After falling off my diet in a truly spectacular way a couple Saturdays’ back, due to Elle and her incredible lemon curd cupcakes, Elle and her incredible Stilton and walnut pasta, Percy Pigs, the ShakeAway experience, an iced bun the size of a brick filled with custard and cream, not forgetting about 11 G&Ts, gimlets and one courtesy pint of Guineas ready for St. Paddy’s Day, I slept through the Formula One but of course, I was up in time for lunch. Just.
We were off to the country’s most easterly-inhabited island, to a ‘restaurant’ which apparently does not serve drink or bread (but you can get salad), where you may want to to bring your own glassware and chopping board, as well as your own condiments. But they’ll provide the seafood, don’t you worry about that. The Company Shed may be ‘BYOB’ – and then some – but it can easily handle plate upon plate of the freshest, most amazing and reasonably-priced seafood, sourced from the waters off the tide-controlled Mersea Island.
It’s not my usual approach to lunch – a place that seemingly has the service and comfort levels of a drunken, blind barber with Tourettes, along the additional stress of “Will I or will I not be able to get off this island, as I have an early start at work tomorrow?“. I was advised that the tide never gets that high, and if the worst comes to the worst, the island has beaches (it was a glorious day), places that sell Cornettos, and of course, an abundance of seafood. There would have been worse places to get stranded.
There was also no guarantee we would eat. The Company Shed is well-known around these parts, and was recently the subject of a glowing Jay Rainer write-up which probably was instrumental in bringing a lot of those dreadful Londoners and other further-afielders to Mersea. We resolved to drive onto the island by noon, to bag a table. You’re either going to luck out and get a seat immediately, or the staff, a smiley bunch of people who have a dual role of ‘grab and go fishmonger’ and waiter, will add your name to the list and tell you to come back later. We were told to return at one, pretty much perfect as my raging gin hangover was still telling my brain that food was a ridiculously bad idea.
A walk up and down the main road of West Mersea, which snakes around the shore and up into the little village, gave more than a few hints why the seafood at The Company Shed is so well-regarded. The place is so fishy I’m surprised the woman aren’t all dressed as mermaids and the men all carry tridents and walk dogs called Neptune. The road along the shore is lined with boatyards; a bit further along these give way to oyster farms. Wherever you are, the air smells of salt water and the corner shops sell a disproportionate amount of ice cream. This could be the eastern frontier of the English seaside experience, without the shoreside Yates’ and vomit-covered hen-dos you get in certain resorts elsewhere (naming no names, as Britain is Great), Though these are not without their charms. I suspect the only reason anyone would vomit on Mersea would be of allergies to seafood or Cornettos.
We made it back to The Company Shed dead on one and after a short wait, parked outside on school chairs, we were led in to the communal tables. Nothing wrong with communal tables, as long as you’re sat next to people who aren’t wankshafts. Luckily, the couple next to us were unwankshafty, although the room in general seemed to be full of kids (this doesn’t strike me as the most child-friendly restaurant). Coupled with a pokey dining room, oversized push chairs, those irritating mummies who insist on bringing the whole of Boots with them wherever they go and my general unwillingness to acknowledge or accept the existence of children, I was slightly irritated.
I’ll be honest, the room is not really ‘me’, either. It fits the bill – basic, cobbled-together and distinctly shed-like (unlike the ironic ‘sheds’ you get back in London – remember the hipster restaurant name generator?). You are sat amidst a minimal take on practicality, where a corner of the shed is devoted to live seafood storage (I hate moving crabs, after one was thrown at my head years ago), tide times hang on the wall, tables are covered with that wipe-clean Lino stuff (they’re turned over about five times a day) and a colourful blackboard of the house rules, which include;
“Please bring your own bread“
“Don’t bring salad, we sell it“
“Order at the counter“
“Pay after you’ve eaten, at the counter“
It’s all no frills apart from the food; the menu is a comprehensive list of what is edible under the sea. There are a few cooked fish dishes but the real stars of the show were the shellfish, oysters and seafood platters. So that’s what we ordered. I was gobsmacked by how cheap everything was. Restaurants in London take note; The Company Shed will sell you a seafood platter for two the size of a small European country and half a dozen oysters, and you’ll get change from £forty.
I ordered and we set about organising ourselves. Out came the bread, some olives (was that allowed, as per the rules?), the mayonnaise (as per Jay Rainer) and ginger ale. The food was set in front of us merely minutes later.
Everything served is caught locally, and is fresher than the Prince of Bel Air. Now is the time to admit that seafood is not strictly my favouritest thing in the world, though I was captivated by the sheer whump of flavours that only fresh fish (and possibly Haribo) can afford. It’s actually better than a Starbucks and accompanying granola on a Friday. Or a luke-warm Burger King when pissed at tower hill on a Wednesday night.
Actually, joking aside, the seafood here is serious shit. Oysters glisten with saltwater and are abundant in meatiness, somehow lending the correct impression of being ‘homegrown’, in the sense of being locally sourced. Nevertheless, the star of of the show is the seafood, where not one of the eight elements are any less than enchanting, where the mammoth blue ring mussels taste like – as they are – fresh out of the murky depths, the crab hardly needs the pick, it’s so well cooked and flaky, and the prawns are generally awesome, because they come in three varieties and are essentially infinite in numbers. Best salmon ever? Most likely, again, due to freshness. The smoked mackerel was a bit ‘bleh’ but I am a bit ‘bleh’ when it comes to any smoked mackerel, to be honest. There was no denying it packed flavour. The mayonnaise lifts things to a scarily natural level of perfection. The platter soundly beats us.
After the amusingly cheap ‘bill’ (a piece of paper with a number scrawled on the bottom), we shouldered out past the yummy mummies and back into the aptly blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon.
A weekend of destroying a diet would need nothing less than seafood picked to the bones. The Company Shed is the last word – THE LAST WORD – in simple things done well. What more do you need than hand-picked meat and a chair or two? Apart from a Cornetto to start, of course.
Seafood platter £fifteen, oysters around £one each, small plates £four to £ten
www.the-company-shed.co.uk | 01206 382 700 | 129 Coast Road, West Mersea, Colchester, Essex, CO5 8PA