This review of a Newlyn/Penzance restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage.
For an island nation, the UK is collectively quite neurotic about what it does and doesn’t eat. Despite the prominence of fisheries in the UK’s increasingly bitter relations with its continental neighbours, we’re a surprisingly seafood-averse bunch. In 2017, according to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the average British person consumed approximately 15kg of fish and seafood. This compares to 35kg for the average French or Chinese person, 45kg for the average Japanese and around 60kg for the average South Korean or Portuguese.
There are endless speculative theories about why the UK is full of seafood-dodgers, but the impact of this relatively aquaphobic eating culture is clear. From the sterile monoculture on display at supermarket fish counters to the obligatory consolation steak or chicken dish on the menus of most seafood restaurants, our seafood-eating culture – as a whole – isn’t anywhere as rich as it should be.
The charmingly named Mackerel Sky makes no attempt to pacify seafood naysayers. Perhaps because the kitchen is small, naturally limiting what it can and can’t cook up. And perhaps because there are simply fewer thalassoceptics milling around in this part of the world, given that Mackerel Sky is located in Newlyn, one of the country’s busiest fishing ports.
Whatever the reason, it pays to start off with the plump and precisely cooked prawns. The chilled, beady-eyed crustaceans were neither too firm nor too soft. Their lightly sweet and salty flavour was arguably obscured by the hollandaise-ish dipping sauce though.
Even so, the prawns were far more preferable as a starter than the crab salad. The undistinguished melange of leg and head meat heaped on top of some leaves was a tame affair.
Fleshy l’il anchovies were reasonably salty, but their moreishness wasn’t as bold and lip smacking as some of the very best anchovies I’ve had.
Those same anchovies topped a special of sardines bathed in a thick tomato and oregano sauce. The anchovies unsurprisingly added little, but the sardines were meaty with none of the stodginess that often afflicts their tinned compatriots. The green-and-red sauce was a surprisingly modest affair though, with a muted umami that was just potent enough to overwhelm the anchovies but not so strident enough to provide a real counterpart to the sardines. An uneven special.
While the coating of the lemon sole tonkatsu wasn’t as feathery soft as Tokyo’s finest, it was still a pleasing example of the deep-fried arts. Fine-grained, tightly-crumbed, oil-free and remarkably crisp with delicately thin and moist fish underneath it all. It was the perfect conveyor for the chip shop-style curry sauce on the side, which had a lilt of fruity sweetness that was entirely fitting.
Plump scallops not only had a salty tang evocative of the sea, but all had their moreish sunset-hued roe attached too. All of this was overwhelmed by the cubed chorizo and its paprika-derived smokiness and mild heat though, so the porcine intruder was best taken afterwards.
Although the grilled mackerel looked and felt the part with blistered skin and suitably meaty flesh, it was somewhat lacking in that distinctive mackerel taste. This seeming omission made sense when the fish was taken with the punchy tartare sauce and sweet pickles, its meatiness acting as a medium for the balanced flavours of that duo.
While the mussels here didn’t have the same firm, fleshy bite as those available from the Searoom in St Ives, they were still satisfactory enough – especially with the benefit of the creamy, tangy sauce and focaccia-like bread to soak up the excess.
Desserts were all of the soft and scoopable set pudding variety, possibly prepared off-site and then brought in. Lemon posset was lusciously thick, but only mildly tart – I’d have preferred a more lip-puckering sensation. The crunchy, malty biscuit on the side was fine, but I’d trade it in for an extra helping of extra tart posset in a heartbeat.
Chocolate mousse was an inoffensive crowd pleaser that didn’t taste of much, but it was at least light and fluffy.
Mackerel Sky is clearly capable of rustling up some fine dishes based around high quality seafood, which makes the unevenness of its output all the more frustrating. There’s clearly potential here, but it feels constrained and unfulfilled for reasons that I can only speculate about.
Ironically though, the blunted, muted nature of some of its dishes may make it more amenable to winning over seafood-dodgers and fish-haters – especially those averse to strong flavours, an affliction more common on this island than you may think.
Mackerel Sky is hardly the final word in seafood, but it does have more than a few laudable things to say for itself. If nothing else, being served by Mackerel Sky’s warmly welcoming staff while the sun sets and the neighbouring little brook babbles away is an eminently civilised way to while away an hour or two.
Name: Mackerel Sky
Address: The Bridge, New Road, Newlyn TR18 5PZ
Phone: 01736 366 626 (for takeaway enquiries only)
Opening Hours: seven days a week 11.30-21.00.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks but excluding tip: £35-40 approx.