The Fisherman’s Workshop – Dorchester
The experience of eating fish can often be defined by where you are eating it at the time. It could be a meaty chunk of salmon you’ve picked up from the supermarket, freshly caught bass caught while rowing your little arms off out to sea, or colourful, extravagant fish hanging at the end of your chopstick at Nobu; fish can be enjoyed in a variety of surroundings. So, when walking down a muddled backstreet in Dorchester and coming across The Fisherman’s Workshop, it’s understandable that one might begin to question exactly what it is they are in for?
Down the pebble and sand side street in Dorset’s capital there is anarchy. Time-aged rope lay about, its heavy binds glued to the walls by years of weathering and broken tables and chairs are mounted on either side of the passage resembling, by accident, some Doris Salcedo installation. Broken lobster pots lay about, their snapped wicker bindings littered like a game of Poo sticks. I was told that this was how the owner operates, and so I open the door and enter in search of Billy the Fish. Inside I find a mishmash of furniture with un-coordinating tables and chairs, nets strewn over walls and plates donated from (or stolen from) the local Chinese restaurant. You can’t imagine a great deal of investment went into the equipping and decorating of the ‘dining hall’; it’s a floorshow you’d expect if Worzel Gummidge were to open a restaurant.
Billy the Fish (Bill Burgess) looks like a Northern wrestler. A big chap from Yorkshire with a mess of wild grey hair and wearing a stained gym jumper and baggy jeans. He welcomes me as I walk in with a bellowing, “Hello” and starts cracking jokes and rolling out witty remarks like Bernard Manning (he’s less vulgar but I’m sure could easily push up the heat).
“When I was looking at the atmosphere,” Bill remarks, “I was aiming to make it comfortable for everybody so you could dine in here whether you were wearing a suit and tie, or shorts and a t-shirt.”
In the corner of the room is a mini bar (if you can call it that), homemade and inadequate for any proper use, almost reminiscent of Derek Trotter’s illustrious council estate martini bar. Wine glasses are chubby, village hall style and the water tumblers an aqua blue from Ikea. The menu is written on a three-metre wide chalkboard and its contents all depend on what comes in from the morning catch, and you can’t get more unpredictable that that. This is not a caviar or snails à la Bourgogne kind of place, but the options are plentiful and being the rapacious individual I am, the mixed platter seemed like an apparent choice.
“Hey Billy! What’s in the mixed platter?” I asked.
“Whatdaya want?” he replied.
It’s just that kind of place. Billy steams up the adjoining kitchen as if he’s cooking food alone at home, muttering to himself and using his fingers to stir mussels in a big steel pot. He wipes butter and flour across his jumper, looking over and giving a reassuring nod and smile to our table. Bless him. He’ll prepare the fish to your liking: grilled, baked, fried or steamed. Back on the floor none of the tables and chairs match and there’s a debilitate 60’s style heater in one corner but thanks to a rushing heat from the kitchen, sits completely superfluous. Bill talks to the waitress about a roof repair and reminds her to speak to the council. If it rains I’ll get wet, I thought. But it was a mild February afternoon and luckily I wouldn’t find out.
The fish platter arrived (£15 per person): scallops, cod, gurnard, mussels, crab legs, sprats, and prawns. It was a King’s feast. A stockbroker’s lunch. All cooked fresh and to perfection. There was a side of crunchy toast to mop up afterwards and a bowl of sautéed potatoes, rather steeply priced at £3.50. The scallops were plump, the cod tasteful, the gurnard plentiful, the mussels juicy, soft and succulent (top molluscs!), the crab legs lanky and full, the sprats salty, and the prawns delicious in a butter and paprika sauce and garnish of lemon wedges. “I find that ginger, garlic, fennel and thyme are nice flavours to add to fish,” Billy remarked. The seasoned prawns were a triumph, so much so that there was a squabble over the remaining one and I had to move pretty sharpish to secure its meaty deliciousness. The platter was spectacular and well worth its price.
Bill buys the line-caught fish from local fisherman and the crabs are from Portland, a few times a week he’ll drive down to Brixham in Devon and bid for fish at the market. At £16 for sea bass and £30 for a lobster you’re looking at London prices and this isn’t J Sheekey’s or Corrigan’s place. Such lofty prices only buy you the main ingredients here with sides of veg or chips costing extra at around £3 upwards each. There are cheaper prices at the Royal Native Oyster Stores in Whitstable and they do it a little better. The fish is tasty and fresh but your final bill is going to be excessive. If you’re adding dessert and wine (the wine list needs to be much finer with far greater panache if going to be served alongside expensive fish) then it’s a bill punching above its weight and you’re facing Rick Stein expenditure minus the plush surroundings and celebrity reputation.
The table across the room (the only other occupied) ordered the bulky fish cakes and a homemade fish soup from a reasonably priced lunch menu with dishes ranging from £4 – £6. The table was quiet except for the odd mutter and obstreperous slurping of the soup.
“It’s a house specialty here,” Billy says, “because I have a great deal of crab carcasses and lobster carcasses left over at the fishmonger’s. I make a really mean stock.”
The lunching couple seemed to enjoy their food. Afterwards they indulged in more tomfoolery with Billy as he stood again stirring more mussels with his podgy finger. It turns out the husband is also from Yorkshire and holds some cognition of fish. Perhaps he’s Campbell the Cuttlefish from up er’ North? Billy is relaxed in his conversation (anymore relaxed and he’ll topple over) and the two discussed the early morning catch. I listened in. Billy looked over and gestured to me the size of the morning’s catch (bass). It’s my opinion that what will keep Billy smiling and the custom steady, is the quality and consistency of the morning’s catch.
Upon leaving – we had notched up a rather steep bill for lunch – Billy waved goodbye, his work – for our part – now complete. The slight amateurism he displays gives way to serious excitement for cooking and storytelling, and an overwhelming urge to communicate with the customer means that each and every one leaves with a meal to commemorate.
The Fisherman’s Workshop