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Restaurant review: Parsons, London

This diminutive fish restaurant opened to much fanfare on the site of a beloved old London cafe, and while it has its flaws, one dish will keep you coming back for more

By Lisa Markwell
photographs by Rachel Palmer
Published 3 Apr 2019, 11:28 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:45 BST
Parsons restaurant


Photograph by Rachel Palmer

Perhaps it was to be expected: new restaurant opens with major buzz; try to get a table; only one available is late on a Saturday night, four weeks after opening. And after that, I'm left wondering, was it worth it? Possibly.

Parsons is the second effort from the team behind Covent Garden's The 10 Cases — a small wine bar across the road that's consistently good, and busy. The founders, Ian Campbell and Will Palmer, describe their new place as "excessively small" — though this seems a little (forgive me) extreme — in London, restaurants with fewer than 10 tables are very au courant, you know.

It's all white tiled and stripped back, with bar- and window-seats alongside those few tables. The emphasis is firmly on fish, with preparations drawn from everywhere between New Zealand and Galicia — and each day's catch is written on a mirror, or gaily painted on the tiles above the bar. This is a place that feels settled; there's little hint that until last December it was Diana's Diner, a greasy-spoon of many decades' standing.

When we visit, there are sardines, halibut, plaice, skate, gurnard and fish pie on the mirror, and clams, oysters, mussels and prawns on the tiles, so to speak. There's a separate menu for the starters, sides and puddings, as well as a comprehensive wine list. Unfortunately, the Grüner Veltliner we want has run out, but a 2015 Viognier from Ventoux works as a crisp backnote to the dishes.

It's one of those menus that makes me feel that whatever I choose, I'll have buyer's remorse. My starter of prawns with samphire has me wishing I'd ordered the clam chowder with smoked bacon my pal has, or the black rice with squid and cauliflower aioli. Or, indeed, the brown crab pissaladiere that our table-neighbours share. (Tables are close and it's a buzzy, chatty atmosphere.) That wafer-thin flatbread might just become Parsons' signature dish — or the lobster mash, but more on that later.

I thought, perhaps, the components of my starter suggested a play on prawn cocktail, but they're grilled to the point of well done, and the half lettuce is charred to blackness, which feels like a kitchen cock-up that should have stayed behind the pass. When I manage to sneak a spoonful of the chowder, it's creamy and packed with briny, salty flavour. Bread comes in abundance with an equally generous clod of heavenly seaweed butter.

My halibut (a punchy £30), and the skate, are both confidently cooked completely plain — fish of this quality and freshness needs little fuss; but both come with a very large dollop of unadvertised fennel and samphire 'hash' that feels a bit… unfocused. And both are on smaller plates than the same dishes served to other tables. This leads me to think that for last service on a Saturday (at a place closed on Sunday), portions are getting a little haphazard. Or perhaps the head chef, Goemon Ishikawa (late of Dinings, and Fera at Claridge's), might be having a well-earned break.

Unaware that both dishes come with an accompaniment, we push the boat out and order the lobster mash. Rich and burnished, it's incredibly good. I'd return for that alone.

Of five desserts and non-fish savouries, just one is a pudding — apple tarte fine — and the rest? A steak sandwich, welsh rarebit and two cheeses. The fact that they've run out of the tarte, the only actual dessert, is annoying.

I think they sense it; a waiter dashes across the road to bring puds from The 10 Cases — but I don't fancy a creamy lemon posset. Instead we leave with a hefty bill and a free Fisherman's Friend. Not the taste in my mouth we — or they — were quite hoping for. Dinner for two including wine and service £110.

Follow @lisamarkwell

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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