Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, those of us local to Winchester will have noticed an exciting refurb in what used to be Eighteen71 - the Cafe under the Guildhall. In fact refurb is definitely the wrong phrase, ripped out, completely remodeled and taken over by the great team behind The Fox and the Bugle at Twyford is definitely more apt. As you may have guessed from the name - Shoal will specialise in traditional fish and chips (amongst other things) and we were invited to a trial lunch on Wednesday.
Firstly I should say that I never actually ventured inside this area of the building in its former guise, but I can say that whenever I walked past I always thought it was a canteen for the Guildhall Staff, but it looks a lot more inviting nowadays as it's a sleek space with a good view of the open kitchen in one half, and the drinks/service area in the other.
We had been warned that the staff were incredibly nervous to serve real-life customers, but any nerves didn't show in the slightest, and first impressions were that it was obviously a lovely team to work with as the staff seemed to be enjoying themselves as well as doling out efficient friendly service with the right level of attentiveness.
I am not sure whether the menu we were shown on the day will be the same that will be given out on an opening day, but ours featured what we had hoped for - two kinds of fish and chips, Whitby scampi, a delicious sounding beef cheek homemade pie, a homemade salmon fish cake, half a rotisserie chicken and/or a breaded buffalo halloumi.
As stated in my Instagram post from the day. My Father is from Yorkshire, I lived there for a while and weekends would involve a fish and chip shop/restaurant. Unlike other parts of the country, it's normal to drink tea with your supper, and unlike other parts of the UK (apologies!) they make some of the best fish and chips around. I ordered Shoal Haddock and chips wondering how it would compare to those from Northern climes, and dear reader, I was not at all disappointed. The fish was really really good quality, and the batter light, delicious, and not at all greasy. The chips were perfectly cooked with the perfect amount of crisp edges, and as for the mushy peas... I think if you gave these to the most ardent hater, I know they would be hard pushed to dislike them...
Mr Winchester Eats opted for the Rotisserie Chicken which he stated was better than any he ever had at Oktoberfest, which a) I am surprised he can remember, and b) is high praise indeed (it's always good). As he's on a bit of a health kick he had his lunch with a salad, and then relented and ordered the chips as well. The salad came with a dressing that was fresh and tasty, and there are various sauces (or gravy) you can order with the chicken. He went for the Piri Piri which was good.
By the way, I checked whether you could order a cup of tea and a bread roll with butter with your fish and chips and was reliably informed that you will be able to, and there will in fact be a Big Catch special menu which includes exactly this - fish and chips, bread roll and butter, tea, pudding and a further choice of drink.
Speaking of drinks, there's a great range of beers and wine and plenty of soft drinks too, plus really good coffee which we enjoyed with some of their homemade gelato. As I tend to pick things as to how impressive they look (especially desserts) for the Gram, I opted for the Cherry and Almond Sundae (they also do a lemon meringue one) which not only looked the part but also tasted amazing. Mr. Winchester Eats chose pistachio, which my ice-cream maker friend would be very happy about as this isn't bright green, but the more authentic light brown as it should be. The gelato is very obviously homemade and pretty good.
For those of you who like fish and chips straight out of paper, you will be pleased to hear that there will also be a separate Takeaway section at the front of the building, so all your bread is buttered so to speak.
When it opens (at the end of July) I can see Shoal fast becoming a Winchester Favourite, it really does offer something for everyone, and sounds like it will be really reasonably priced too. We really are lucky in this city when it comes to food...