After 10 years of hard toil, West Hampstead neighbourhood favourite the Wet Fish Café has finally become an overnight success. Tom Vaughan finds out how
After celebrating its 10th anniversary in June, the restaurant - which used to be a fishmongers before Millodot took over the site in 2003 - has certainly stood the test of time. However, it's not been without its travails, and it was only last year that Millodot finally felt comfortable with the site as a money-making enterprise: "It was always profitable but always low - I felt like it was on a knife edge. Then during the Olympics we picked up 10-15% more business and for some reason it has stayed that way. In the past year we've become what I'd call healthy," he says.
A snazzy, buzzy, 38-cover space that opens up on to the street and incorporates two of Millodot's other passions, music and art, the Wet Fish Café is a neighbourhood joint and lives and dies by its menu. The food incorporates â¨simple, modern European flavours, with a slant towards seafood - the menu will typically have five fish mains, two meat and two veg.
The likes of a scallop, courgette, mango salsa, dill vinaigrette and black caviar starter (£7.50) is a perfect example of head chef Artur Michalak's accessible but imaginative cooking.
"Chef loves using fine techniques and I have to rein him in a lot of the time or he'll throw loads of ingredients on the plate," says Millodot. "He loves fruity sauces with fish as well as dried flowers and things you might not expect - like a lemon verbena sauce. We can do that now we have grown into our audience."
Elsewhere among the starters, a raw salad of fennel, beetroot, kohlrabi, sesame-soy dressing and roast hazelnuts (£6.50) is seasonal simplicity at its best.
Mains are also uncomplicated. Spice-rubbed sea bass and sautéd beetroots, orange salsa and artichoke sauce (£15) demonstrates Michalak's penchant for fruity â¨flavours and sauces, while another, organic salmon with â¨fennel, burnt leek, wild rice and Cornish crab chowder sauce (£15.50) is perfect neighbourhood friendly fare: generous, flavoursome and with an edge of sophistication that you'd struggle to replicate at home.
One dish that Millodot says he has paid particular attention to is the steak: "We looked around for the best bit of fillet we could find and made sure we put it on at a neighbourhood-friendly price of £18.50. It might make slightly lower GP but it's worth it for the feedback."
Just as the steak is a mainstay, so is the almond-coated warm soft chocolate cake with berry coulis and lemon verbena ice-cream (£6.50), which has been on the menu in various guises since the Wet Fish Café opened. Neighbourhood restaurants are littered with the bodies of bad chocolate fondants, but in this case it is almost perfect - a thin layer of chocolate cake crust giving into a gooey, ice-cream melting centre. So simple, but so easily and often messed up.
With a neighbourhood crowd to please, brunch is a big deal, and the restaurant can do anything up to 120 covers in the weekend daytime, compared with 40 on weekday evenings and 60 on weekend evenings. Midweek lunch is a tough time, and it's only recently that Millodot has started to be able to solve it, offering a lunch dish - think spinach omelette with toast and avocado salad - with beer or wine plus tea or coffee for an astonishing, and resoundingly popular, £7. It's all part and parcel of the fine art of neighhourhood restaurants, says Millodot: "It's like a key on a lock - if one notch isn't right, it doesn't turn."
Sample dishes from the menu
Mackerel paté with gooseberry-elderflower jam & crostini £6
Crispy squid with anchovy-lemon mayo £5.50
Aubergine and tomato soup with giant couscous and lemon verbena oil £6
Cod in tempura batter with olive-crushed potatoes & sorrel-caper salsa £13
Spinach tagliatelle with crayfish, chorizo & wild mushrooms £13.50
Lamb cannon with red â¨quinoa, peas, carrots, braised onion, black sesame and â¨mint syrup £15
Cheese plate with biscuits, red grapes, apple, celery, homemade chutney £9
Pistachio and star anise crème brulée with butter biscuit £6
Apple and raspberry crumble with crème Anglaise £6
The Wet Fish Café
242 West End Lane
London NW6 1LG
Tel: 020 7443 9222