleasant environment, combines with friendly and knowledgeable service to make it an absolute ‘must visit’ for any discerning diner – or simply anyone who wants to try somewhere ‘different’.
Our meal, with wine for Mr W (I was driving) and no desserts, came in at around £35 per head. On my previous visit, with more wine and a dessert each, it was more like £50 – but worth every penny!
Food: ***** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Fish at 85, 85 Pontcanna Street, Cardiff CF11 9HS