Lawrence McCarthy's arrival at this seafood-led Brighton restaurant may signal change, but he's planning on keeping the regulars happy. Andy Lynes reports
The launch in 2015 of the Salt Room, a 164-cover, seafood-led brasserie, bar and terrace on Brighton's seafront, brought a much-needed dose of metropolitan sophistication to the city's dining scene.
The striking interiors, with exposed brick and timber panels, were inspired by original drawings of Brighton's West Pier – the iconic ruins of which stand opposite the restaurant.
The accolades soon followed its launch, and in 2017 the restaurant was named Seafood Restaurant of the Year in the annual competition organised jointly by Seafish and The Caterer.
In February this year, the Salt Room celebrated its fifth birthday, coinciding with the recent appointment of former Ledbury sous chef Lawrence McCarthy last December.
McCarthy has worked with notable chefs, including Marcus Wareing and Tom Aikens, and was formerly head chef of the Michelin-starred Restaurant Tristan in Horsham, West Sussex.
On the face of it, a brasserie serving 150 customers on a Saturday night might seem an unusual step for a fine dining-focused chef, but there is another side to McCarthy's CV. He has been head development chef for Mustard Catering in London and head chef at a restaurant in Switzerland, where he oversaw both a brasserie menu and a fine dining operation.
"The size of the room is not intimidating. I wish it could be fully booked all the time. I need to be busy. I don't care about doing 20 covers fine dining because it's not busy enough for me. I like the rush, I like the push – I like to be in the shit a little bit, really. I like to be comfortable in the uncomfortable: that's character building," says McCarthy.
McCarthy's menus launched in February and include an à la carte and a £20 weekday set menu with two courses and a glass of wine. A vegan menu is comprised of six items taken from the main menu, while children can enjoy a main course and dessert for £7.50, with options such as grilled or battered south coast fish with chips and vegetables.
The restaurant is well-known for its specials board and McCarthy will continue to offer regulars' favourites, such as barbecue monkfish tail with spiced baba ghanoush and spring greens for two to share (£24pp).
"Our lunch menu is smaller and dishes are lighter and cheaper," McCarthy explains. "We plan to put more fun ideas in there: a buttermilk-fried fish sandwich or whole butterflied fish, grilled, garnished up, a bit of salad. It'll be really light, almost like late brunch – without the eggs on toast.
"At dinner the dishes seem more occasional. We want customers to feel like they've come to a special place. We can also put on a dish from the dinner à la carte, like the loin of Skrei cod with spinach, turnip and honey mustard (£18) as a lunchtime special."
McCarthy divides his fish orders between three local suppliers – MCB Seafoods in Newhaven, NFS and Fish Galore in Hove, and Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales in Brighton – and says that his fish cookery has been transformed by the installation of fish-ageing fridges.
"I can keep a fish hung up in there for six or even seven days. It dries the outside of the fish a little bit, but protects the flesh inside. We check them every day. The flesh starts to break down, it becomes less watery, the flakes are more defined and skin more crispy."
One eye-catching result of the process is the ‘Flying Gurnard', a sharing dish for two (£22pp). The fish is deep-fried whole for six to seven minutes and served with seasonal vegetables, pickles, cep oil and crushed sesame seeds and a ‘dragon sauce'. The sauce consists of kimchi mixed with the vegetables' pickling liquor and a red wine gastrique, made with Worcestershire sauce, red wine, red wine vinegar and sugar, finished with chopped shallots and capers and truffle oil.
It's a popular dish that McCarthy sees as a sign of things to come at the restaurant. "I want to stay fresh and up to date but make the food even simpler. I want it to look a lot more striking, like every dish really has been worked on and is clever in its own way, just like the gurnard.
"Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve, especially when it's simple and there's no room to hide. It's not ground-breaking food; it's seasoning and confidence – that's all it is really – but that takes a lot."
It's not ground-breaking food; it's seasoning and confidence
From the menu
- Scorched mullet, radish, pickled plums, mustard £8
- Hay-baked beetroots, saffron pear, capers, endive £7
- Crispy kale salad, broccoli, nori, Parmesan £7
- Black miso aubergine, spinach, lemon curry, radishes £15
- Chalk stream trout, samphire, peas, seaweed butter £17
- Slow-roasted lamb, labneh, spring greens £20
- Burnt sugar tart, grapefruit and gin sorbet £7.50
- Sesame panna cotta, jasmine mango, black coconut £7.50
106 King's Road, Brighton BN1 2FU
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