The Lobster Pot in Kennington is lauded as a local institution and even before finally making my first visit last Saturday, I had heard and read a great deal about the quirky boat-themed interior, amusing sounds-of-the-sea soundtrack (long before Heston came up with the notion, it was being done here) and the supposedly very high quality of the seafood on offer served with pride by chef-patron Herve Regent. All were present and correct, it really is a charmingly eccentric set-up (ambience snobs would hate it; those of us with a sense of humour will embrace it as part of the experience) and attentive if occasionally remote staff add to the feeling of being in a place into a which a lot of thought has gone.
What detracts from the experience, however, is the shockingly high prices for what is, to be kind, no more than a local, casual dining room. I know, having grown up by the sea and been brought up on seafood fresh from the morning's boats, that fish and shellfish of the quality served here doesn't come cheap, but come ON, Monsieur Regent: why no starters under £8.50 or mains – grilled chicken in this case – under £16.50? Sure these prices don't shock in the West End, or in local fine-diners such as Chez Bruce or Trinity, but this is Kennington, not Kensington, and for the bill to come to just over £100 for two courses for two and one bottle of wine is outrageous.
What did we eat to rack up such a whopping bill? We started with the large seafood platter for two at £25.50, adding half a lobster for an additional £12.50, and it certainly was large, groaning with half a crab, five oysters, clams, winkles, whelks, a huge langoustine and rather too many shrimps both pink and brown. The half a lobster was more like 3/8 of a lobster, lacking its claw which I thought cheeky, and was fine but unremarkable though in fairness I've always thought lobster over-rated. All of it was very good and undoubtedly super-fresh, and certainly justified the price tag, but I felt that it was the only starter on the menu which did.
Mains were OK, but my bouillabaisse at £18.50, served in a shallow fish-shaped dish rather than the deep vat I've come to expect, bore the scars of having stood under a heat-lamp for rather too long, probably while we were finishing the seafood platter. For one of the house's supposed specialities, it wasn't particularly...special. My partner Alyn's grilled tiger prawns – a whacking £19.50! – similarly looked (and tasted) as if they had been grilled for about five minutes too long. A couple of the ten or so prawns tasted ‘not quite right’ (his words) but he couldn't put his finger on it enough to make a complaint worthwhile.
The promised accompaniment of ‘a selection of vegetables’ constituted one new potato, one floret of broccoli (a broccolo?) and a quenelle of something orange; carrot and swede mash perhaps. This smacked of a chef attempting to finesse presentation in a restaurant where presentation is secondary – in a good way – to the experience, and therefore jarred. Bizarrely there are no side-orders on the menu, so one has to take this measly selection or lump it. It was all so uniformly average-to-good that we just didn't have the enthusiasm to bother with desserts.
The wine list is, like Nicolas Sarkozy, short and entirely French, with all the usual suspects from Muscadet to Beaujolais via Rose d'Anjou. Our Muscadet, not too dear at £18.50, was nice enough but not one of the best, lacking the floral oomph that typifies better examples of this safe seafood pairing.
To give The Lobster Pot its due, the prices and no-more-than-quite-good standard of the food don't seem to have deterred anyone; the place was absolutely packed from 8.30 onwards and in addition to several other couples and a downcast family party, a large table of regulars (we deduced this from the effusive welcome they received and the entire staff's dedication to their table before ours) were enthusiastically and noisily shovelling down a mountain of seafood and bottle after bottle of Veuve Clicquot at £72.50 a pop – what credit crunch?.
The place appears to do perfectly well from a devoted local clientele without needing to go the extra mile to attract and retain casual visitors. I won't be going back; if I want superior food at prices to make my eyes water, I'll stick with my all-time favourite J.Sheekey where the final bill is at least mitigated by the five-star quality of the whole experience.
The Lobster Pot, 3 Kennington Lane, London SE11 4RG Tel: 020 7583 5556 www.lobsterpotrestaurant.co.uk