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Brighton's prize catch: The Little Fish Market

Brighton's prize catch: The Little Fish Market

by Tom Flint 01 August 2017

Brighton’s restaurant scene is booming, with foodies heading to the south coast in droves for fantastic food and drink. Tom Flint pays a visit to The Little Fish Market, one of the city’s shining stars, to find out more about the two-man operation.

Brighton can be a loud and colourful place, where people compete for attention and like to push boundaries. In such a noisy city, it is often the quieter and more reserved places where you’ll discover something truly exceptional, something that’s clearly true of The Little Fish Market. This fabulous restaurant, run by chef-owner Duncan Ray, is situated down an unassuming side street on the Brighton and Hove border, and you could be forgiven for passing it by.

The name is taken from its previous life as a fishmonger and, as the name suggests, the food is primarily fish-based. There is perfectly good reason for this – Duncan is the sole chef in this twenty-cover restaurant, and to work alone he had to focus on something that would cook quickly. This was not just a case of convenience, however; Duncan prepares fish dishes with all the skill and elegance of a chef who has Michelin star experience.

‘Fish is so delicate – everything on the plate should be there to give it that gentle push towards being perfect and not overpowering it,’ he explains. ‘Marco Pierre White used to say that fifteen seconds is a lifetime and it really is. Fifteen seconds can be the difference from your fish being perfect to completely destroyed. You don’t get that with a joint of beef in the oven. Cooking fish constantly is not easy work.’

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Duncan started his career working in local hotels before his first big break training under the guidance of Marco Pierre White, a chef Duncan regards as one of the greatest. This was followed by a stint at The Fat Duck under Heston Blumenthal. ‘I learnt a lot of out of the box thinking, and I learnt from his motto of ‘question everything’. There isn’t just one answer, there are always more, and that appealed to me because I had always been that kind of character.’ He left the Fat Duck, and after winning 3 AA rosettes as head chef at the Pennyhill Park hotel, Duncan decided it was time to try something new. ‘Ultimately, some chefs want to work for somebody and others want something of their own; and I wanted something of my own.’

The Little Fish Market opened in 2013 at a time when the Brighton restaurant scene was just beginning to emerge. The restaurant quickly established itself as one the city’s top destinations. It has been consistently highly rated in The Good Food Guide and Hardens and is the only restaurant in the city to hold three AA rosettes. Within the Brighton scene it is often frequented by the city’s off-duty chefs, food writers and bloggers, and it placed third in the 2017 Brighton’s Best Restaurants awards behind Michael Bremner’s 64 Degrees and local favourite Bincho Yakitori. The secret to this success is refreshingly simple: The Little Fish Market offers diners a simple yet elegant experience, with food that is of the highest standard in surroundings that feel as relaxed and comfortable as your own living room.

‘I am all about taste,’ says Duncan. ‘I don’t do anything for looks, I don’t do anything for wow factor. I really believe that the wow is in the food itself. I am tired of trying to impress, there is no point to it. A carrot, for example, is at its peak when pulled out of the ground and tastes like carrot. So why the hell would I want to turn it into some dehydrated dust that doesn’t taste of anything. I think only time gives you that understanding. That is what this place has taught me.’

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Where Duncan takes charge of things in the kitchen, the dining room is managed by the effortlessly charming and welcoming Rob Smith. Rob is the second piece in the puzzle, handling all things front of house singlehandedly. He was recommended by a former manager of his and they have built up the restaurant together; but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. ‘Duncan offered me the job and he has been very tolerant since then. Tolerant, understanding and charitable,’ Rob says. ‘It was well above what I was doing at the time and there was a real learning curve. Not just to be working one-on-one with someone but also to have twenty covers to look after myself. It took two years of learning, but fortunately Duncan saw some potential there and stuck with me.’

For Duncan, it is this relaxed and comfortable atmosphere that makes The Little Fish Market what it is. ‘I’ve eaten in lots of the best restaurants in the world but at the end of the day I’m a normal guy with normal money. All the things that would aggravate me, I’m sure would aggravate everybody. What I love about it here is that I come up at the end of the night and people are laughing and getting involved. Rob has the ability to approach each customer individually and understand their way of being. That is so important to me and there is no pomp about him. That was exactly what I wanted, for someone to be comfortable in their own clothes, just free and relaxed.’

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A visit to The Little Fish Market is always a memorable experience. The single set menu changes daily, based on what the local day fishing boats bring in, and always delivers dishes of superb quality. Nico Ladenis is another idol of Duncan’s, and he lives by his words of precision, restraint and simplicity. This is reflected in the elegance of dishes such as slip sole in seaweed butter and Carlingford oyster with Jersey cream and elderflower granita. Other standout dishes include crab ravioli with monk’s beard and bouillabaisse sauce. Meat appears in plates such as turbot with chicken, mushroom and sherry or monkfish with pork belly and a carrot and star anise purée.

In a world of technology and processes, The Little Fish Market is a restaurant that celebrates food in its pure form. Eating Duncan’s food reminds us of what fine dining should be about. High quality ingredients in their natural state, free of overcomplicated and unnecessary intervention. Duncan sums it up perfectly: ‘I don’t use a water bath, I don’t use Pacojets, I don’t have a Thermomix. I have a Kenwood Chef and a domestic stove. It is a lot easier the other way, but I love to cook using classic techniques, and I think that’s the future for The Little Fish Market. I just want to create the best restaurant I can and the nicest environment for people to visit.’

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