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Harbouring a dream

Focusing on the best quality, local fish and shellfish fresh from the market every day ensures Simply Fish stands out from the crowd in Brixham, Devon

As locations go, Simply Fish pretty much has it all. Set on the corner of a busy road overlooking Brixham harbour, customers can watch the boats landing the following day’s fish just a stone’s throw away at Brixham Fish Market. It’s the second largest fish market in England with over 40 different species of fish going under the hammer each morning from red mullet, gurnard, sea bass and mackerel to turbot, dover sole, brill and plaice - and it’s where Simply Fish buys 90% of its fish from.

Add to this the fact that owner Robert Simonetti has been a fish merchant for 34 years and has a processing unit on the quayside, not only is Simply Fish guaranteed the first pick of the day’s catch but it’s filleted, cut and ready to hit the pan all in the same day. 

With over 10 fish and chip shops all competing in this small town, Simply Fish has carved out its own niche by promoting the vast array of fresh fish on its doorstep. It’s a passion born out of Robert’s upbringing - his father being French and his mother living in French Morocco, tea time in the Simonetti house was a totally different experience to that of his friends with the likes of gurnard, squid and cuttlefish regularly dished up.

“I always had a hankering for a posh fish and chip shop but what I wanted to do, more than anything, was push the fish that nobody else really sold,” says Robert, who opened Simply Fish seven years ago. Yes, it serves cod, but you’ll also find species such as pout, hake and gurnard as well as king prawns, scallops, squid and mussels all selling well too.

“Cod is still the biggest seller and that’s just how it is, no matter what you do people will still want cod,” explains Robert. “But aside from that pout is the biggest one we get asked for all the time, and hake is a massive seller for us too. It’s readily available, we buy it at 5.30 in the morning and then four hours later it’s ready to go in the fryer."

If a customer comes in and asks for cod Robert will always question it and ask if they would prefer some lovely hake that is fresh in that morning. He adds: “I would much rather sell local fish like haddock or hake every day of the week because we buy it fresh from Brixham market. At the moment, I’m telling the staff to push plaice. It’s so fat and readily available and beautiful and it won’t be long before it’s thin and then we’ll take it off the menu as it will be no good. We want to sell what’s in season and what’s good that morning.”

Just two doors up from the takeaway is Simply Fish Grill, which Robert opened three and a half years ago so he could push the boat out further with the type of cooking he could do. As well as frying fish, he’s introduced a grill to the frying range and, 18 months ago, bought the toy of all toys, a Bertha charcoal oven. “It’s fantastic,” says Robert. “We can do whole fish such as mackerel, red mullet and John dory, which we just lightly season, and they come out beautifully. We also do roasted vegetables in there, which helps sell the fancier fish.”

Also on the menu are oysters. Through the summer the shop can sell between 200-300 oysters a week, although its best ever week recorded 600!

“I would say 90% of the oysters we buy are Porthilly oysters from Cornwall but we do have Jersey oysters on the menu at the moment too. They are such a massive seller, I think an oyster is the best start to any meal. I’ll always have three or four oysters, a starter and a main.”

With half a dozen oysters costing £9.50, it’s a clever way of adding in an extra course and driving up average spend. “A couple of appetisers on the menu is always a good idea,” Robert adds.

Despite a more upmarket vibe in the restaurant, Robert insists it’s still a very casual feel, adding: “I think what we do is give the best product, simply done and that’s all we need to do. Fish doesn’t need messing around with. Occasionally we might put a brandy and cream sauce with some mushrooms to go with the turbot, but that’s about as fancy as we like to go. The product is so good, simple is best.”

With so many varieties of fish and a menu that’s dictated by what’s in season and what’s caught that day, educating the staff and getting their buy-in has been crucial. 

“One of the reasons we are so successful is because we are so different, and we have to get the staff on board with that too,” says Robert. “We get all the staff to try everything on the menu because a lot of young people don’t eat fish. Once they’ve tried it and they like it, then it’s easy for them to sell it.”

Part of this education process included a recent tour of Brixham Fish Market. “Everyone came, the chefs, the front-of-house staff and even a couple of kitchen porters as they are all part of our team. I showed them around,  we  picked out some brill and took it back to the shop where we pan fried it with some john dory on the side, had some toast and a cup of tea and they all thought it was fantastic.”

Despite more eateries coming into the market over the years - the most significant being Mitch Tonks’ Rock Fish opening right on the harbourside - Simply Fish has retained its competitive edge by doing simple food at its best.

As a result, it’s witnessed the eating out scene change considerably, Whereas it was traditionally an older crowd, now there’s a lot more younger people eating out.

“I do think we cater for everyone from six years old to 90,” says Robert. “We do smaller portions for OAPs and we do a range of kids meals, but you’ll find kids come into us and tuck into a bowl of mussels!”

While Robert makes it all sound quite effortless, he readily admits opening Simply Fish was a massive learning curve, adding: “We opened expecting to take a couple of quid and we had a queue straight away. Before we knew it we were running out fish and then chips. One Friday night, it was only half past six, and we had totally run out. I was on the phone to friends of mine with boats, asking if they wouldn’t mind me coming and taking what fish they had. I was grabbing boxes of fish, dragging them to the restaurant and filleting the fish in front of the customers, battering it and frying it. They were amazed - I was too that I actually did that - but it just worked. You couldn’t serve that many people like that every day though. Luckily now we’re a little bit more organised!”

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