Twenty-four hours in Glasgow. My mission: to find the best venues in town for lunch, dinner and – God willing – breakfast. My guide: Muriel Gray, who has been forcing her opinions down my throat for the best part of 25 years, just occasionally pausing in her ranting long enough to force a small amount of food down her own.
Our Glasgow gastro-tour began at lunchtime, in seafood specialist Crabshakk, which has become the hottest restaurant in town, despite its location on an unlovely stretch of arterial road a couple of miles west of the city centre. Walking in, we hit a wall of people waiting to be seated; either at the counter or at one of the tiny tables, some no bigger than tea trays, which have been crammed into the tiny space.
You've heard of a galley kitchen? This is a galley restaurant. So much has been packed so elegantly into the cramped shopfront space, it could have been designed by a yacht builder. Or an architect. Co-owner John MacLeod (no relation) designed some of Glasgow's most stylish restaurants, before opening his own place a year ago. Crabshakk is a clever, multi-tasking hybrid of traditional and modern, its sharp chrome and glass edges softened by wood-plank wainscoting, exposed brickwork and malformed tables of reclaimed timber.
"I don't think this place is going to work," joked Muriel as we shouldered our way through the mob, up the industrial steel staircase to a minuscule mezzanine area holding a handful of tables. The terse menu showcases Scottish fish and shellfish, simply prepared and unfussily presented, from whitebait, smoked mackerel and fish and chips through to whole grilled Scottish lobster at £38, and fruits de mer platter, to share, at £48. It's an all-day operation, so you could refuel on shellfish chowder or mussels and chips, or go for the full three courses, as we did.
Crab cakes, generously stuffed with white crabmeat spiked with chilli and parsley, benefited from the simple treatment, as did seared scallops, served sizzling on the skillet with a herb-scented butter. The scallops, our waiter informed us, were cultivated rather than dredged, cutting short a rant-ette from Muriel about the horrific environmental damage caused by scallop-dredging.
From the daily specials, meltingly fresh plaice, breaded and fried, came with a truffle and tarragon mayonnaise, in which the truffle oil was rather too dominant. Muriel's "wee supper" – that's a small helping of fish and chips – offered a generous piece of beer-battered cod for £5.95, though the jumbo chips, like fried segments of baked potato, didn't seem to belong on the same plate. And I could have done without the bagged salad gussied up with raw red onion; who wants to wake up still tasting yesterday's lunch?
We ended with a bracing affogato – vanilla ice cream drenched in espresso – and a fruit salad that played fast and loose with any claims to be seasonal. As did the fresh flowers on the table, identified by Muriel as peonies, and therefore not due to bloom until April. She went on, in a display of polymathy worthy of QI, to recognise the motif on the plaster cornicing as acanthus leaf with egg and dart, before returning to her rant about how the US was conspiring to block aid to Haiti.
A pleasingly mixed clientele spanning business folk and arty oldies, crisp but friendly service, and decent prices, make Crabshakk a winning operation. For a more formal dinner, we met up again later at Muriel's favourite city-centre restaurant, Dining Room. A gorgeously luxe basement room, with more than a touch of Deco swagger, it exudes the kind of grown-up glamour that would give Gordon Ramsay's joints a run for their money. This is a restaurant designed to be filled with beautiful people. Unfortunately, on the night we visited, it was empty apart from us, and our lovely, heavily pregnant waitress.
Chef/proprietor Jim Kerr (not that one) is a key figure in Glasgow's food scene, with a CV that includes many of the city's landmark restaurants, from Rogano and Nairns, to the original Dining Room, Kerr's first solo venture, a tiny place which was the Crabshakk of its day.
Unlike the predecessor which lends his latest project its name, this reincarnation of Dining Room doesn't appear to have found its market, at least on week nights. Kerr wasn't cooking on the night we visited, and the food didn't quite fulfil the promise of a menu which reads beautifully. Impeccable sashimi and a truffled Jerusalem artichoke soup shone, as did a main of roast rump of lamb, served garlicky and pink, with roasted root veg. But a tart bringing together cold pickled onions and raw figs didn't work at all; nor did the dessicated confit duck in a starter salad.
Desserts, including a peanut butter tart whose nutty pastry held a velvety filling of dark chocolate, showed the heights the kitchen is capable of reaching. And though prices are relatively high, this is clearly a special occasion restaurant, offering some competitively priced fixed menus.
Emptiness, and occasional glitches on the food front notwithstanding, I found plenty to like about Dining Room. And I'm not just saying that because Muriel told me – repeatedly – that I had to.
Crabshakk, 1114 Argyle Street, Glasgow (0141 334 6127)
£25 a head for three courses before wine and service
Dining Room, 104 Bath Street, Glasgow (0141 332 6678)
£35 a head for three courses before wine and service. Set lunch menu £13.50 for two courses