If you’re looking for a more authentic seafood experience than this grab your trident, strap on your snorkel and dive into the sea. TYM MANLEY gets hooked in the nicest possible way down in Devon
Aside from doing something silly, like metamorphosing into an octopus, say, the closest you will come to dining like a Lord of the Deep is getting bibbed up and hands on with a crab platter for two at the Crab Shack, Teignmouth. You don’t exactly have your bum in the sand and your feet in the sea, but you’re right on Back Beach with the Teign Estuary spread out in front of you, reflecting dappled light into the shack which gives a good impression of being made of driftwood.
It’s friendly, warm and intimate, not to say tiny. It’s also full, but there is no echo, no clatter and other people’s conversations remain their own. Rather like being underwater, in fact. And the winkles, whelks, oysters, prawns and hefty crabs you’re picking, cracking and sucking your way through taste as if they have only just been pulled from the sea you’re looking at, as indeed they have. Everything has been caught in local waters either by the family’s own boats, or those of their friends, and was alive in the morning.
Amanda Simmonds and her husband Rob, who has been fishing for 30 years, set out to provide an intense experience here and, as I think you can tell, it worked for me. But all this delight has grown out of a tragedy, which is all too common amongst fishermen. Just before Christmas 2009, one of Rob’s boats, the Etoile Des Ondes, was hit by a 47,000 tonne bulk carrier in the English Channel and one of the local Teignmouth crew was lost.
“When you fish together you become like family,” says Amanda. “Robert was devastated. We have three children to think about, he’d been fishing since he was 16, and he started thinking he didn’t need to be doing it any more. So, we opened a restaurant.”
Amanda was hurled into the deep end with no experience or training.
“I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ We have the ideal position and the ideal product — we’d just opened up a wholesale business selling crabs to the top restaurants around here, which prompted Rob to think that we should be doing it ourselves. So, we took the building, moved my mum in upstairs and we haven’t looked back since the doors opened. It’s gone mad.”
At about which time Rob realised he couldn’t live without fishing after all, and went back to sea.
“Nothing’s gone exactly as I’d planned, of course. We used to go to Brittany and have big slap-up seafood meals, and I wanted this to be like those places, everyone in bibs cracking crabs, newspaper on the tables, sand on the floor, and kids running in and out from the beach. I wanted it to be very relaxed, but it didn’t work out like that because the clients we get want a bit more than that.”
It’s all worked out very well nevertheless. The Crab Shack has developed a notoriously discerning fan base, especially amongst my relatives and friends who live in the area and sail this coast. They are not short of seafood restaurants but they have been talking about this place, now in its fifth season, for a while – and especially the innovations of the new young chef Charlie Goddard, which included hot lobster, seared scallop and roasted monkfish fillet with a Spanish-style seafood stew, wild garlic oil and rustic bread (£24.95) on the day I visited.
I wanted it all. But when in a crab shack one should eat crab, so my wife and I had the crab platter to share (two whole crabs, winkles, whelks, shell-on prawns, and six oysters with breads and dips for £45). Scandalously we eschewed the healthy vegetables, reasoning that a bottle of Pinot Grigio would do just as well, and from the moment the first oyster went down in a cascade of fresh desire I knew I’d made the only proper choice for the Lord of All He Surveyed.