Adam Shaw met two Dubliners with a new twist on the UK’s traditional fish and chip shop
Everyone hopes to have that one big idea. A unique, successful concept, that allows you to be your own boss and make your own rules. Thinking about it is easy; putting it into practice is another matter.
But for two Dubliners with a passion for seafood and high-quality service, this became a reality when they had a brainwave four years ago. Simon Whiteside and Barry Wallace were happy in their careers and had a pretty clear path to where they wanted to be.
Simon had been involved in fine-dining since leaving school at 15, working in a three-star Michelin restaurant in Italy and with some of the top chefs in London, including Ireland’s Robin Gill. Barry was running his own independent clothing label in Dublin city centre, the culmination of 11 years in the retail industry. By 2011, however, unforeseen circumstances, including a particularly damaging recession, saw both men return to their homes to think about the road to recovery.
“The two of us were knocking around, unsure of what to do, but eager to get our teeth stuck into something,” Simon said.
“We heard about this market that was going around Dublin at the time and sussed out that no-one was doing anything to do with seafood or fish. “So we got together and thought this could be something we could try, if only for what we thought would be a relatively low workload.”
The duo got hold of an old hotdog stand, transformed it into a miniature kitchen and joined the party. Little did they know that this would be the beginnings of what would turn into a cross-continent, fish and chip empire.
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Simon explained: “We offered things like frutti di mare, a stir-fry dish with salmon tempura, and a squid and chorizo pasta. “We also did fish and chips and, with it being Dublin in the summer, there was always mackerel available.
“After a couple of weeks we had queues around the corner, but the only thing people ever wanted was the fish and chips so we soon scrapped everything else.”
A very successful summer turned into a less-fruitful winter and the unattractive prospect of outdoor catering in the rain with plenty of dead stock forced them back to the drawing board. But the market stall had provided them with something extremely valuable.
“We’d stumbled upon the fact that no-one was really doing anything different with fish and chips,” Simon said.
“You’ve got your highend quality fish and chips – a nice, expensive cut of fish with a few potatoes – and low-end quality fish and chips, which is essentially the frozen stuff. “The concept hasn’t changed for years, and maybe there’s a good reason for that, but we thought we could bring something different to the table.”
And different it is. Simon, with his knowledge of fine-dining, suggested they break down the dish into a series of individual components. The idea is that large, rarer species are used to ensure a chunkier, better-tasting piece of fish, and this is covered with light panko breadcrumbs or tempura batter.
Beneath the coating is a series of different flavours, often corresponding to a certain part of the world – jerk, Cajun or calypso, for example. “When you bite into the fish, you have this lovely, crisp coating and you get hit by this wave of spice,” Simon added.
“No-one has really done this idea of using a light batter and combining it with hard-hitting flavours.”
They also make their own seaweed-salt seasoning to ensure the “taste of the sea” runs through the entire dish. This is complimented by a series of special sauces that are made in house and add to the concept of, in Simon’s own words, “new school fish and chips”.
As the pair anticipated, people bought into the idea immediately. With the backing of an investor and the opportunity to try things out in Belgium, Barry and Simon got off to a flying start.
Opening up Bia Mara, which means ‘seafood’ in Irish, they soon occupied the number one slot on Brussels’ TripAdvisor and, within six months, had been featured in two cookbooks and appeared on national TV. “It totally blew up, which we did not expect, the unit is only a 38-seater but on some evenings we were taking up to 500 covers,” Simon said.
“We open at 12, there’s a queue at half 11, and it doesn’t go away until we close at 11 at night.” Such success meant they could set their sights on their original dream of taking on London. And while a fishing company from Donegal prevented them from using the name Bia Mara, Simon doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing.
He explained: “We had to cut the chord with the name. But I think an English name probably works better over here – Hook is better-suited than Bia Mara. “At the same time, however, Bia Mara works well on the continent because it derives from the Latin and ‘mara’ instantly has connotations with the sea.”
Sensation in the UK
Whatever its name, the restaurant has been just as much of a sensation in the UK as it is in Belgium. The Camden-based eatery has won praise from all who have reviewed it, from Time Out to The Evening Standard, and it was recently featured on Food Network USA’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, resulting in a huge influx of American tourists.
Hungover? Open all day for your comfort food hug. pic.twitter.com/lGHyVz2R4m
— BiaMaraBrussels (@BiaMaraBrussels) August 10, 2014
What makes it so appealing, Simon feels, is the fresh, sustainability of the food and, above all, the uniqueness of the concept. “Our fish is high quality, we get it fresh from day boats down in Cornwall and we do everything in house – from our sauces, to our seasonings to our skin on chips,” he said.
“People do have quite low expectations when they come in but they leave with a real buzz after eating and will head off to tell others about it.” And the boys are certainly not afraid of a challenge, whether it comes to creating a new dish or setting their sights on other locations. They recently took on the notion of Argentinian fish and chips, and the fact that they could produce a popular alternative to slabs of meat highlights their adaptability.
Simon said: “When you think of Argentina, you think of steak. So we made up a lovely steak rub and combined it with ling, a really meaty fish, and added a bold chimichurri sauce.
“If Argentina did fish and chips, this is what we like to think it would taste like.” If Barry and Simon have their way, this dish could be served up and down the country. They want to leave their mark on London, hoping to open branches in the east and west and aim to set up a large unit in somewhere like Soho.
Their own image
Then they’ll look ahead to city centres around the UK, though Simon insists he wants to maintain their own specific image.
“We don’t want to completely change fish and chips, that would be sacrilege, but we do want people to think about it differently and perhaps change their perceptions about the dish,” he explained.
Fresh Basil used in our Fish & Chips! Works a treat in a citrus tempura along with fresh Seabass & Garlic Truffle! pic.twitter.com/hXetCtVedh
— BiaMaraBrussels (@BiaMaraBrussels) February 28, 2014
And what about Ireland? Obviously the country holds a special place in Simon and Barry’s hearts – they actually grew up just a few streets from each other off Adelaide Road. It was where they started everything off and where they hope to have a grand homecoming. Simon said: “We want to set up a branch in Dublin within the next few years, but you really have to back yourself to succeed there.
2 Heroes Comp! Let us know the 2 foodie heroes you would have for dinner and best foodie hero combo wins dinner for 2 pic.twitter.com/Cip3mkq5Bp
— BiaMaraBrussels (@BiaMaraBrussels) February 13, 2014
“You can be yesterday’s news quite quickly, which was why we didn’t want to jump in over there, but we certainly intend to go back.”
In the meantime, their Irish influence will have to translate through their dishes. Every St. Patrick’s Day, they cook up Guinness fish and chips, which combines pristinely white hake, a fish synonymous with Ireland, with jet black tempura batter. Served alongside an oyster and sorrel sauce, the dish is Hook’s take on the classic Guinness and oysters. Simon is warm, ambitious and extremely passionate about all things fish. In spite of a couple of knock-backs and effectively a career change, he is part of something that looks set to be a real winner.
He is due to marry Cairene in September and their two-year-old daughter, Lily, is a regular down at Hook. For the kid that was, in his words, “always hungry growing-up” and never one for academic pursuits, he’s created something pretty special. And he’s done it with one of his closest friends.
He said: “If you told me six years ago that I’d be looking at a map, thinking about regional flavours and transferring them to fish and chips, I’d have laughed at the idea – it’s funny how things turn out.
“It’s been an absolute whirlwind but the whole thing is so exciting. To be doing something unique and getting recognition for it is brilliant.”
Check out the Bia Mara website here:www.biamara.com