The latest restaurant to join the steadily advancing dining scene on London's South Bank is Livebait, just a stroll along The Cut from the Old Vic Theatre, and only a brisk walk from the South Bank Concert Halls and Theatres.
Update: This review was written last year (1996) since when Livebait has been very well reviewed in the press and has picked up several newcomers' awards. We now hear that Groupe Chez Gérard have acquired the restaurant. See note from a reader at the end of this article
We went in for lunch which was healthily busy but there was the odd spare table, so don't be put off. Livebait is an exciting fish restaurant occupying the groundfloor of a smallish shop, with an open kitchen at the back. They have since expanded into the shop next door! The eating area is divided from the kitchen by a display heaped with shellfish of all kinds - colourful crabs, lobsters and oysters of various sorts. The walls are done with stylishly plain tiles, and there are compartments seating four running down each side of the room with smaller matching tables in the centre that can be moved about to accommodate larger groups of diners. There are already plans to take the empty shop next door and it is interesting to see how rapidly a place that's vibrant and imaginative can build up a steady clientele.
The secret is quality and attention to detail, total commitment and hard work but perhaps above all, the love of good food and the ability to communicate this to the client. Thus on arrival we were brought a basket containing a wondrous selection of home baked breads. Little pieces of home cured fish arrived while we looked at the menu. These pre-starters change daily as indeed does the menu itself, reflecting the current market situation.
There is always a good platter of fresh Fruits de Mer, a generous selection of various types of oyster, prawn, crevette, crab and other odds and ends. All these delicacies are available separately and we each commenced with a couple of good sized chargrilled crevettes with home made mayonnaise. We also shared a half pint of cockles which were daisy fresh but a bit gritty. Oysters sell for 95 pence each for the rock variety, with natives at Stg 1.90 each.
From the five cooked starters, we chose with difficulty a platter of smoked mousses made from sea bass, trout and haddock. The finely differentiated flavours were complimented admirably by the brisk horseradish sauce, crisp salad and lovely little home made biscuits.
I like to try the fish soup because it's a real test of any piscatorial establishment worth its salt. It's easy to make a moderately good fish soup in a fish restaurant, but this one was made with a base of Jerusalem artichokes, highlighted with delicate curry spice - rather a Thai flavour, I thought. Trawling at the bottom revealed two huge, tender scallops. In the cavalcade of fish soups this one deserves to be in the leading file.
I could happily have eaten a whole meal of starters, as apparently many customers do. How about stirfried hand-caught squid with shitaki mushrooms, peppers and leeks, or grilled tuna and swordfish patties with all sorts of goodies? - I won't give away the entire plot! We drank the house white by the glass; if only more house wines were as good as this one, the best since the Arundell Arms last July! It was a Portugese white made from local varietals with a good on-the-lees flavour. Stg 2.45 for a decent sized glass, or Stg 9.75 by the bottle.
We shared a a generous helping of Roast (sorry, chefs always say roasted nowadays) Seabass, crusted with herbs and couscous with a finely pureed potato mash in a red wine and butter sauce. The couscous was a brilliant little touch and the fish was so fresh and subtle. The sauce, though it looked a furious purple, was not overpowering. My colleague declared this to be a memorable dish, and I agreed.
Frankly puddings were not on my mind. But we thought we'd better try some Apple Crumble, which was crunchy but overwhelming, and the Chocolate Tart which was fine but not special, but I think lack of appetite may have prejudiced us. The blood orange, pear and pink grapefruit sorbet would have been a more sensible choice.
The food is simply and neatly presented, and the front of house operation was efficient and charming. In charge is Paloma Santa Maria who took over from original co-partner Katrin Olander . The Chef Patron is Theodore Kyriakou who although Greek has done time in the international cooking scene, most recently at the Stepping Stones in Battersea. Theodore will continue to be in charge under the new owners.
Livebait deserves to do well as long as they can keep up the good work, cutting no corners, and not letting expansion plans divert them from maintaining such admirable quality.
Price Guide: Fresh shellfish from Stg 2.00 for a half pint of cockles, to Stg 2.00 each for native oysters and chargrilled crevettes. Crab average out at at Stg 8.75 and half lobster at Stg 10.95.
Warm starters cost about a fiver each, and the main courses are in the range eight to eleven pounds. Puddings cost from Stg 3.50 to Stg 4.00. A typical three course meal of crustaceans, starter and main course will cost about twenty pounds, so a full meal for two with drinks and service will cost the usual Stg 70.00. The beauty of Livebait's menu, however, is its flexibilty. You can pop in and enjoy some fresh shellfish, an interesting starter plus a glass of good wine for about a tenner. That's good value.
Update February 1997: My girlfriend and I visited Livebait and we had the works. That's the vast seafood platter: two crabs, half a lobster, langoustines, mega-prawns and a stack of fantastic oysters. We drank two bottles of excellent wine and the bill came to STG85.00. We had a super evening - we've never had fresher seafood - also due to the staff who were really friendly. Thanks for recommending Livebait! - Ralph Charlton
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