AS I found this summer, one of the great things about doing a whole succession of seafood restaurants in a couple of weeks is that it gives you perspective.
Town Pier, Fort William (01397 705589, crannog.net)
Starters £6.75-£9.95. Main courses £16.95-£22.95. Puddings £6.50-£6.95 (cheeseboard £8.95)
You can compare and contrast, sure in the knowledge that you’re doing so with the memory of past meals fresh in your mind.
No matter the manifest virtues of the many seafood restaurants I visited on the west coast, there can be few busier ones in Scotland than Crannog. This institution on the pier in Fort William has about 150 covers, but on both occasions I’ve visited it this year it’s been absolutely heaving. And not just with tourists either; when I went recently, far outside the summer season, the restaurant was full of locals who were clearly regulars.
Nor is it the case – as perhaps it once was – that west coast fisherman Finlay Finlayson’s town centre restaurant is the only local option for foodies in this corner of Lochaber. Whether it’s the Old Pines right next to the Commando Monument, the Eagle Barge at nearby Spean Bridge, the upmarket Inverlochy Castle, or the up-and-coming Lime Tree Hotel in the town centre, there are now plenty of options nearby.
Instead, there are two main reasons for the enduring popularity of Crannog, and the first is its situation. Plonked at the end of the small pier on Loch Linnhe, right next to the Fort William ferry, not only are there fantastic views up and down the loch, but traffic is brisk and there’s the constant coming and going of boats to hold the attention of diners.
The second and even more compelling reason for visiting Crannog is a specials board that can read like a gastronomic War And Peace. Before Finlayson set up the restaurant 20 years ago (converting his distinctive red-roofed bait shed on the pier to do so), he was a full-time fisherman and part of his raison d’être was a determination to use the freshest fish. The result is a bulging blackboard packed with dishes prepared using the most recent catch.
As with all the best seafood restaurants, there’s nothing particularly complicated about the fare at Crannog: the idea is simply to bring locally landed fish and shellfish to the table as quickly as possible and let the quality of the main ingredient speak for itself (or not, as the case may be).
With that firmly at the front of their minds, Bea and Ollie both started off with the seared Islay scallops and weren’t disappointed. Big, succulent and served with a celeriac remoulade and pickled fennel, they were both in raptures. Ailsa went for a starter of Inverlochy salmon parcels from the specials board and was less enthusiastic, finding them a little dry, while Lochie opted for the steamed mussels in white wine and garlic and was in seventh heaven as he ploughed his way through an unfeasibly big urn of juicy molluscs. I soon realised that colossal starters were the order of the day as I worked my way through a bowl of Cullen skink that was good but so large I wasn’t sure whether I could face my main course.
As they always do, such misgivings disappeared as soon as a mountain of pan-fried monkfish and salmon arrived, accompanied by creamed leeks, spinach and clapshot, a wonderful combination that left me feeling completely sated. Nor was I the only one who enthusiastically tucked in; by now Ollie was well into a bowl of piping hot (in every sense) mussels and cockles, which had been steamed with tomato and chilli and served with a crab crouton. We often spend hours on the beach outside my brother-in-law’s house looking for cockles, some of which are used as fishing bait and some of which are quickly cooked and eaten, so Ollie was in his element and gave his main course an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Bea opted for the sole fillets from the specials board and loved a simply prepared dish that, when cooked correctly – as this was – is unbeatable. Sadly, the same was not true for Lochie, who ordered the seafood selection thinking it would be hot, only to find it delivered on ice and with a dreaded oyster – about the only food that makes him feel queasy on sight – facing him. Still, the langoustines and their friends didn’t go to waste as the rest of my gannets tucked in.
My fussy daughter Ailsa, declaring herself sick of seafood after two meals in three days, plumped for a main course of seared duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, cabbage and a thick pepper sauce and was rewarded with lovely slabs of pink meat which tasted every bit as succulent as they looked.
I’m not sure if nouvelle cuisine ever reached Fort William, but its Lilliputian portions certainly aren’t part of Crannog’s repertoire and by the time we reached pudding, belt buckles were straining around our table. Crannog isn’t cheap, but no-one could suggest you don’t get value for money. Bea wimped out of pudding, while I opted for a palate-cleansing bowl of delicious home-made cinnamon, ginger and vanilla ice-cream. Lochie tucked into the richest dark chocolate brownie I’ve ever seen and rated it ten out of ten, while Ollie complained the rhubarb and apple crumble was OK but not as good as that at Applecross Inn. The last word, though, went to Ailsa – her cranachan was so devastatingly good that for the past four months, every time we head north of Perth, she has asked whether we can make a detour for another portion of pudding heaven. n