Bistro Ocean 48: Ahoj captain!
There’s a scene in The Deer Hunter where an American GI called Nick, portrayed by Christopher Walken, is forced at gunpoint to play Russian roulette against his friends and comrades. Click. He lives through it. But we find Nick at the end of the film once again playing Russian roulette… this time by choice. Click. Desensitized by what he’s had to do to survive and the drugs he uses to escape the trauma, he’s made this deadly game a career choice. Click.
We realise there is almost nothing left of the man that was there, that he cannot stop, will not stop. And then BANG. His head plummets, void eyes roll back, blood and brain viscera mingle with the thin mud of ash and cheap liquor pooled on the floor.
Eating seafood in a landlocked country is a game for the brave or the foolish, and I like to think if he’d not blown his head off in a Saigon gambling den, we might well have found Nick sitting down to Frutti Di Mare in a random Brno pizzeria, though perhaps even he would prod some of the less identifiable bits nervously to the edge of the plate with his fork.
Brňáci of course know all about this, so if they did consider ordering from the “foreign holiday” section of the menu, they could quite reasonably picture a startled cook rummaging through the restaurant freezer, chipping mixed seafood from core samples of permafrost so deep if he searched hard enough he might find an ammonite.
That was largely the way of things until Ocean 48 came along and broke the vicious circle by making fresh seafood available direct to the Moravian masses. If that sounds like a strange movie plot don’t worry, it’s not part of the similarly named film franchise. You haven’t missed Oceans 14 to 47.
They now have five fishmongers in Brno, one in Olomouc, and a thriving wholesale business, plus the place I’m reviewing now – a bistro. And it’s very much a bistro.
Tall stools and tall tables, the menu is written up on boards, food is ordered at the front, service is brisk, portions are… big enough (but growing boys should have a starter), and they close at 8 pm. They’re definitely not expecting diners to settle in for long leisurely meals. So how good can the food be?
I started with Tuna Tartar. Diced tuna with cucumber and parsley mixed in, thin slices of toasted ciabatta to eat it on, and a piece of lime to squeeze over it. I will now attempt to describe the dish without sounding too much like an advert for posh cat food.
Bold meaty flavour from the tuna, plush pink cubes that tumble across your tongue with a lovely sticky texture, and a mellow toffee-soy sweetness that rises to envelope that first electric burst of lime. It was spot on.
I take my scallops the same way Sir Mixalot takes “back”, and although pricey for an average workaday lunch (220 CZK) I can’t deny theirs were generously sized and juicy. Top and bottom seared to a dark brown colour with a dark brown flavour.
The tarragon ratatouille that accompanied them was so surprisingly tart and sweet I wondered if there was rhubarb in it. Nice once I got used to it, but too strong to pair with scallops. It did not fulfil function but it did fill full belly.
Everything so far had been pretty positive. That’s why I approached the finale with deep anxiety. Fish & chips… my national dish. In a landlocked country.
I once asked a friend of mine, whose dad had a “chippie” (fish & chip shop) in a popular seaside town, if he knew the secret. “It’s just flour, salt and water”. But he omitted the true secret.
I should explain. I have a terrible confession. I don’t actually like fish & chips. That is to say, I don’t like almost all fish & chips that aren’t from one particular chippie, my childhood chippie in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Just the brief journey from purchase to consumption was an experience in itself – a memory so powerfully nostalgic it invokes synaesthesia: the greasy potential of that warm crumply paper parcel. The wind that knocks you back as you emerge on the sea-front. Flinging a fat chip for the bickering gulls to swoop at. The scent of brine scoured seaweed-wound wood. Watching the waves pound on the pebbles in rhythm that resonates through the sea wall. That’s all before you start eating. How could anywhere else compete?
Mushy peas – check. Malt vinegar – check. OK, a good start.
The first move is of course to start drowning it in vinegar, then add a liberal blizzard of salt. This is the only correct way to season fish & chips; I notice a bottle of mayonnaise and scoff at it.
The chips are not chippie chips, but only chippie chips ever were. The mushy peas are tasty… though cold.
But the fish: I take a bite – crunch. A puff of steam. It’s fresh out the fryer and almost too hot. I’d forgotten… it was always hot like that in Aldeburgh.
The cod itself is fluffy, with firm flakes that break off in chunks.
The batter is light, holds its crispness throughout my meal despite the sea of vinegar, and tastes…great!
I may risk having my license to “Keep calm and carry on” revoked, but I’ll take Bistro Ocean 48 over most English chip shops. Of course it’s not as good as the Aldeburgh fish & chips I remember, but where is? Maybe not even Aldeburgh.