Leigh-on-Sea, part fishing village, nestles on the Thames Estuary. Romanticised by sententious chefs, such as Rick Stein - and pinned on the culinary food map thanks to its famous cockle sheds - it remains a popular place to eat in Essex. Most recently, Jamie Oliver’s been seen waxing lyrical about Leigh food in his television series, Jamie’s Britain. You may recall him repeatedly telling us how he was conceived on neighbouring Southend pier. All in front of his grinning parents. Worked up an appetite yet? I thought not.
Situated in Old Leigh, The Boatyard seeks to capitalise on the quaint, cobblestoned setting with a cavernous restaurant that juts out into the Thames. The space, as the name suggests, inhabits an old Boatyard and the views allow you to see across to Kent, or, on a clear day, see Jamie Oliver’s parents fornicating on the beach. At first glance, the space and light of the upstairs and downstairs areas lend themself to warm, spring afternoons and the outside begs for summer and cold Chablis. However the miseries of dim English winters need all the help they can get. I don’t wish to be stifled and snuggled in a dimly lit nook - at least not for a lunch meal - that’s a job for the village gastro-pub.
In any case, it’s fortunate my translucent epidermis was intermittently illuminated by sunlight, because the likelihood of absorbing any nutrients from the first course was slimmer than an Essex girl’s thong. Chicken salads should not ordinarily invoke images of mortuary slabs, but on the arrival of mine, all kinds of pathology themed rhetoric fell into my head. The victim: fridge cold, tasteless, chicken which looked like it had been picked up from a supermarket’s ‘basic’ range. The killer took devious pleasure in strangling the meat of any flavour before dumping the remains on a ball of undressed rocket leaves. I wasn’t sure whether to eat it or perform an autopsy. In the end, I did neither and decided to sup my wine instead.
My mother fared better with a seafood tart. Homemade pastry encased fresh seafood with cream and a hint of dill. There is something enormously satisfying about eating a seafood dish whilst watching the fisherman unload their catch on the marina. The waiter must have sensed my salad-induced disappointment, though, and bought more wine, which was very good, incidentally.
The traumatic events of the first course convinced me to eschew, perhaps disingenuously, the fish on the menu, in favour for the safe but reliable Spaghetti Bolognese. Surely nobody can screw up a Spag Bol. Wrong. There’s a killer on the loose, stupid! My dish arrived with the bare minimum: a plate of steaming pasta without the slightest coating of meat Ragu. I immediately sent the dish back but what returned was largely underwhelming. Rather than familiar and assured, it was prosaic and insipid. Did I mention the wine was good?
Another main, locally-caught sea bass fillets, were decidedly better than my pasta. However, my caution was partly justified, as the fish was still over-cooked and under-seasoned. Sides were surprisingly good with a selection of al dente vegetables and home-made, thinly cut, chips. Although, you know it must be bad when the sides over-shadow the main event; especially when it’s fresh bass caught from the seas below: the intended star of the show, usurped by the understudy.
Dessert was a much better affair. Crème Caramel was creamy and sooth and the burnt crust suitably cracked as my spoon broke through. An apple tart was average but let down further by an irritatingly, pretentious accompaniment of crème anglais served in a thimble. Now, even if you are more of a ‘jus’ rather than a gravy person, the whole idea of serving a post-war ration of custard with an apple tart is a culinary and cultural faux-pas: this is Essex. Below is the freezing Estuary swirling out to the North Sea in the middle of winter. Nobody wants a poncy smear of pretend custard with their very English comfort-pudding.
As we get up to leave, I tip the waiter as, despite everything, the service was good. I head for the door in mild confusion: a combination of lunch-time drinking and the shock of how appalling the food was. The lunch menu at the Boatyard is inexpensive and the location will always attract customers into the fold. However, it utterly fails to showcase the ingredients swimming around its own backyard and it fails to make even the simplest of dishes palatable. So, next time you find yourself strolling around Old Leigh, do yourself a favour: go to the one of the lovely pubs along the marina and drink a pint of ale. Pick up some fresh fish straight off the boat then cook it according to a Jamie Oliver recipe. Pukka! Jodie Nesling