Fine Scottish fayre

Fine Scottish fayre

Glasgow restaurant Arisaig is fast becoming a whisky venue of some note.Ian Buxton visited it

Whisky & Culture | 09 Sep 2005 | Issue 50 | By Ian Buxton

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What do you get if you blend a lawyer and a graduate in International Relations? Well, a stylish, trend-setting contemporary Scottish bar restaurant with a rapidly growing reputation seems to be the answer here.Arisaig, the place, is a small village in the West Highlands. Devasted by the Clearances, its most recent claim to fame was as a location in Bill Forsyth’s 1983 cult classic Local Heroes (if you haven’t seen this get the DVD, now).Like many West Highland villages it has a lost, wistful air about it.It clearly fascinates Stephen Bonomi, coowner of Arisaig the restaurant (he’s the politics grad, by the way). I paused to admire the large photos of Arisaig (the place) that line the wall of Arisaig and decorate the menu and discovered that Stephen took them himself.Clearly a man of many talents, he explained how he spends hours waiting for the right light or sea conditions to capture these artful compositions. I then felt rather guilty at my instant assumption that they were digital prints. Stephen is a died-in-thewool film man. No wonder my philistinism pained him.It evidently also pains him to part with the pictures. They are nominally for sale but he refuses offers for particular favourites he can’t bear to lose. Quite right too. They lend a distinctive atmosphere to this stylish central Glasgow operation that says quietly but firmly, we know who we are, we’re in touch with our roots and we’re proud of them.That’s not for sale.That confidence comes through in the menu. Arisaig go to great pains to select the very best of Scottish cuisine. So passionate was he that I began to envision Stephen and his partner Naveed Rashid (the lawyer) as culinary highwaymen. Two latter day Jock Turpins, holding up the giant refrigerated lorries that carry Scotland’s larder away to the markets of London and the continent, just to hand pick the finest ingredients for their fortunate customers. “Your scallops or your life,” they cry and another Spanish juggernaut rolls home empty.The short but purposeful menu is just crammed with little delicacies. Just to pick at random, the starters section includes Orkney dulse seaweed cheese, Aultbea smoked salmon and Stornoway black pudding. I could hardly turn the page.With fishing historically a mainstay of places like Arisaig, and superb sea fish a particular strength of Scottish produce, the fish selection is naturally a highlight.Typically, you can choose from Shetland monkfish (with Shuna mussels alongside in Atlantic Kombu seaweed sauce); Loch Etive oysters; surf clams and other delights. Of course, salmon and sea bass put in an appearance and there’s room for a traditional Scottish favourite, grilled smoked haddock. This comes with prawn mash, Shuna mussels and a smoked cheese, mustard and whisky sauce that is good enough to eat on its own.Especially so if mopped up with some of the delicious bread that appeared magically on our table.Moving onto the land, the menu offers roast venison sausages; Ayrshire lamb; that Stornoway black pudding as a main course, this time with haggis accompaniment.Traditional vegetables such as kale (Scots eat this, most nationalities feed it to their cattle) vie for space with trendier accompaniments such as rocket and tomato salad. This being Glasgow, there are of course proper thick cut chips – just like your mum used to make.The fillet steak, something of a signature dish here, is “Scottish farmed fillet with Lagavulin peat whisky sauce”. Stephen, who masterminds the kitchen, confirmed that for the full effect the Lagavulin was added twice – once prior to cooking and a final splash as the dish is plated to carry through the distinctive Islay flavour. It really works, with the smoky Lagavulin notes infused deep into the meat itself, yet coming through more vibrantly in the rich sauce.“But what about the whisky?” I hear you cry. Well the bar is well served, with more than 70 malts on display. In fact, by the time you read this the collection will have grown as Naveed and Stephen are actively seeking out further delicacies for a special whisky list that is under active development.All the old favourites are here, but I spotted some interesting drams that are a little harder to find: AnCnoc, for example, Pulteney and Linkwood. One that stood out was a 21 year old Benromach, finished in Hungarian Takaji wine barrels and just ideal for polishing off after the desserts.But it isn’t just the growing range that impresses, but the enlightened pricing and serving policy. First of all, the measure is a standard 35cl rather than the effete 25cl, which merely stains your glass and insults your palate. It’s creeping in everywhere, despite being a whisky measure fit for neither man nor beast. I was glad to see it had no place in Arisaig.But, good though that is, happiness could be destroyed by greedy pricing. Not so here: all the ‘standard’ malts have a standard price of £3.55 (a few gems from Diageo’s Rare Malts Collection are £6.50).This is to be commended, because it means the curious drinker can explore this range and try something new without being apprehensive about the final bill. “We can recommend different drams, without customers feeling they’re being stung,” explained Naveed. “Once the price is out of the way, people are a lot more adventurous.” The best-selling malt is Bruichladdich 10 year old, a dram that Naveed commends for its accessibility and the independent attitude of its management. I expect it to make an appearance soon in the dessert menu where the subtlety and length of flavour will complement some of the delightfully traditional Scottish puddings, such as clootie dumplings and cranachan.The light and airy premises in St Vincent Street (handy for the train home from Queen Street station) are Stephen and Naveed’s second Arisaig. Such was the success of their original premises that they were soon outgrown and the move to the city centre was made earlier this year.It’s brought a buoyant lunchtime business, with local captains of industry networking and doing deals in the former banking hall.The local management of at least one wellknown automotive brand regularly make the trip from Cumbernauld to entertain customers here – no wonder, when at a week’s notice, Arisaig had their entire menu translated into Korean to accommodate a group of potential clients.Other pleasures are that despite the restaurant seating nearly 80, the tables are generously spread, allowing you to talk to your companion without all the nearby diners overhearing every word. And they could because, in another welcome step, the background music in the restaurant area is played at a volume that permits civilised conversation without bawling every word and hear only one in three of the replies.In the bar and lounge area, the eclectic sound track is louder and there’s a buzz. You can chill out to Nina Simone and other adult treats or just people watch (this is Glasgow, after all, a non-stop style parade of people who know how to party).In fact, I was strongly reminded of New York. The confident elegance, the strong but deftly handled theming and the stylish décor could fit effortlessly in Manhattan.You’ll gather I liked it. The whisky and food connection works very well and dinner, at around £70-80 for two including wine and service, is good value for the location, style and quality.Two tips: first, use the address and phone number below. This is Arisaig in its current incarnation. Some web guides and restaurant reviews still point you to the old location. It’s closed, so it’s a bad mistake to make!Secondly, book for dinner during Whisky Live Glasgow and enjoy a 10 per cent discount and a complimentary mystery malt (it’s only a mystery because they hadn’t decided which one as this went to press).Arisaig is a short walk from George Square and you’ll meet two true local heroes.Arisaig, 140 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5TF
Tel: +44 (0)141 204 5399
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