On one of the only sweltering days of this dismal summer, thoughts turn to chilled rosé and sweet, sweet seafood. Sadly, we’re not on the ozone-licked beaches of Whitstable or Whitby, but in the sweating heart of the city. And it’s fair to say that gritty old St Paul’s Road in Highbury, north London, isn’t offering the sunsets-kissing-the-waves environment I’m hankering after.
But this is where we find Prawn On The Lawn, and inside this cool, tiled and blackboarded little temple to the piscine, you could close your eyes and swear it’s the ocean you’re hearing, rather than the rumble of traffic trundling past the Sainsbury’s opposite. This is all about the joys of letting good ingredients speak for themselves: the small open kitchen does very little to the sea creatures piled on the ice-lined counter – in addition to being a restaurant, it’s a fully-functioning fishmonger – other than applying heat and the odd, frequently Asian-style aromatic. And sometimes it just does nothing at all: why faff with oysters this briny and pristine? Nothing much is allowed to distract from the sinking of teeth into the freshest possible fish: simple, almost primeval pleasure.
So, ruby-red tuna, living up to its reputation as the steak of the sea, is just-seared like tataki, scattered with fresh red chilli and spring onion, and plated with a soy-mirin dip on the side, so you can decide how much or little of the fish you want to shine through. Large whole prawns are given a thorough rattling around in a hot pan with the lip-numbing tingle of Szechuan spicing and served with nothing more than a wedge of lime. Masses of white crabmeat are stirred through crunchy spiralised noodles of mooli, flecked with seaweed and lubricated with sesame oil. This is such a genius little dish, so much more than a salad: bracing and luxurious all at the same time.
If all this relies on the quality of the produce, the owners haven’t overlooked small details that send you back out into the street wreathed in smiles: beautiful glasses for the likes of kir royale; a smart, shortish winelist featuring all the picpouls and manzanillas and verdejos you could wish for with fish; treacly, cakey homemade soda bread; elegant matt-black crockery, a perfect backdrop to the perky pinkness of prawns.
As well as the blackboard of small dishes, you can make a selection from the fishmonger’s counter, depending on what’s been delivered on the day – monkfish or mackerel or lemon sole, maybe, silvery and clear of eye – then choose how you’d like it cooked. Our choice: a wonderfully meaty slab of hake, filleted and bathed in a coconutty Thai marinade, fragrant with lime leaves and coriander. I’d go back for the crushed potatoes alone, boiled and then fried into fluffy-crispness, gorgeously salty and dusted with a secret house spice mix. Even pedestrian old taramasalata is a sensual treat: pungent, pleasingly oily and smoky, served with wands of seaweed powder-dusted flatbread for scooping. There’s only one disappointment: plaice draped in truffle and lardo (both undetectable) with a toasted half-onion speared with rosemary. It’s not a bad dish, just a little dull. Otherwise, delight after delight. You could, if you fancied, sit for hours just slurping oysters, dismembering whole Devon crabs and swigging magnums of Provençal rosé, which is exactly what I plan to do next time.
Prawn On The Lawn has been around for a while, initially at an even tinier spot round the corner, from where it moved this April. I’d never been, never even considered it, because – and please feel free to hit me with all the derision my craven shallowness deserves – I disliked the name; still do, in all honesty, to the extent that I can’t even make myself order the eponymous signature dish. It’s owned by someone called Rick Toogood with his wife Katie, so maybe cutesy names run in the family. (As an aside, I love that they’ve had the temerity to open a second restaurant in Padstow, taking on the monopoly might of Rick Stein and using only local suppliers. Most of this restaurant’s shellfish comes from Padstow, too, with £1 added to every bill to support the National Lobster Hatchery there.) Until now, this has been comprehensively my loss: this is a lovely little oasis, a small slice of the seaside in the city.
•Prawn On The Lawn 292-294 St Paul’s Road, London N1, 020-3302 8668. Open Tues-Sat, noon-midnight. About £30 a head, plus drinks and service.