Forget incest and folk dancing, golf is right up there on my personal list of leisure pursuits no right-thinking person should ever attempt in the course of a lifetime. And until recently, eating out in St Andrews, ancient seat of the game, would also have appeared on that list, after my first dining experience in that flinty Scottish town.
Attracted about five years ago by the prospect of a cute-sounding local restaurant owned by the husband of smiley TV host Carol Smillie, I endured a wretched meal - one of the few I've felt unable subsequently to write about. The only thing the place had going for it were the prices; a two-course lunch cost around the same as a bowl of soup in most decent restaurants. (I've just checked - the restaurant is still going strong, though the set lunch has soared to £6.95 for two courses ...)
With the opening of The Seafood Restaurant in 2003, the gastronomic prospects in St Andrews improved dramatically. The sister restaurant to a highly regarded establishment in nearby St Monans, it started winning awards almost as soon as it opened, including the AA's Scottish Restaurant of 2004-5.
The purpose-built building, a glass cube tucked into the rocky coastline below the town, is the most modern thing in St Andrews by about a century. With waves scudding beneath it and sea-birds wheeling above, it's the kind of exuberant, elemental place you expect to find in Cornwall, rather than in this furled and glowering corner of eastern Scotland.
Given the starkness of the setting (on a freezing winter's day, at least) the interior is welcomingly well insulated, if not exactly snug, on account of the floor-to-ceiling windows - the annual Windolene bill must be right up there with the cost of providing security for Prince William. The crisp, neutral décor doesn't try and compete with the views; the room's only feature is a brushed-steel behemoth of an open kitchen, which gives a fuller than usual view of what's going on - truly the Old Vic of theatre kitchens. With all that glass, and the ovens going at full blast, I speculated that it might get pretty warm in summer. "No danger of that, we're in Scotland," said the local lad, Harry, his lips gradually losing their bluish tinge.
It's a cliché of restaurant reviewing to say that the fish was so fresh, it could have jumped straight from the sea to the pan. But here, it's just about possible, so direct is the connection between the kitchen and the ocean. Even those unfortunates seated with their backs to the sea get a view of the municipal aquarium. So what we want is fish and shellfish, simply prepared and as fresh as it gets.
What we get instead tends towards the over-elaborate, relying on fussy supporting ingredients rather than letting the fish and seafood star. Smoked salmon was good, non-oily with a lingering, developing flavour, and didn't need the accompanying red onion and capers to provide interest. Half a dozen rock oysters - from Kilbrandon, off the west coast of Scotland - were similarly gussied up with a mango and chilli salsa and a small shot glass of Bloody Mary. A garlicky and fine-textured chicken-liver parfait came with full supporting cast of apple jelly, foie gras and Parma ham boudin, while parsnip velouté was underseasoned beneath its garnishing of fresh apple cubes and parsnip crisps.
The disadvantage of the open kitchen became apparent as we waited for our main courses, and I spotted one of our dishes, pan-fried beef sirloin, sitting on the pass for a good five minutes before it was joined by the fishy orders. It had been requested medium rare, but after its heat lamp treatment, it was no longer pink within, despite the all-weather protection offered by a fan of garnishes resembling a Gertrude Shilling hat. Best of the fish was poached smoked haddock, unpretentiously partnered with crushed potatoes, poached egg and hollandaise. Pan-seared cod was tight-textured, rather than falling into loose milky chunks; in a playful take on the fish supper, it came with confit potatoes shaped into "chips" and a turned spoonful of crushed truffled peas. I can't comment on the sole, as it came in a serving so tiny that I felt too guilty to demand a nibble, but the pancetta-spiked cabbage with it was good.
Desserts, including a nicely unsweet millefeuille (actually more like quatre feuilles) containing poached pear and whole blackberries, were delicate and finely worked. The anxious tendency to prop up simple ingredients with all manner of additions reached its zenith with a plate of cheeses whose panoply of extras included home-made oatcakes, grapes, quince jelly and piccalilli (making its second appearance in two columns - there must be a revival afoot).
Of the cheeses, only the Isle of Mull cheddar was Scottish, which seemed to be missing a trick. In fact, the menu could generally have done with a bit more regionality. If some of the fish was locally sourced, why not tell us so? And if not, why not? When the location is this spectacular - and believe me, it is - you might as well make the most of all things local.
The Seafood Restaurant, The Scores, St Andrews, Fife
Three-course lunch for £24
Side Orders: Catch Of The Day
The view of the harbour's always stunning, the menu always changing. Expect only Scottish seafood cooked with French savoir faire: seared king scallops with cauliflower and ratte mash, pancetta and truffle jus.
North Pier, Aberdeen (01224 576229)
Still shipshape after 25 years. Eclectically decorated rooms full of character and happy punters who come for simply but sensitively cooked plates of the freshest fish and crustacea. Save space for sticky toffee pudding.
1A Dock Place, Leith (0131 554 1018)
A smart choice for fish. The look is more Mediterranean but a South-east Asian influence holds sway on the menu. But it's also the place for classics such as lobster thermidor.
225A West George Street, Glasgow (0141 572 0899)
Kippers for breakfast, their own pickled herring for lunch in the bar, Loch Crinan prawns landed that afternoon for dinner. The local catch is impeccably cooked at this traditional hotel.
Crinan, Argyll (01546 830261)Reuse content