Seafood doesn’t need Ten Commandments. Just one is enough: grill it. Not too long. Then salt, herbs, and eat, as quickly as possible.
It helps if the seafood is fresh, of course. And serve some white wine, for God’s sake, a Sauvignon Blanc or something. Plus napkins. Wet wipes, if possible. And dress down, or at least roll up your sleeves. Definitely take that blazer off for a start.
Mariano, a chef at Cha Cha Mayfair, knows this. He stands behind the grill, squashing chunks of octopus with the flat of his metal spatula, flipping squidgy scallops and tropical shrimp, before ferrying them directly across the counter to us.
It’s a good system, and he sticks to it religiously.
Perhaps it’s because we’re in a church. Newly-opened food hall Mercato Mayfair is based entirely in Grade I listed St. Mark’s. After a £5m restoration, the church (deconsecrated in the 1970s, like everything else) is now home to twelve-ish food stalls, a couple of bars, and a cheese-and-charcuterie in the crypt’s alcoves. Overnight, it’s become one of the most jaw-dropping dining rooms in London.
Words: Chris Zacharia
It’s the offspring of Mercato Metropolitano, one of the best (perhaps the only) dining destinations in south London’s roundabout apocalypse, Elephant & Castle. In the original Mercato, you’d wander around the yard of a disused paper factory, eating arancini and gelato and playing a cameo role in a distant friend’s birthday party. Here in Mayfair, there are a dozen or so stalls rather than forty, obscenely beautiful financiers and Bond Street bon vivants celebrating Wednesday.
Walk through the church’s columned facade, resist the antechamber’s tempting deli, and enter the vast, cloistered nave. The food stalls are mainly in the aisles, although in a brilliant act of sinfulness there’s a bar upon the altar. Blood of Christ, though, right?
Cha Cha is on the first floor, in what I think is called the atrium. In front of a stunning stained-glass portrait of Jesus, they feed the proverbial five thousand with fish. There are only two tables, both of which are occupied by the same two couples sipping gingerly on the same glasses all night, while we’re juggling plates at the bar. But no bother. Better to be close to that holy heat of the kitchen.
Mariano plates up sea bass and hands it over the grill. The sea bass has that telltale toffee-coloured latticework, a crispy outer layer which disguises the cotton-soft fleshy tenderness within. A squeeze of lemon, and it’s perfect. Tenderstem broccoli and cherry tomatoes (both grilled, of course) add colour, fibre and moral rectitude.
Over the last mouthfuls of sea bass, we watch Mariano dice octopus on that immortal grill. Deftly, he uses the sharp end to chop it into bitesize chunks, and the flat end to impress the heat upon it. He slides a dozen of them onto a plate with chopped chilli and new potatoes, slathers it in a rich salmoriglio of chopped parsley, garlic and olive oil, and passes it across to our grateful laps.
Each mouthful is an event, a delicate moment which is somehow also fiery and complex and very, very good. Some seafood has that fishy, oily taste which reminds you of smelly coastal ports and early morning herring stalls. Not octopus. It has a clean, sweet flavour, more springwater than seawater, and a yielding texture which – unlike calamari – is never chewy, at least if it’s cooked properly. My mate Sam and I take it in turns to go unnngh and oh man that’s good and sometimes, appropriately, God.
Tempura shrimp also have that crunchy/soft contrast, but I like my batter a little lighter and dustier than the thick coating on these. It’s served with a bucket of decent chilli mayo.
Lobster tail is worth the effort of extracting it from its stubborn exoskeleton, each buttery bite of mush given an extra dimension by the blackened bruising of that grill. I only wish they had some proper carbon, but I tell myself that that would only crowd out the seafood’s subtle flavour. Plus, can you really have a coal-fired grill in a Grade I listed church? You wouldn’t want to offend both health & safety and the Almighty.
Below, we can see the whole aspect of the church, from nave to altar, and the excited chatter of the worshipping foodies. Around us, the diners of Mayfair look genuinely delighted, as would anyone who’d spent the day trapped in a suit and a tie and a spreadsheet and a loop of endless haughty voicemails from their absentee heiress mother about how she misses the old gardener and maybe Christmas will be at St Tropez this year?
So perhaps there is a second rule of seafood after all: that seafood must be egalitarian. Despite all of that Cape Cod bougie hoo-ha, seafood is one of our oldest, most traditional victuals. Sprawling nets, fishermen in salty salute to the sea, the day’s catch glistening in the afternoon sun of Marseille, Genoa or Grimsby. Haggling at the fishmongers or nabbing two-for-one Bird’s Eye scampi at Asda. And even here in Mayfair, each plate is only around £10.
As long as you obey that first rule of seafood, you can’t go wrong. Long may Cha Cha Mayfair continue to serve excellent seafood in the atrium of St Mark’s church.
Cha Cha Mayfair
N Audley St