A very fishy week ...

Crabshakk spread

... and why you should have no qualms about ordering fish on a Monday.

This week has been mainly about enjoying, watching and eating fish, my favourite ingredient on any restaurant menu.

My fish-watching – a minority sport I will admit – began with a request from my former chef at L’Escargot, Martin Lam, who had in turn recently met Lola Black. She is the daughter of the late William Black, who, sadly, died when she was six years old. 

William had been a friend and a renowned fish supplier about whom we made a television programme entitled Mad About Fish in 1990, when William used to buy the freshest fish available in Boulogne fish market and then on a Tuesday evening drive his lorry load of fish to London via Dover. When Martin mentioned this programme to Lola, she wanted to see it.

The programme opens with Black driving in Chelsea just before dawn prior to making his delivery to the kitchen back door of Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire (site today of Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant). Also in the programme is a scene of Black assisting Alastair Little as they hump a giant tuna down the stairs of Little’s then-restaurant in Frith Street before concluding with Black having lunch with JR in Kensington Place, still worrying about whether a Japanese customer is happy with another tuna delivery.

So much has changed in the 35 years since. All those restaurants have closed. Neither Black nor Little are with us, sadly. Brexit and all its associated paperwork would have made Black’s profession completely untenable. The programme ends with an interview with chef/restaurateur Sally Clarke, who categorically states that she would never eat fish in a restaurant on a Monday as it is never that fresh.

This struck me as somewhat outdated, too. This situation has changed thanks to a succession of enterprising individuals who drive up from Brixham, Newlyn or Mersea Island early on a Monday to supply fresh fish to London’s chefs. One who still does is Ben Woodcraft from Mersea Island via Ben’s Fish Ltd – ‘the freshest sea bass from the North Sea’ according to Martin Lam. But he no longer delivers on Mondays because, as he put it ,‘there is not enough demand. We find delivering two to three days a week [rather than every day] is more profitable – it just means that chefs have to be more organised.’

The other reason it is now safe to eat fish in a restaurant on a Monday, as well as oysters when there is not an R in the month, is due to the somewhat prosaic ‘cold chain sophistication’ that governs every aspect of the handling of fish once it is caught. This is the opinion of Robin Hancock, founder and COO of Wright Brothers, who has built a successful business supplying oysters and fresh fish to 750 customers a day, ranging from numerous restaurants (including his own) as well as private individuals. The key is, according to Hancock, that they ‘turn over fish so quickly that it all comes in and immediately goes out again, and then we begin the process all over again’.

Fish Plaice, Glasgow

This was all before our weekend for a family wedding in Glasgow in which fish played a significant role. First of all in Fish Plaice (fishmongers seem to be as fond of puns hairdressers), a fish shop on the busy Byres Road close to our excellent Airbnb. This shop had a fabulous range on offer: langoustines, scallops on the half shell and unopened, bags of mussels, monkfish liver, oysters, clams, cockles, crabs as well as several white fish and of course quite a lot of salmon.

The sight of this array set me up for the short walk to the second branch of Crabshakk, which the architect John Macleod recently opened on Vinicombe Street – this one is referred to as the ‘Botanics’ branch as opposed to the original Finnieston one opened in 2009, now referred to as the ‘Wee Shakk’. This very much larger, extremely lively new branch is quite a step on from their first restaurant, and reinforces the best restaurant management principles such as ensuring the team is happy and sourcing and cooking the freshest seafood from Scotland and sticking to that. On the menu are about 25 fish dishes and one meat main course.

The location used to be a garage and Macleod recalls peering in through its closed front doors and windows during the COVID-19 era when it was first on the market. The glacial pace of everything during lockdown led to unnecessary anxiety on Mcleod’s part before he finally took the plunge and invested heavily in its transformation.

The Botanics branch is based firmly on the design formula that makes the original location so attractive. But whereas in the former site photos of a young John and his brother messing about by the Scottish seashore adorn the walls, here he has gone for something more dramatic, more evocative of the confidence that this architect-turned-restaurateur has developed over the years.

Down one wall, past the inevitably busy bar, hang two sculptures: the first is an outline of the Port of Ness on the Isle of Lewis where Macleod grew up and where his family built boats, and the second is a profile of St Monans harbour in Fife where David Scott, the head chef for the past 15 years, grew up and where his father had a lobster boat. Tables run down the centre of the room and off to the right is the kitchen – and Scott, of course.

Crabshakk scallops

The dishes that emerge are as confident as the restaurant’s design. Crab cakes with lemon mayonnaise; excellent taramasalata served with ‘charred toast’; and the scallops served in the skillet in which they have been cooked complete with blissfully moppable cooking juices. But best of all – and I recall being impressed with this at the original Crabshakk – is a plate of tempura squid with the most delicious dipping sauce of soy, ponzu and coriander. But it is the crunchy squid that most impressed me.

Crabshakk Botanics – motto: ‘cracking good food’ – is undoubtedly a happy restaurant and Macleod obviously a happy restaurateur with an interesting perspective on his second career. ‘I’m lucky’, he told me just before my recent dinner there, ‘to have picked a profession that attracts so many different and disparate professionals. Lawyers, accountants, people in the media – even the odd food writer. They all come here, to me. I cannot think of another profession where this happens. If it makes them happy, it makes me even happier.’ And with that Macleod finished what remained of his Guinness and we shook hands.

From this Monday, 1 April, Crabshakk Botanics will be open on Mondays, so seven days a week. ‘Walk-ins welcome’, they say.

Crabshakk Botanics, 18 Vinicombe Street, Glasgow G12 8BE; tel +44 (0)141 286 4509

Every Saturday, Nick writes about restaurants. To stay abreast of his reviews, sign up for our weekly newsletter.