Scottish Field

COASTAL QUANDARY

Haar, Masterchef finalist Dean Banks’ new restaurant in St Andrews, presents a conundrum for the Mystery Diner

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Our mystery diner heads to St Andrews' Haar Restaurant and leaves with mixed emotions

What price celebrity? Readers, I’m genuinely conflicted. I relish the ambition in the nation’s chefs which has seen standards rise exponentia­lly in Scotland during the two decades in which I’ve been reviewing restaurant­s on a regular basis. And I believe in the market – chefs can charge what they want and customers can choose whether to come, and whether to return.

Neverthele­ss, St Andrews is John Knox country and it does offend my poor old calvinist heart to spend almost £170 on a midweek meal for two. Sure that did include three courses, a couple of oysters each, a bottle of the least expensive wine on offer, bread, several glasses of tap water and service, but that was without tea or coffee. The collateral damage would have been even more severe had I plumped for the seven-course taster menu which, with paired wines and cheese, would have cost £134 per person, plus coffee and service.

It may be that Haar, Masterchef finalist Dean Banks’ first restaurant, will – like the nearby Peat Inn and The Cellar in Anstruther, probably my favourite high falutin’ restaurant in Scotland – one day win a coveted Michelin star, and it’s certainly set up with both eyes on achieving that end. Indeed, it’s already priced accordingl­y.

Thanks to a constant dripfeed of rich golfers, the town’s status as a burgeoning tourist destinatio­n, and the arrival of squadrons of super-rich students and their parents from around the globe, the fine dining scene in the honeypot that is St Andrews is getting a little crowded. As well as the distinctiv­e glass cube of the Seafood Ristorante on West Sands, there’s also the Road Hole Grill at the Old Course Hotel, Seasons restaurant at Rufflets Hotel, and Surf & Turf at Rusacks Hotel. Yet since opening in April this year, Haar – named after the sea fog that rolls along the East Coast, including Banks’ home town of Arbroath – has been regularly stowed out. Rightly so, because it offers a contempora­ry culinary experience that varies hugely from any that those other town centre restaurant­s are offering. And, most importantl­y, because, at its best, Banks’ food is very good indeed. Sure, there are issues. The interior is so spartan that sounds ping off its hard surfaces and intrude forcibly into conversati­on, especially as the place was almost empty when we visited. And the quality of the dishes can be variable: while the sea buckthorn twist was a work of genius the oysters lacked the velveteen creaminess of those at, for example, The Honours. The parsimonio­us starter of octopus suffered by comparison to the same, far less costly dish in Edinburgh’s superb White Horse. The beef rump had the tenderness of beef skirt and was part of a dish that was significan­tly overseason­ed, while the gorgeously rich, nuanced Goan curry simply overpowere­d the cod fillet which had the misfortune to accompany it.

But when Banks gets it right his food can be transcende­nt. The pea and shellfish veloute was condemned-man’s-last-meal good, the berries with custard a simple dessert of extraordin­ary virtuosity. Even the bread was worth the trip alone.

Yet good though Banks can be, this debutant chef has yet to weather the dark winter months, a sensible rite of passage for a restaurant charging top dollar. There were enough red flags at Haar to marvel at the 30-year-old’s plans for imminent launches in Dundee, Edinburgh and London. I’m a big fan of carpe diem, but when it comes to such rapid expansion it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

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