The Noisy Lobster, Avon Beach, Christchurch

The Noisy Lobster must have a claim to be among the best situated beach restaurants on the south coast. Others aim for something more refined, some are more of a shack, with various degrees of intent, but the Noisy Lobster seems to have the best of both worlds: cooking with serious aspirations in laid-back surroundings. And there really is something special about its location, with uninterrupted views over Christchurch Bay towards the Isle of Wight and the Needles.

This was our third or fourth visit. It is becoming something of a habit when we are in Bournemouth – my home town – for a weekend. The cooking aims for the high end and there is no doubting the quality of the locally-sourced ingredients. It’s not without its faults, the primary one being that dishes want to do too much. Food like this in London would cost considerably more, and you would have more right to be irritated by the imperfections. But here, you just enjoy the food, admire the ambition and smile when there’s something not quite right: it’s that sort of place.

Unsurprisingly, the menu is dominated by fish – the restaurant is only a few skims of a stone from the entrance to Christchurch Harbour. The list of daily specials presumably reflects the day’s catch. We once read a Trip Advisor review expressing outrage that a place named after a lobster could run out of said lobster. That review convinced us to try it for the first time…

For the quality, the quantity and the location, the food is pretty well-priced (£6-10 for starters, £11-24 for mains). The wine list offers a decent selection (20 white, 12 red), thoughtfully put together with the food in mind; your money buys you more quality than elsewhere. A bottle of Ailala Treixadura (£30) was just the job, especially with our food. On a previous occasion, they had on the list Ken Forrester FMC Chenin with a few years age, which just cried out to be drunk. I can’t remember what it cost but I do remember thinking that we could easily have paid twice as much in London.

The food can be outstanding, with the proviso that it can also trip itself up. Lobster, Corn and Chilli Salad was a brilliant starter – lobster that was fresh and firm, with the corn and chilli giving a nod to the US. But there was also a second line on the menu. A sweetcorn fritter was a fine addition, and provided nice texture. Coconut bisque pulled it all together. Crisp samphire didn’t add much, although the vibrant green poking through the thin tempura looked good. But biscuit tuilles as well? Too much.

Our other starter of Parsley Ham Hash demonstrated amply that simple and sophisticated are not mutually exclusive. The hash was very, very good: excellent shredded ham with plenty of parsley threaded through and a crumbed duck egg on top, conjuring up memories of ham and egg pie. There was a carefully constructed (as in almost deconstructed) Waldorf Salad. And there were some blobs and streaks of beetroot puree, which, it turned out, was just what the plate needed. Perfect.

We returned to ‘more is not enough’ with the mains. The quality of the ingredients and the skill and creativity in the kitchen won the day, but they feel like they are being put at risk when it’s all a bit MasterCheffy. How about this for a description: Pan-Friend Monkfish Darne, Carrot Potato Rosti, Fennel Puree, Hispi Cabbage, Sugar Snaps, Mushrooms, Marie Rose Sauce. Can’t you hear India Fisher reading that list out as the camera hovers over the serving table? Most of the dish was terrific. The monkfish put to shame my hake a month or two earlier in one of Barcelona’s supposed top fish restaurants, and the rosti was an ideal partner. The fennel puree and cabbage were also integral to the dish. An argument could be made for the sugar snap-mushroom medley. But perhaps not for the rich and piquant marie-rose sauce. It tasted good and worked with the fish, but (in my view) only with the fish. I found it clashed with the fennel puree and the two soon merged into a streaky mess. It was a shame because the rest of the dish was so good and could have been really first rate .

Assiette of Seafood made good use of a diverse catch. Lemon sole, bream, skate and squid came with beetroot puree, a shockingly vibrant saffron mash, heritage carrots, broccoli and mussel sauce. I am never a fan of too many types of fish and seafood together, other than in a pie, but I didn’t choose the dish and Tuula much enjoyed it. The mash worked, as did the puree, and the colours together were striking. But it became less effective when the puree bled into the mussel sauce. It was the same pattern: a distraction from the accomplished cooking of the fish – in particular, it is difficult to imagine better-tasting skate.

Too many generously-portioned elements left us with little room for more, but the Noisy Lobster has a nice dessert idea. £7.30 brings you a coffee or tea and a trio of tasters of the day’s desserts. Sharing the petit four-sized desserts gave us the little sweet hit we needed after such big savoury flavours. Mint chocolate mousse was over-whipped and therefore grainy but the flavour was spot on, strawberry pannacotta was OK, and raspberry honeycomb cheesecake was the highlight.

We will keep going to The Noisy Lobster. Its glorious location, the decor and style and the happy, unpretentious service are just right for the beach. In fact, I have just realised there’s something Australian about it – that’s intended as a compliment! It delivers very good food, some of it outstanding, and in my view the only fault in the kitchen is in trying to be that bit too clever. You almost want to put on a New York accent to order: “Lobster salad, please, but hold the biscuit tuilles.”

The Noisy Lobster is open all day and brunch is a must – and, judging by the Sunday we were there, it’s quite the destination. There’s an extensive menu and it’s an impressive operation with highly effective service and a quality of food that would do credit to a restaurant serving a fraction of the numbers. Our eggs benedict were decent, the yolks just right and the accompanying bacon clearly from a trusted source. It’s great value and even if the queue looks long (there are no reservations for brunch) it’s worth persevering because you’ll soon be seated.

If you’re in or near Christchurch, the east part of Bournemouth or the southern New Forest, head to Avon Beach and try the Noisy Lobster. You won’t be disappointed. Full, yes; befuddled by why an ingredient is on the plate, maybe. But the quality of the ingredients and the cooking will definitely not disappoint.

 

Keith

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