“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” Celebrated science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote this in 1969, but in the middle of this period of unprecedented world uncertainty I find myself turning the phrase over and over in my mind like a pebble in my pocket. At first glance it is hard to see if the sentiment behind it is hopeful or hopeless – a pretty accurate reflection of where we are right now in the Covid pandemic. On the one hand, the uncertainty of the past year – the tentative steps to normality, followed by the crushing return to social isolation and (for many) economic ruin; the anguishing wait for the recovery of loved ones infected by the virus; and the uncertainty of when families will be able to meet in person again – has indeed felt permanent, intolerable and at times hopeless.
But paradoxically, on the other hand, the very knowledge that the future is unwritten and uncertain is a source of hope. The fact that things have deteriorated previously does not mean that the trend cannot be reversed, just as the roulette wheel landing on black 5 times does not mean it will always land on black. And it is this innate knowledge that means uncertainty is always our friend as well as our enemy – uncertainty means that the future is unwritten and that the possibility of positive change always lies tantalisingly ahead of us. If we knew for certain how the rest of our days on earth would play out, what reason would there be to get out of bed in the morning? We all make it out of bed in the morning precisely because we don’t know for sure what is going to happen next, but we want to find out.
“Everyday we embrace unpredictability. From the fish we get delivered, the drinks we pour to the weather outside we know that every day will be different.” These are the opening lines on the website of The Melusine, a restaurant in the heart of St Katherine Dock in London, and I cannot imagine that when they opened in late 2019 the owners had any idea of just how much unpredictability they would have to embrace. Within two months, the world as we knew it fell off a Covid cliff and London was plunged into the first of its three lockdowns, meaning that all restaurants had to close. The Melusine’s Greek chef and owner Theodore Kyriakou is no stranger to the London restaurant scene. After opening Livebait back in 1995 and then The Real Greek, he most recently opened The Greek Larder in Kings Cross where he first worked with South African-born manager Wade Mundford (himself a veteran of Smiths of Smithfields and José Pizarro). They decided to join forces
to open The Melusine, a rare independent restaurant in the bland-chain-restaurant culinary wasteland that is St Katherine Dock – and astonishingly, the only seafood restaurant in a very nautical development.
Their stated intention when the opened the restaurant was to embrace unpredictability in the sense that the menu would be almost entirely determined by what was available from suppliers on the day, and to “harnessing every element available to us each day to create an experience that goes beyond customer’s expectation”. As it turned out, they have had to reinvent both themselves and the experience that they offer customers in the intervening months – but more on that later. I was able to visit the restaurant last summer, in the brief and optimistic window between the first and second London lockdowns. The idea was for me to experience their summer dining pop-up on the water, on a permanently moored platform in St Katherine Dock… but it seemed that the weather had decided to pick up on the general theme of unpredictability for 2020 and on Summer Bank Holiday weekend, it was like the monsoon in London.
As a plan B, it was decided that we would dine in the main restaurant instead, which is tucked into one of the arches of Grade II-listed Ivory House. The interior is instantly appealing with its long teal tiled bar, its mid-century modern style chairs, and only a large black and white mural of a turbot adorning the walls. The lighting is reassuringly low and there are plenty of tables for two or four, as well as space to perch at the bar. As befits the brave new world of Covid-19, there is no hard copy menu but our waitress leaves us a card with QR code which I scan with my phone to access the menu – definitely a reassuring touch of risk mitigation. The wine list is unsurprisingly weighted in favour of Greek wines (there is even a Greek vin santo!) and the majority of the wines are available as a glass, a carafe or a bottle. But as we are giddy with the excitement of eating out for the first time in months, we celebrate with a bottle of cava (£35) while we consider our menu options.
The overarching principle of the Melusine’s menu is sustainably sourced seafood from the British Isles and they aim to talk to the skippers of their supplier boats directly to encourage the freshest fish from boat to plate in as few hours as possible. Rather than evenly sized portions of fish, the menu on any given day is more likely to read “whole sea bream, suitable for two people”. Although the focus is on main courses of fresh seafood, there are is also a raw bar and some small plates that we chose to share as a starter: taramasalata with caramelised fennel and fresh zucchini; and seafood and smoked fish pasta with mushrooms. The first was a nod to chef Kyriakou’s heritage and the perfect antidote to the sickly pink stuff that most supermarkets sell as taramasalata. Here, the taramasalata was almost white, with a densely creamy consistency and a wonderfully intense saline flavour. It was perfect with the sweetly caramelised fennel while the raw zucchini slices and black sesame seeds added texture. I would probably not have ordered the pasta but my dining companion was keen… and I was not disappointed! Perfectly al dente gnocchi sardi pasta in a smoky broth was a perfect vehicle for pillowy and barely cooked mussels, smoked salmon, and chunks of mushroom. It was the satisfying dish that the miserable weather demanded. To mob up any remains, we also ordered sourdough with olive oil & petimezi (grape molasses rather like verjus) – a perfect dipping combination with the outstanding bread.
As I said, we were feeling rather giddy with excitement at being in a restaurant again and so for our main we chose to share grilled lobster with mixed leaves, roasted peppers and triple cooked chips. This was the epitome of simplicity – no fancy plating, no rich sauces – just the sweet, yielding lobster flesh with a liberal lashing of garlic butter, and the leaves and peppers to take the edge off the richness. The chips were also excellent – definitely a good sharing main course option if you are not very hungry.
Neither of us was particularly hungry by the time we looked at the dessert menu, but the chance to try a chocolate and tahini tart seemed to good to miss – so we shared one. The tart was a thing of beauty – an absolutely perfect short pastry crust, no soggy bottom (Mary Berry would approve!) and a rich, dense filling that perfectly balanced the indulgent sweetness with the nutty savouriness of tahini. Think a more grown-up version of peanut butter cups 😉 Everything we had was of an excellent quality and a little different to the dishes you see on most restaurant menus. This is what a neighbourhood restaurant should be – unfussy, welcoming and with excellent food at not-unreasonable prices.
After our meal we had a chat to Wade who told us how the restaurant had only been open about 6 weeks when they were forced to close for three months. This meant that they needed a rapid rethink of their business model or risk closure. Their plan was offering takeaways but also transforming the restaurant into a fishmonger, delicatessen and grocery store, leveraging the fact that they have hundreds of residential neighbours living around them in St Katherine Docks. And as it turned out, this was to be their lifeline through a second and a third lockdown. Seafood and other suppliers continued their deliveries, but instead of all of this being cooked in the restaurant kitchens, some was now available for sale at the deli alongside fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods and pantry items from their suppliers. At first, orders were handled via the website but they found this to be too impersonal and so they have gradually built up a number of Whatsapp groups which now have several hundred members, and all orders are taken via Whatsapp (find the Whatsapp link on their Facebook page). Embracing an unforeseen and unpredictable situation and pivoting their business model has meant that Wade and Theodore have not only built a strong and supportive community around their restaurant, but that they were also able to sustain relationships with their suppliers – a win-win situation for everybody. Roll on the day when I can return to The Melusine and enjoy another meal, this time in the sun on the terrace at the water’s edge. They are taking post-lockdown bookings now for the summer – space is limited to book early to avoid disappointment.
(And in case you are curious, a Melusine is figure of European folklore and mythology – a female spirit of fresh water in a sacred spring or river. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, much like a mermaid.)
Cost per head: approx £60 for starters, a shared main course, dessert and a shared bottle of wine
Nearest Tube/Train station: Tower Hill/Tower Gateway
Unit K, Ivory House
St Katherine Docks
Tel: +44 (0) 20 77022976
E-mail: [email protected]
If you enjoyed this post, why not have a look at my other London restaurant reviews.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of The Melusine but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.