The only public transport to our destination is a double-decker bus that, right after our stop, will drive straight on a ferry and head across Poole Harbour to Sandbanks. As the curving road straightens out a little, closing in on the promontory, we catch a glimpse of the sunset on our left, the golden sphere settling in over the ridges and glimmering sea. We gawp, but the driver merely tells us of greater beauties. At sunrise, he says, and if the clouds cooperate, the whole sky turns red and gold with scattered light.
I say to give a sense of how beautiful Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant’s location is. It reminds me a little of a bar on top of a certain building in Singapore whose cocktails are all based around ice water, but which still reels in the Yusofs with gleeful abandon. And the view there has nothing on this, with the sea seemingly just underfoot. My point is, with its location, Shell Bay really doesn’t need to try. And yet they do put in effort – and for the most part it turns out well.
The inside space is spacious, almost a bit too spacious, because it’s not quite the season to visit. Come summer, we are told, tables will be set out on the glass paneled conservatories, but right now they stand unoccupied. But in winter it is a stark and pretty place, tiles below and wood above, with an actual wood burning stove in a corner. I recognise where the globe lampshades are from, but they are artfully arranged here; lighting is also diffuse and restrained. Decor can set expectations, and the vibes here are about simplicity and leaning on the produce itself.
Naturally, nothing relies on sheer freshness like oysters; besides, Dorset is one of the centres of oyster production in the UK. These turn out to be the perfect starter, just bold enough to get us ready for more food. The liquor is less briny than it is savoury, the oysters themselves not too fishy. A little mignonette is all it takes to lure out their sweetness.
Similarly, fresh tagliatelle comes thinly coated with a sauce, half the umami of crab and half the deepened citrus fragrance from preserved lemons. You have to do a little digging to find the morsels of crab – my phone was still dead when the pal started digging – but their nutty, lemon-tinged flavour makes it worth the effort.
Slightly more incongruous as a starter here is the beef carpaccio; besides not coming from the sea, it actually comes cooked, the pink centre shading into grey-brown edges. More accurate to call it a roast beef, in which case it is a good dish of roast beef – served chilled but not too cold, supple in texture, with a creamy, enthusiastic horseradish sauce.
At dinner almost everyone gets the lobster, and it does deliver on its promise mostly; they’ve grilled it, and the bits I try really don’t have much seasoning besides butter. There’s no need to add much to the flavour of concentrated seawater and lobster shell. They hold back to allow each bit of the crustacean to speak for itself, and – from the long, soft fibres in the claw to the swath of crunchy tail muscle that still clings to its shell – it speaks for itself very eloquently.
Me, though, I order the plaice. Stung by a recent disaster cooking with it, I wanted to see how it is done properly. Again, their way is simplicity – a glaze of beurre noisette with bits of savoury, pliant brown shrimp is all that accompanies the fish. That is enough for the top side, where the grey skin is papery and crisp and the fish is firm, wanting just a hue of nutty aroma. But on the bottom, the skin pale and clingy, I’m left wanting just some more of that butter.
The general subtlety of the whole meal is only abandoned near the end when, again, we all end up choosing the same dessert. The white chocolate tarte, having shed its crust, curls up naked on one side of the plate; the crumbs, oats and honeycomb lie around a scoop of salted caramel ice cream with tooth-sticking bits. It is difficult to say whether the ice cream or the gooey, hefty tarte filling is more splendid or richer. A half-moon of honeycomb is another surprise, with a woody, dark flavour as if it has been smoked.
The restaurant, despite being some way from everything, remains full throughout the dinner. Service, in the form of a very pretty waitress, is brisk and smiley, and we remain at our seats until the last possible moment when the cab is already waiting to take us back to the train, and thence London. And when we finally leave, we are grinning and happy despite the stinging cold. That says more about the place, I think, than any description can.
Shell Bay Seafood Restaurant
Ferry Road, Studland BH19 3BA
Hours: Daily, noon – 3pm, 6pm – 9pm