EATING OUT & DRINK
HAVING been treading these culinary boards for a while, I’ve adopted a cunning strategy whenever I’m stopped by a Herald reader and they praise and suggest a restaurant. What did you have to eat, say I. Nine times out of 10 this is followed by ahs and ums and ends up with something like: I can’t remember but it was good. Now, if you can’t remember what you ate could it actually have been that good?
Anyway, now being the time of year when I have to look back, I’m going to apply exactly the same rule to myself. What food sticks in the mind from 2017? Straight out of the traps, then, is Bilson
Eleven in the east end of Glasgow. The city is on its knees and begging for a top-notch, fully Scottish, fine-dining superstar and this could yet be it. That sweetly spicy, smokedhaddocky curried skink; the scotch egg with the salt-baked beetroot ... I could go on. The just-baked bread, the potted lamb with turnip foam, the cracker with horseradish and salmon. And the last two were just the amuses bouches. Tartan flair a-go-go, then.
Admittedly they could maybe chill out that tres formal tweed-suit and curly moustache schtick – even two-starred Michelin restaurants are getting down with the kids nowadays – but it gets my thumbsup. And I couldn’t care less what anyone else says.
Talking about service the next stick-inthe-mind meal was along the Clyde coast in poshly pithy Helensburgh. Sugar Boat: yes, I hate the lost 1970s disco name too, and first impressions were a bit weird. That’s because it treads the gangplank between blue-rinse cafe and full-bifter fine diner.
The service was so perfectly pitched I’d describe it as flawless were it not for the fact service is the one area of Scottish restaurant life that has improved across the board, so forget that.
Here were the surprises, though. That stickily, sweetly unctous rolled pork fillet with ham-studded cassoulet, slices of sausage alongside, and the cod fillet with samphire. And they made it look so effortless.
What the Michelin inspectors will make of the upstairs-downstairs cafe cum restaurant vibe I have no idea, but they should seriously make something of the food. It was that good.
Now, price isn’t everything, but it is important. And price plays a part in the success of Six by Nico. Six courses cost £25 when I went with my chum Gordon. Squid crackers, haddock bon-bons, chips and cheese – all of this and more being a witty little cheffy take on Scottish food and one that actually pays off.
This is by my reckoning Nico’s third go at getting it right – and this time he has. The hottest place on Glasgow’s hot Finnieston strip. OK, so the staff were a bit breathlessly excited about the whole thing and not every course was a winner, but it was bold, interesting and worth every penny.
A mention, then, for the Loch Bay on Skye. Yes, eating there does feel a bit like being an extra in Local Hero, but the seafood? Just when it seems there is nothing else to say on scallops along comes a trio – one grilled, one crusted and one raw – with a boom. And those prawns? Clean, simple, fabulous. Go there.
I would not hesitate to eat in every one of these restaurants again when off duty, and I can’t say that about many places.
Enough of the fancy stuff now. This year has seen the invasion of the chain restaurants into Scotland. I know, it’s polite to sneer, but actually? The chain restaurant is the apex predator of the restaurant world. Q: what do chains and Michelin-starred restaurants have in common? A: most of the things that lead to success. If Taco Bell or Tim Hortons or
Smashburger float your boat (these three mutts didn’t float mine after opening in Glasgow) then also spare a moment for Bill’s – that oddly successful thing, a chain that feels like a local restaurant. And hey it’s OK to admit it.
Surf Dogs on the south side of Glasgow deserves a mention for showing the potential to become a chain, as well as for its sauerkraut dog and crispy wings sticking firmly in the memory.
The bijou and unpretentious Beirut Star in Govan? I’ve got a soft-spot for all-out genuine, run-by-the-people-who-own-em
Clockwise from main: Bilson Eleven in the east end of Glasgow; Smashburger in the city centre; Surf Dogs in the south side; Sugar Boat in Helensburgh; and Six By Nico on the Finnieston Strip