Glasgow’s summer, whatever the weather, should be lifted this year by the Commonwealth Games. The city is readying itself: hoardings proclaim the arrival of new restaurants, timed to feed the visiting crowds. But over our stay it was three firmly established operators who impressed the most. Indeed “clan chieftains” would be an apt description for Seaumas MacInnes, chef/proprietor of Café Gandolfi; John Macleod, who created Crabshakk; and Tom Lewis, who converted the family farm into a restaurant at Monachyle Mhor, north of Glasgow. It’s not so much that these men have armies of followers prepared to draw their dirks on their behalf, but that they have blazed a path for others to follow.
MacInnes is the grand old man of this trio. He began work at Café Gandolfi in 1983 before eventually taking over from the founder Iain Mackenzie and opening Bar Gandolfi above. He also created Gandolfi Fish next door, with a takeaway proving unsurprisingly successful in a city that loves the fish and chip supper.
At Café Gandolfi, Cullen skink was a creamy rendition of this classic smoked haddock soup. The black and white puddings from Stornoway were exceptional, as were the Isle of Mull scallops. All were 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, John Macleod is a parvenu. In 2009, this former architect saw the potential of a narrow shop opposite the Ben Nevis pub 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 ever since.
To mark a special birthday, we booked a table at Crabshakk for 12 on the mezzanine and, with four bottles of wine, ran up a bill for £411. We also learnt a valuable lesson: in such circumstances main courses are superfluous. Instead, we fell on plates of oysters, scallops with anchovies, crab cakes, monkfish cheeks, bowls of mussels, crisp spiced whitebait, tempura squid and gravadlax with celeriac remoulade. We continued with half a dozen portions of “wee supper”, a half portion of a normal serving of fish and chips.
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. As we left and walked round the corner, builders and chefs were 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 Mhor because of its exceptional location, a 90-minute drive north of Glasgow that ends along the shores of Loch Voil. The beautiful view of the water and the glen has changed little since I first ate here 10 years ago. 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 with 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 also impressive. Once back in the lounge, we bumped into Lewis, who explained that the only way to prosper in such an isolated location is to provide customers with 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.
84 Albion Street, Glasgow G1 1NY, 0141- 552 9475, www.cafegandolfi.com
1114 Argyle Street, Glasgow, 0141-334 6127, Glasgow G3 8DT www.crabshakk.com
Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Perthshire FK19 8PQ, 01877-384622, www.mhor.net
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