In three words: Classic, Irrepressible, Exemplary
The Lowdown: There are some places in London that are iconic staples – that people know about, talk about, and hope to one day visit. J Sheekey is undoubtably one of those establishments. Frequented by stars but not flashy; famous for oysters and champagne but not decadent; busy and yet with the most attentive, charming staff one could hope for.
They’ve had time to hone their excellence – J Sheekey have been serving up superlative seafood since the 1890s. Josef Sheekey was a market stall holder given permission by Lord Salisbury to serve fish and seafood in his 1896 property development in St Martin’s Court – on the condition that he supply meals to the Lord’s after-theatre dinner parties. The deal was done, and now, over a century later, fish, oysters and shellfish are served up with same Victorian charm. You can either take a seat in the restaurant, or enjoy a more casual affair at the adjoining oyster bar, which is where we decided to head for lunch.
Location: In the bosom of Covent Garden, where thespians, luvvies and fans of the stage are ten-a-penny. The restaurant is just off the main drag, in quaintly cobbled St Martin’s Court. This helps it retain its old-fashioned, authentic air.
The Occasion: Come for a date, come for dinner, come with friends… come when you want to embrace a piece of historic London and taste the sea in your mouth. It’s the ideal place for when you want to be sure of a good experience – there’s no chancing it at J Sheekeys.
Decor: The oyster bar has a hint of classic bistro meets Victorian allure,with incredibly comfortable leather banquettes, a welcoming large central bar, mirrored surfaces and gleaming fittings. All the usual suspects are here – impressive wood panelling, pristine white tablecloths, and a visit to the toilets will reveal photos of their famous diners. The open kitchen in the oyster bar adds a bustling warmth to the room.
Atmosphere: Lunch on Sunday was a pleasant escape from the London crowds, with the perfect balance between refined and chilled out. We’ve been told the evenings can get rather rumbustious around the hub of the bar, which we’d like to experience – there’s the feeling it’s an old thespian with a hint of show-girl still peeping out.
Culinary Concept: The best seafood available, served fresh! The oyster bar specialises in shellfish and small plates of fish and vegetables.
What we tried: Well, we naturally had to start with the oysters! I went for the West Mersea Native Oysters No.2, while my dining partner tried the mixed dozen with spicy boar sausage. Served with two different vinegars and the standard tabasco, they arrived glistening on the platter. Needless to say, they knocked my socks off – my West Mersea Natives were plump, succulent, and rolled around my mouth with the brisk smack of the ocean. Soon we were simply sprinkling them with a bit of lemon and quaffing them with closed eyes, being transported to a wind-swept pier somewhere. looking out into a churning sea. His mixed variety made for fun experimenting, and the sausage afterwards was a really tasty accompaniment, with its rustic, bold flavour.
Next up I had the Whole John Dory, served with surf clams, broad beans and a chilli relish. It’s a fish not often seen on menus so I decided I had to go for it. And I was very glad I did – the texture was fabulous and sumptuous, and the springtime pop of green beans and shards of mint gave it a refreshing, garden-fresh lift. Ideal with the drizzle of olive oil and generous clams. My partner had the classic fish pie – a J Sheekey staple, and rightly so. It was as comforting as a warm pair of slippers on a chill afternoon – creamy mash, huge chunks of fish, and a rich sauce.
For dessert we shared a lemon posset, which proved the chefs are able to turn their hand at sweet treats. It was so silky it almost slid off spoon, a beautiful sunshine yellow, with pistachio biscuit for dipping. A wonderful end to the meal.
For next time: With a new spring menu starting now, there’s sure to be a huge variety of wonderful options that make the most of seasonal produce. Better go and investigate!
Veggie delights: Obviously vegetarians won’t get the best of the menu, but a place as professional as J Sheeky still caters for non fish eaters with dishes like Buffalo Mozzarella and asparagus risotto
Best of the booze: We had a delightful cocktail to start made with fizz and elderflower – a burst of bubbles and floral hints to start the meal off in a special way. Throughout our lunch we were recommended the Chablis 1er Cru 2010 Domaine Chaude Ecuelle from Burgundy. Dry as a bone, crisp as morning, and ideal with the fish.
Overall: When a place has so much fame on the foody, scene, you assume it must be doing something right. But there’s always the worry that, when visiting, it won’t live up to the hype. Luckily J Sheekey has no worries here. If a restaurant wrote the book on fabulous service and delicious dining, then it would be them. And yet they don’t take themselves too seriously, and aren’t stuffy . They’re the aristocrat with a glint in their eye – charming, gracious, and a still fun, while never letting their passion for seafood slip. I’m thrilled I cast my net wide enough to catch J Sheekey and give them a go – and I encourage others to do the same.