Don’t duff up my prawn cocktail!

prawn cocktail at Ship, Brancaster 11-09-2016 14-29-35

This is what a prawn cocktail should look like

I’M not sure which chef first took prawn cocktail out of a cocktail glass and onto a plate but he deserves to have his liver gently sautéed as punishment. You eat first with your eyes and no matter how you dress it up, once you give the glass the old heave-ho you’re left with a pink splodge.
I still remember the giant prawn cocktails served up some years ago at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn at Ladybower. They were famous for it. Later it was reborn as the hipsterish crayfish with avocado.
Restaurant kitchens are constantly reinventing. I’m all for that. It’s when a chef offers a ‘deconstructed dish’ of a classic that I reach for my coat. Some dishes you just don’t mess with and this is one.
Now a slight smirk might be starting to form on your face as you read this. After all, isn’t prawn cocktail supposed to be retro, a hark back to the Sixties and Fanny Cradock, Berni Inns, Abigail’s Party and cheese on a stick? And wasn’t there a cookery book called The Prawn Cocktail Years to celebrate it in an ironical way? There was, by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham.
It may be a girlie starter but I have quite a soft spot for the prawn cocktail and I’m in good company. So has Herman Blumenthal. But, for me, it’s going too far to add avocado, as he does, which should stick to being guacamole. For me it’s just prawns, crispy lettuce, Marie Rose sauce and a cherry tomato plus a good dusting of paprika.
So who is guilty of duffing up the prawn cocktail? Once a chef does something new, the rest follow like lemmings. Gary Rhodes? He was a great deconstructionist. But it could be someone even more famous. A chef I respect gave me a clue when I ordered prawn cocktail, got a splodge on a plate and sent a pained word back to the kitchen asking why they’d run out of glasses.
The waiter came back with the message: “Chef says if it’s good enough for Gordon Ramsay it’s good enough for him.” Well expletive deleted Mr Ramsay, you’re not the one eating my prawn cocktail.
There’s a bit of a mystery about where it originated. Probably America, where they call prawns shrimps, but I don’t buy the story that a Californian Gold Rush miner dunked his oysters in a drained whisky glass with Tabasco and ketchup and called it an oyster cocktail. From oysters to prawns (or shrimps) was but a short step. Too pat, too neat.
There may be something in the suggestion that restaurants during Prohibition years used up their redundant wine and cocktail glasses as dishes for prawn cocktail.
Over here, Berni Inns (the forerunners of Beefeater) did not invent the dish but certainly popularised it. Fanny Cradock was not the inventor, either, although she memorably described a poor one as a ‘sordid little offering . . . a tired prawn drooping disconsolately over the edge of the glass like a debutante at the end of her first ball.’


Not what I’d call a prawn cocktail

Americans had bathed their prawns in a mix of horseradish, tomato ketchup and chilli sauce. We were more restrained but the posh sounding Marie Rose sauce was nothing more that tomato sauce and mayonnaise, albeit with a squeeze of lemon (fellow blogger and Masterchef contender Craig Harris used lime when he ran and cheffed at The Peaks at Castleton} and a shake of Tabasco.
These days it is getting harder and harder to find a prawn cocktail in a wine glass. At the otherwise classy and fishy Wensleydale Heifer it arrived looking like it had been turfed out of its container by a lobster in a strop. It was no better at the fishily famous Magpie café in Whitby: a mess on a plate.
I once had one artistically laid out on a slate. It was like Eric Morecambe’s Grieg’s Piano Concerto: all the right ingredients but not in the right order. So these days I ask first: Is it in a glass? If not, I’ll pass.

Not just cheese in Wensleydale

Wensleydale Heifer's fish pie

Wensleydale Heifer’s fish pie

I’m feeling retro at the Wensleydale Heifer fish restaurant and grill so it’s ‘70s prawn cocktail,’ followed by fish pie and Baked Alaska. For a questing foodie, I know, this is a little shameful but I cannot ever recall eating the latter. So there’s a gap to fill.

You might ask why there’s a fish place in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales in a pub named after a cow but they just like their fish. Except they can’t do a prawn cocktail. Instead of the balloon glass (what else does ‘70s’ suggest?) it’s on a plate. Oh! I groan to the waitress. She says the chef couldn’t get it all into a glass but that’s nonsense.

I’m not saying it doesn’t taste fine with lots of prawns, a Marie Rose sauce spiked with Jack Daniels (although I needed the menu to tell me that) and paprika but this dish is really all about presentation and the fun of furtling at the bottom of the glass for the last prawn. So I thought I’d been had.

I know who to blame: Gordon Ramsay, who first ‘deconstructed’ this dish. At least, that was the defence of the last chef who served me something similar.

This blog is normally concerned with Sheffield, South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire while the Wensleydale Heifer, at West Witton, is in North Yorkshire. We are on holiday and this is our fourth visit down the years so we obviously like it.

I love the warren of little eating areas, old beams and quirky design although not the naff nursery-style pictures which have appeared in the main dining room. Nor the ‘optional 10 per cent service charge’ as we like to judge our own tips. It’s also a little pricy but standards are high and if you stay off the carte, lobster and steaks it’s not that painful.

Service is usually good so perhaps the waitress just forgot to carry our half-drunk proseccos into the dining room, unlike those of the previous two guests she took through?

We’re having lunch off the three course £21.75 prix-fixe menu. My wife has the scallop pakoras, lemon lentil daal and cucumber raita with coriander, cashew and coconut salad, which is £4 extra, so the kitchen should really have remembered to include the salad. Despite my wife being a lover of cashews, she doesn’t realise this component was missing until we reread the menu before dessert and consult our photos. Too late!

That said, the pakoras, fragments of very fresh scallop in a crunchy coating, were excellent but how much more would they have been with their cashews, coconut and coriander? So ask to keep the menu with you to check the kitchen hasn’t gone ditzy.

Wensleydale Heifer: cow's name, serves fish

Wensleydale Heifer: cow’s name, serves fish

The menu modestly declares the fish pie is famous so I have it and am not disappointed. It comes in a pan at the temperature of a nuclear reactor so the dish is still cooking at your table. Note that, I’ll be coming back to it.

The USP is the gorgeously crisp topping of toasted cheesy mash spiked with nutmeg. The creamy white sauce contains fennel, chopped boiled egg, capers and spinach so that takes up quite a bit of space before we get to the fish. Fish was there (smoked, white and prawns) but the kitchen needs to cut the pieces larger because the contents were dangerously approaching a modge. A tasty modge but still a modge. Turn the temperature down, lads.

My wife’s double crusted hake (a herb crust topped with crispy shallots) sat on a fine parmesan and herb risotto, well judged all round.

As a Baked Alaska virgin I was satisfied. The vanilla ice cream perched on a sponge disc, coated with meringue and garnished with shreds of candied lemon. The enjoyment is the contrast between cold ice cream and warm meringue but this is, in the end, a dish that’s all ‘fur coat and no knickers’ gastronomically. Much more rewarding was a rich, oozing chocolate fondant with Kirsch cherries.

Equally rewarding was the bill, which had missed out our pre-lunch proseccos and the two glasses of Pinot Grigio with the meal. As we had greatly enjoyed ourselves I pointed it out and the bill was upped from £50 something to £80.19, with service charge. I was thanked for my honesty but not offered a discount for it. No matter, I had already given myself one by neglecting to mention the £4 supplement on my wife’s starter with the missing cashew, coriander and coconut salad.

A lovely afternoon despite the niggles.

Not what I'd call a prawn cocktail

Not what I’d call a prawn cocktail

Baked Alaska with some fine sugarwork

Baked Alaska with some fine sugarwork

Probably the worst picture we've seen in a dining room

Probably the worst picture we’ve seen in a dining room