With an ever-changing menu of sustainable seafood and a team with some impressive credentials, this tiny Brighton local favourite is ready for fame. Lisa Jenkins reports
In September 2018, the Little Fish Market in Hove was named one of The Caterer’s top five outlets in its Seafood Restaurant of the Year competition in association with UK trade body Seafish. And earlier in the year, chef-patron Duncan Ray and his restaurant manager Rob Smith won both Best Chef and Best Restaurant at Brighton’s Best Restaurant Awards.
Customers will not be presented with a menu at the Little Fish Market, as the day’s dishes are scribbled on a chalkboard. The menu is built around sustainable and responsibly caught and sourced fish, simply paired with seasonal vegetables.
Ray took inspiration for the restaurant from iconic chef Nico Ladenis and his legendary achievements cooking on a domestic, broken stove at his restaurant, Chez Nico in Dulwich, south London. His kitchen in Brighton is compact, but workable. He was solo in the kitchen for the first four years, but now has a full-time kitchen porter and has recently taken on a sous chef.
Ray’s experience at the Fat Duck proved to him that anything could be achieved with the right team, while his friendship with Jake Watkins, chef-patron of JSW Restaurant in Hampshire, who also ran his kitchen solo for many years, gave him the courage to tackle the Little Fish Market alone.
Ray originally opened the restaurant with a 4-4-4 à la carte menu, but found his customers were struggling to make a choice. “I tried running a taster menu alongside the à la carte for a few months and then opted solely for a tasting menu,” he said.
Another advantage of removing the à la carte is that now Ray has infinitely more flexibility with his offer. Dishes tend to feature on the five-course menu for four to six weeks, with the chef quickly adapting to any supply issues or removing dishes he feels aren’t performing as well as he would like.
Initially, his clientele struggled with the switch.“I lost 30% of my business overnight and it took a good year for that business to return. However, the customers that stayed with me and our new customers now love the concept,” he adds.
The restaurant only uses fish that has been caught by rod and line, or produce that is spear-fished or hand-dived. The chef refuses to use netted, trawled or dredged fish, and he follows the Marine Stewardship Council guidelines on what fish should be used, which is provided by the suppliers. They include Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales and Wild Harbour, which, he says, sell: “the best hand-dived scallops.”
Dishes from the late summer menu included an impeccably fresh cured mackerel with Granny Smith, smoked mackerel, horseradish and cucumber; red mullet with rosemary sauce and wild bass, and crab with sweetcorn, Mexican spices and coriander.
A favourite for Ray from these three is the red mullet. “This is a dish I really believe in, because of the simplistic approach. It’s a beautiful piece of red mullet with a complex sauce made of two sauces combined and thickened with mullet livers, but it’s very simply arranged with a few potato crisps made from La Ratte potatoes. It’s everything you could ever want in a dish for me. I try to live by Nico’s motto of precision, restraint, simplicity and a bloody good sauce.”
As for which is his most popular dish, the chef says: “Everyone loves a scallop, but bass and turbot also go down a storm.”
Restaurant manager Smith aims to create a relaxed atmosphere, offering service with charm and without pomp. He serves 90 covers a week, from Tuesday to Saturday, with an average spend of £90 per person.
The Little Fish Market has now been open for five years, but it still seems to be a closely guarded secret among the foodies in Brighton and Hove. The restaurant makes the most of its location and does its part to help out its neighbours, with a constantly changing display of local art for sale on its walls.
Ray and his team’s reputation is spreading across the country, having been featured in The Good Food Guide and receiving a very favourable review in The Telegraph. With the restaurant having been awarded three AA rosettes – the only outlet in Brighton to do so – it seems the secret is out.
From the menu
• Mackerel, cucumber, horseradish
• Monkfish, red pepper
• Skate (Thornback Ray), Bordalaise sauce
• Wild bass, sweetcorn, crab
• Skate, peppers, mussel, ink
• Hand-dived scallop, rosemary sauce, leek
• Dover sole à la Grenobloise
• Halibut, oxtail, oyster
• Chocolate, blackberry, black pepper
• Apple and blackberry meringue
Set menu, £65 per person
10 Upper Market Street, Hove, East Sussex BN3 1AS