FOR as long as I can remember – in fact, for more than 30 years – The Cellar in Anstruther was run by Peter Jukes, a one-time Scottish Chef of the Year, a past chairman of the Master Chefs of Great Britain, and a man who had brought an unprecedented level of cuisine to this bustling, down-to-earth fishing village in the East Neuk.
24 East Green, Anstruther, Fife KY10 3AA
Three-course lunch £24
Three-course dinner £42
When he died 18 months ago at Hogmanay, the world of Scottish gastronomy lost one of its grandest elder statesmen, and it seemed unthinkable that his idiosyncratic fish restaurant, tucked away in a courtyard you’d struggle to find on a dark night, might continue without its creator and one-man army.
If ever there was a tribute to Jukes, however, it is that he created a legacy that was worth saving, and that one of the country’s top young chefs was willing to walk in his shoes by taking on the institution that Jukes built over three long decades of toil. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year when Anstruther-raised Billy Boyter took on The Cellar, leaving one of the best gigs in the business – as head chef at the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant at The Balmoral in Edinburgh – to do so.
It’s too early to tell whether Boyter will succeed, but so far the auguries look good. Without making so many changes that he would alienate regulars, he has placed his stamp on the former cooperage and smokehouse that Jukes transformed into a one-of-a-kind establishment. The dark passageway and arch into a flower-strewn courtyard are still there, and the reception area remains, although it is now less formal and simply a gateway rather than the place where pre-dinner drinks are served and orders taken. But the whole bottom half of the restaurant, which was once home to tables of diners, has been converted into a relaxed seating and bar area, complete with sofas and fireplace.
The reshaping of the chassis is due in part to what is under the bonnet, with the engine now consisting of just Boyter and his assistant chef in the kitchen, Gregor Vimpany, while out front his former colleague at Number One, Patricia Kirk, is the restaurant manager and has just one waitress working with her. Back in Jukes’ heyday, the place had around 50 covers, which meant a big kitchen staff and hefty overheads. Boyter’s 22-cover restaurant can be serviced by just the two chefs and two front-of-house staff, with the circle being squared by the intention to have two sittings in the evenings. So far it seems to be working, and when we visited on a Sunday lunchtime the place was two-thirds full, with no spaces for dinner that evening.
The other main difference between the old Cellar and the phoenix version is what’s on the menu. Under Jukes, this was an old-school, formal fish restaurant with a heavy emphasis on traditional French techniques and recipes, while the 30-year-old Boyter has pared down the menu, offering three dishes for each course, and has shifted the emphasis to what could loosely be described as a contemporary Scottish approach. Sure, fish is on the menu – the restaurant is yards from the harbour of a fishing village and is next to the Scottish Fisheries Museum for goodness sake – but two of the three main courses are meat dishes, for example.
What hasn’t changed is the quality, which was apparent as soon as our bread arrived: clearly homemade (as were the unsalted pats of butter), it was unfeasibly light and moist. It was all I could do to stop myself gorging on the large bowl on the corner of the table.
It turned out that I was sensible to save some space because the three courses that followed were worthy of a Michelin-starred kitchen. My starter consisted of a decent mound of crab topped with slices of heirloom tomato and served with small blocks of Thai basil in a jelly form, a disarmingly simple yet beautifully fresh dish that suggested a chef who didn’t feel the need to over-elaborate.
Bea was similarly impressed with her astonishingly tender discs of lightly cured salmon, which were served with fennel and broad beans, although she did struggle to locate any sign of the promised wasabi. Still, this was a well-constructed dish packed full of fresh, clean summer flavours.
In fact, the longer the meal went on, the more it put me in mind of Michael Smith’s gorgeously simple yet memorably crisp dishes at The Three Chimneys on Skye, where less is more (not a concept that I usually have much time for). My main course of pearly white pollock, for instance, was built around a perfectly cooked fillet of fish but came with a truffle macaroni that was curiously short on truffle, but which was accompanied by a classy combination of fresh peas, small strands of samphire, thick slices of baby courgettes and pea shoots.
Bea was blown away by her confit lamb belly, which was remarkably tender and fat-free, and which came with a small helping of couscous supplemented by two long lines of a beautifully light black aubergine puree.
We rounded off with two puddings that, for once, lived up to the excellence that had preceded them. On the menu, Bea’s panna cotta with mango and coconut sounded like so many other identikit desserts, but what followed was anything but. First came a dollop of mango sorbet atop a layer of coconut tapioca, followed by a sprinkling of desiccated coconut, and then finally a thick mother lode of conventional but silky smooth panna cotta.
If anything, my pudding of a soft but incredibly intense roll of chocolate cremeux, plus ground hazelnut and a raspberry sorbet that was so dark red that it was almost purple, was even better. Spectacularly good in fact.
We rounded off with coffee and a couple of nice petits fours, and concluded that, despite my preference for heavier Gallic grub, it’s difficult to fault Boyter’s operation. At a push you’d pick out the chunky prices – £45.50 for three courses and coffee – but then it’s a short season in this part of the world and he’ll need to make his money over the summer. Generally, though, the boy done good; really good.
24 East Green, Anstruther, Fife KY10 3AA
(01333 310 378, www.thecellaranstruther.co.uk)