[Disclosure: I’ve always paid in full at The Pickled Crab apart from when I tried a few complimentary dishes from the tasting menu when I was entertaining a journalist visiting Warwick]
If you’re looking for great fish and seafood, Warwick might not be the first place on your list. After all, it’s pretty much slap bang in the middle of the country, so not exactly close to the coast.
But lucky for you, Warwick is home to The Pickled Crab, whose owner Nigel basically brings the coast to you. While you may think a jaunt to the seaside is in order if you want fresh fish to cook at home, fish-themed street food, or experimental dishes involving great seafood, you actually only need to get yourself to Smith Street in Warwick, where Nigel is quietly doing all of that and more.
Like plenty of other businesses in food and drink, The Pickled Crab hasn’t had it easy. Even pre-Covid, Nigel was forced to move his business model away from a fine dining style restaurant that my pal Lou raved about and would regularly make the journey to Warwick for. He focused on The Pickled Crab as a fishmonger and launched Krak-Hen Street Food – using that great fish to create dishes in a model that would maybe work better in terms of volume and consistent trade.
It was, perhaps, a good move given what was about to happen, and I was overjoyed to see both businesses survive the rough seas that Covid would bring. I discovered both during that period, relying on Nigel for his knowledge and excellent produce to supply my newfound love of cooking, as well as picking up a Krak-Hen takeaway for one of those outdoor meetings with a friend (not the cheese and wine kind…!).
You might be tempted to dismiss Krak-Hen as just another swanky fish and chip takeaway, but you kind of have to try it to see the difference. Or maybe look at the menu. After all, it’s not everywhere you get garlic shrimp, Thai-style monkfish cheeks or steamed mussels and fries.
If that still hasn’t convinced you, just watch Nigel preparing it. Look at the way he watches his fish frying like a hawk, the care that goes into placing those monkfish cheeks on top of their bed of (also carefully-fried) chips, and the meticulous way he garnishes them with chilli, spring onion, homemade chilli sauce and sesame. He’s a proud man – and one I’m not scared to admit being a bit nervous around – and will not accept less than perfection, even from himself.
Of course, as tempting as great fish and chips are, it’s not every week you’d drive half an hour just for these. But in true Nigel style, he hasn’t stopped there. He could have stuck with what is proving to clearly be a busy street food/takeaway business, or even some of the extra options like his seafood boil night or the addition of fabulous fried chicken, but it’s clear his ambition and attention to detail need an outlet that go beyond that.
And so over the past year or so, each visit I made saw the Pickled Crab change slightly. The addition of a bar, extra tables, and the return to his restaurant roots. The Pickled Crab still has a casual feel, but now you can sample the finer side of Nigel’s skills in the form of everything from his street food style to the fine dining creations my friend raved about before.
That includes a five-course tasting menu of seafood-based delights, along with great cocktails and desserts, all in the eat-in restaurant that he basically built himself.
I haven’t had the full experience yet but was lucky enough to try some when I took someone to show them The Pickled Crab and what it’s all about. We started with a George Clooney Frozen Margarita that tasted as good as I imagine the man himself does, and should probably be the starting point for any evening in Warwick. Rather than order, we stuck to the boozing while Nigel came up with a few dishes to show us what he does.
First up, some smoked anchovies that aren’t pictured here but transported me to Spain somewhere and were the perfect nibble to start a feast. Decent quality, a nice smoke balanced out by the saltiness that you either love or hate. For us, love all the way.
A simple seared scallop with crispy bacon and thinly sliced cauliflower was as delicate in flavour as in appearance, and reminded you that yes, this place is about far more than fish and chips. Nigel’s not scared to let his produce sing, and you won’t find fish or seafood doused in sauces with endless trimmings. Here, you’ll find simplicity, confidence and more of that attention to detail.
Chargrilled octopus with Pico de Gallo was a winner for me – again reminding me more of a Spanish seaside resort or a trip to San Sebastian than a winter’s evening in Warwick. Crispy on the outside with slight smoky notes, yet still tender inside. Pickled cucumber combined with the citrus-laced salsa balanced any richness and gave the freshness that reminds you of balmy summer evenings, swimming in the sea, and make sure you can’t help but crave that next mouthful.
So good it was, my dining partner declared it knocked a similar dish at a swanky restaurant in London right out of the park. High praise indeed.
Last course up was a simple, gin-cured salmon served with gherkins. Again, Nigel’s use of citrus showing his understanding of flavour and balance and also his confidence not to mess with his food too much but to allow his raw ingredients to shine.
If this were theatre, he would be the director, choreographer, stage manager and hair and make-up person all in one – setting everything up so the real stars of the show can shine.
Our evening ended with a ‘pimped-up affogato’ – our choice of spirit added to freshly-brewed coffee and ice-cream. Simple, effective and a lovely way to round-off a night that very much served to whet my appetite for the full experience at The Pickled Crab.
Nigel is one of those people who never stops, which means you’ll find his creations constantly evolving and changing, along with the way he serves them. But rest assured, the one thing that won’t change is the quality you get when you go to him. And whether that’s fresh fish, street food, or fine dining options, that quality shines.