It's Friday lunchtime in the heart of London's Soho, and here I am on Upper James Street: an elegant table setting laid out before me, linen napkin on my lap, carafe of water, and a dish of tinned tuna. I'm eating at Tincan, a restaurant that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Across the road, diners are carving into the legendary beef wellington at Bob Bob Ricard. Just round the corner I bet someone has ordered those spicy pork and fennel meatballs from Polpo, but my fish— freshly decanted from tin to bowl—works out as more expensive.
The restaurant's claim to serve "the best tinned seafood in the world" might seem like a punt. But in Portugal, conservas restaurantes—restaurants whose star ingredients come from a can—are about as popular as burger joints are in the US.
It was while she was eating in one of these restaurants in Lisbon that architect Amanda Levete came up with the idea of Tincan. "What started as lunch quickly became an idea and then a new project," she explains. "No kitchen, the finest tinned seafood in the world, super healthy, great graphics, and with the tin as hero."
Levete started scouring the globe for the best tinned seafood, and now hundreds of tins decorate the restaurant wall and front: the turquoise tin of Minerva Gourmet mackerel fillets in olive oil, for example, or the golden puck-like tin of Los Peperetes scallops. The moment that the tin really becomes the star act, though, is when its contents are poured onto the plate. There are some supporting players involved: among them, three little dishes of tiny-diced shallots, parsley, and chili, along with three slices of bread, olive oil and a bowl of lettuce. Apparently these are the accoutrements necessary to elevate a tinned fish experience from a little bit gross to gourmet.
"We prep everything in the morning," explains a member of the waitstaff. There's no kitchen, no chef. When lunch service starts, there's just the silent task of plating. No clanging of pans or braying from busy cooks—just the quiet click of a ring pull, and the sound of the tin lid being pulled back. The only possibility for error is moving the fish from the tin to a dish. Even then, you have to wonder, How nice can you really make tinned monkfish liver look? Mine came with some sweet little slivers of shallot on top. But the saying about not being able to polish a turd really does apply to monkfish liver too.
I'm being unfair. But in Britain, tinned mackerel, sardines, pilchards, and kippers don't have a good reputation. Bony with a boiled fish taste, they're the kind of thing only eaten by people who grew up with wartime rationing. "We're so price-conscious in Britain," says Nick Howell from The Pilchard Works, explaining that our main error has been sticking with 34-pence (55-cent) sardines in tomato sauce. You see, the artisanal method of canning fish is really different to the industrial method. And when it comes to tinned fish, it really is worth paying that little bit extra.
With industrial canning, raw fish is put in a tin with a slosh of sauce, and it's then sterilised in a retort. "It cooks the fish in the tin, and that is what can give it that boiled-fish-taste," Howell explains. With artisanal canning techniques, the fish is cooked first. "That way, it's sterilised for the shortest amount of time so you don't kill the flavour," says Howell, explaining that preserving fish can even enhance the taste. "A well-tinned sardine will develop a delicious umami flavour over a couple of years from the enzymes in the fish's belly."
It's these methods which are often used on the continent and in Scandinavia. It explains why tinned fish is such a delicacy overseas, and also why the labour-intensive artisanal technique comes at such a price. When I visit Tincan, there are 25 tins on the menu ranging from £7 ($11.50) to the two in the "Out Of Your Depth" section of the menu, which cost a whopping £22 ($36): Scallops from Spain's Rias Gallegas in a Galician onion sauce, and Carril clams in their shells with garlic.
I ask the waiter how many tins of fish is normal for lunch. After all, small-plate dining is still big in Soho. But having never consumed more than one tin of tuna in a sitting before, and I'm dubious as to how many I'm going to be able to knock back. "Three is good," he says. "Maybe start with two." Scanning the menu, it's hard to know where to start though. Tinned urchin caviar, or tinned squid in its own ink "delicately prepared by hand"? It feels a long way from the Tesco's tinned aisle where a few familiar store cupboard staples—anchovies, tuna—sit somewhere between the tinned peas and tinned oxtail soup.
"I wasn't that sold on tinned fish," beams the waiter. It's his first day. "But yesterday I tried all 25 tinned fishes on the menu." The prospect of a reluctant tinned fish eater stoically ploughing through so many sounds more like a medieval punishment, but he happily dashes off to get his menu marked with his personal favourites. Guided by his enthusiasm, I go for some lightly smoked Icelandic cod liver, and some tuna "caught in the crystalline waters of the Azores"—as a direct comparison to the John West chunks in brine I'm used to.
With just a gentle prod with a fork, the tuna fell apart and revealed pink flesh underneath—a world away from the dense grey mulch that usually goes into a tuna and cucumber sandwich. And the cod liver? So soft, so rich.
Tincan only opened on this month and it's fairly empty this lunchtime—just a visiting supplier, some curious colleagues from a nearby office, and a couple of lost tourists. When word gets out about what good tapas tinned fish makes, though, it's going to be packed like sardines.