This article was also published in the Financial Times.
As we left Glasgow, where several hoardings in its city centre proclaim the imminent arrival of yet more restaurants, I began to think of those chefs and restaurateurs who had provided three excellent but very different meals during our stay in very Scottish terms. ‘Clan chieftains’ was the phrase that sprang to mind.
This is not so much because Seumas MacInnes, chef/proprietor of Café Gandolfi, John Macleod, the architect who created Crabshakk on Argyle Road, and Tom Lewis, who has converted the family farm at Monaychle Mhor, a 90-minute drive north of Glasgow, into a restaurant with rooms, have a huge following prepared to draw their dirks on their behalf. But rather because they have blazed a path for others to follow, thereby boosting demand and also encouraging a cluster of new restaurants generating greater choice for the customer.
MacInnes is the grand old man of this trio. He arrived here from Orkney in 1979, initially to peel potatoes at a time when the restaurant’s character had already been established by its founder Iain Mackenzie, and its iconic wooden furniture, designed by Tim Stead, was in situ.
Since then MacInnes has opened Bar Gandolfi above, which serves great pizza and where I noticed many locals repair to after a meal in the Café, and Gandolfi Fish next door with a new takeaway service proving unsurprisingly successful in a city where a fish and chip supper remains ever popular.
The two principal attractions of our meal at Café Gandolfiwere its Scottish repertoire and its conductor. Cullen skink was a creamy rendition of this classic smoked haddock soup. Both the black and white puddings from Stornoway were exceptional alongside mushrooms and apples respectively, as was their daily rendition incorporating Isle of Mull scallops. All served with great gusto by Stewart Lamont, who has been at MacInnes’s side for 33 years.
MacInnes was a pioneer in Albion Street but today numerous other good places thrive nearby. These include The Italian Caffe , Babbity Bowster and The Dhabba, one of Glasgow’s many excellent Indian restaurants.
By MacInnes’s standards, Macleod is a parvenu. In 2009 he saw the potential of a narrow shop opposite the Ben Nevis pub, long a hangout for many of the city’s musicians, and the opportunity to insert a mezzanine that, by seating a further 20, would make the space financially viable. Macleod’s second career as a purveyor of Scotland’s fine fish and shellfish has prospered at Crabshakkever since.
To mark a special family birthday, we booked a table for 12 on the mezzanine and, with four bottles of wine, ran up a bill for £411 as well as a valuable lesson: in such circumstances main courses are superfluous.
Instead we all fell on plates of oysters, scallops with anchovies, crab cakes, monkfish cheeks, bowls of mussels, crisp spiced whitebait, tempura squid and gravad lax with celeriac remoulade. These shared plated paved the way for more: half a dozen portions of ‘wee supper’, a half portion of a normal serving of fish and chips.
While Crabshakk hums, so too do many other buildings nearby as, since Macleod bravely opened here where rents were once inexpensive, numerous restaurateurs have followed. Macleod has Table Eleven, a tapas bar, a few doors away while chefs at the more recently opened The Gannet, The Kelvingrove Café and Old Salty’s compete for custom. And as we left and walked round the corner, builders and chefs were busy putting the final touches to The Ox and Finch on Sauciehall Street. With commendable self restraint, Macleod commented, ‘It’s all gone a bit crazy around here.’
Business is never going to go ‘a bit crazy’ at Monachyle Mhorbecause Nature determines that nothing will impede what has to be one of the most tranquil views from any restaurant.
This restaurant with rooms can be reached only by a 20-minute drive along the side of a loch. As we sat down I struggled to spot any physical change since I first ate here ten years ago. The water still laps languidly on the shore, there are innumerable different shades of green across the valley, and its overall beauty remains on a remarkably human scale.
And there is still venison on the menu. I remembered this being a dish that Lewis, a keen hunter, prepares cleverly, here serving it as his version of a Sunday roast alongside roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Two distinguished first courses preceded this, a butternut squash and coconut soup with lime and chilli and a beetroot panna cotta. Cherry and cranberry parfait, a well-priced wine list, and enthusiastic service from a young team were equally impressive.
Once back in the lounge, almost over-heated by a wood-burning stove, we bumped into Lewis only too keen to explain that the only way to prosper in such an isolated location is to provide customers with more and different reasons to stay even longer.
So in Callander, the gateway to the Trossachs and Loch Katrine, Lewis has established the Mhor brand, now in dark red, above Mhor Fish, another fish and chip shop, and Mhor Bread, a bakery. In nearby Balquhidder, Lewis has opened Mhor 84, a budget hotel of particular appeal to hikers and cyclists, and an annual Mhor Festival takes place by the loch.
Lewis is definitely a chef with a clan following.
Café Gandolfi 64 Albion Street, Glasgow G1 1NY; tel +44 (0)141 552 6813
Crabshakk 1114 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8TD; tel +44 (0)141 334 6127
Monachyle Mhor Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Perthshire FK19 8PQ; tel +44 (0)1877384622