04 September 2003 by

It's a sure bet that a chef who calls his restaurant Fishes has a passion for seafood and that's certainly the case with Matthew Owsley-Brown. His love affair with produce from the briny is not surprising, really, given that he worked for Rick Stein at his renowned Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, from 1993 to 1995, so when it came to launching his own eaterie there was no hesitation about what he wanted to specialise in.

Luckily for the locals of Burnham Market near the north Norfolk coast, Owsley-Brown and his wife Caroline decided to set up shop in the east rather than the west of England. They opened the doors of their 42-seat restaurant in September 2001, and have just had a £30,000 refurb. The lead-up to finding the site is an interesting story.

In 1999, Owsley-Brown was working as head chef and manager at Noble Rot in London when he read about a watermill in Norfolk that milled its own home-grown grain. His attention caught, he began to source its produce, finally visiting the mill on a family holiday to Burnham Market in the summer of 2000. But not only did he satisfy his curiosity by seeing the mill, he and Caroline also spotted a local restaurant up for sale. The couple put in a bid and Fishes was born.

Being near the coast, Owsley-Brown sources as much local seafood and produce as he can. Cromer crab, Brancaster oysters, mussels, razor clams, cockles and samphire gathered from the wide, sandy Norfolk river estuaries and beaches are all regular features on his set-price menu, currently going out at £23 for two and £28 for three courses.

The menu is tweaked daily but some dishes have become customer favourites and are regularly listed, such as a starter of Norfolk smoked eel with foie gras and piquillo pepper terrine, and a main of roast halibut with caramelised fennel, oranges and hollandaise sauce.

Having acquired a taste for spice during a couple of trips to India (originallay in 1985 and again in 1994 with Stein), Owsley-Brown has recently invested in a tandoor oven. In addition to using it for cooking fish he's also put it to work producing home-made flat bread. Popular dishes made in the oven include a Goan-inspired tandoori thresher shark with pilau rice and kachumba salad, the latter a combination of tomatoes, onion, cayenne and cumin spices.

Another offering dates back to Owsley-Brown's time with Henry Harris at Harvey Nichols's Fifth Floor restaurant in London. Thai buttered Brancaster lobster and stir-fried noodles (£10 supplement) is "the best way ever to serve lobster", he maintains.

Among the puds, a panna cotta with Norfolk strawberries and a ginger snap, and dark chocolate fondant with orange ice-cream are popular orders from diners who range from wealthy retired locals to commuting city workers, bird-watchers, golfers and tourists.

Fishes averages 45 covers in the evening and 25-30 at lunch. Helping Owsley-Brown to keep the customers satisfied is a small kitchen team of four, including sous chef Nigel Coleman, while Caroline has charge of front of house.

A strong selling point for the restaurant is the emphasis the Owsley-Browns place on wine, with several "perfect pairings" listed on the menu. For instance, a 2001 Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine sur lie Château la Bretonnerie (£16.95) is suggested for shellfish, or a sophisticated Muskat-Ottonel, Trocken, Willi Opitz from Austria (£31.25) is deemed the ideal complement to the tandoori shark.

The urbane edge the pairings give clearly go down well with this east-coast "Chelsea-by-the-Sea."

Fishes restaurant, Market Place, Burnham Market, Norfolk PE31 8HE. Tel: 01328 738588

By Lisa Jenkins

What's on the menu

£23 for two courses, £28 for three courses

  • Grilled scallops in the half-shell, preserved lemon and chorizo.
  • Stir-fried prawns, black beans, ginger, garlic, coriander and seaweed salad.
  • Six Brancaster oysters "Bloody Mary" or grilled with garlic and parsley butter.
  • Red mullet, choucroute, saffron potatoes and smoked bacon.
  • Charcoal-oven roast whole John Dory, oregano, capers, artichokes and white balsamic.
  • Wild salmon, crayfish, samphire, "beurre rouge et blanc".
  • Warm local blueberry and almond tart, blueberry ice-cream.
  • Sticky toffee pudding, caramel sauce and vanilla ice-cream.
  • Selection of home-made ice-creams and sorbets.

Chef's cheat

To achieve the vibrant colours required in tandoori dishes, Owsley-Brown uses dried beetroot powder. He thinly slices dried beetroot on a mandolin before grinding it to a fine powder ready for use as a colorant and flavouring.

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