Despite its reincarnation, Bonnie Gull still feels very much like a seafood shack: with driftwood panelling, blue and white-striped awning, and a muted colour-scheme, it has a distinctly coastal feel (even the barman was dressed in maritime stripes) - a little piece of the British seaside transported to the middle of the city.
It was fitting then, that the night of our visit was a wet one: blustery and cold, with rain beating down as we rushed from bus to restaurant, it was definitely reminiscent of childhood holidays by the sea. The restaurant is small - it only seats 26, and even that is a bit of a squeeze - but it felt companionable rather than cramped; the gentle buzz of chatter serving as a pleasant backdrop to our meal. An impressive focus on quality ingredients is very much in evidence: the menu changes daily according to the catch, and the restaurant is closed on Mondays because (as the manager informs me) "Monday is not a good day for sourcing seafood":
On the day of our meal, starters range from deep fried Mersea sardines to Isle of Man scallops (with chorizo, lemon puree and spinach), while the main course menu features grey and red mullet, wild sea trout, battered haddock, and plaice. There are even some non-seafood options (the sample menu on the website includes woodland pigeon ballotine and venison steak) - although (vegetarians aside) it would seem a travesty to order anything other than seafood in such a place.
In addition to the main menu, Bonnie Gull has an extenstive raw bar selection, serving clams, winkles, whelks, cockles, razor clams and languistines, as well as three types of oysters. My boyfriend overrode my initial squeamishness and ordered us a couple of razor clams. Arriving in their shells, balanced upon a dish of ice, these were excellent - meltingly tender, with a clean 'sea' flavour, they went perfectly with the accompanying 'shack' cocktail sauce.
The crab was large and satisyingly meaty, with plenty of sweet crab flesh waiting to be extracted from the legs and claws piled up in the centre of the wooden serving board. The main shell had been hollowed out and filled with a deliciously rich crab mayonnaise, which we smeared onto the accompanying slice of toasted sourdough and drizzled over our salad. However, a word of warning: while we enjoyed this dish, I would probably not recommend it for people on a first date, as a few 'crab juice in face' incidents did arise from our enthusiastic claw-cracking. Very romantic!
For my main course I went for the plaice in caper beurre noisette. This was absolutely exquisite - the incredibly succulent, crispy-skinned plaice fillet lay in a pool of nutty brown butter, scattered with capers and dainty girolle mushrooms... I could easily have eaten it three times over, and have been craving it ever since!
However I do think that - given the excellent quality of the seafood here - it may be best to go for the plainer options on the menu: when it's this good, you simply can't beat unadulturated fish. Our neighbours went for the grey and red mullet - the former served alongside Anya potatoes and black olive sauce and the latter with fennel, pickled grapes and Pernod - and both looked stunningly good. (On the other hand, the seaside decor does make the battered haddock and chips a tempting choice!)
*Worringly, it took me more than a few seconds to work out which I was...