IT’S funny the way places like Finnieston change. One minute – depending on your point of view and your choice of euphemism – they’re couthie, rough as guts or simply best avoided.
Ox and Finch
920 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G3 7TF (0141-339 8627, www.oxandfinch.com)
Sharing plates snacks £2.50-£4.25, raw, cured and cold £5-£8.50, seafood £6.50-£9, meat £5.50-£9.50, vegetables £3.50-£5
Puddings £5, cheese £8
The next minute they’re all shiny and brand new, a magnet for folk with proper cash on the prowl for authenticity.
Sometimes, as with the historic Fife town of Culross or Glasgow’s Merchant City, the transformation to desirability is virtually immediate and the result of conscious regeneration. More often than not, as with several Edinburgh districts, like the once yuppie free zones of Leith and the Royal Mile, change gradually creeps over the place until you wake up one day and they’re completely unrecognisable.
And so it is with Finnieston. When I worked in Glasgow a lifetime ago, a louche pal who liked his grub and a bottle or three at lunch would regularly catch a cab out from central Glasgow to eat at the inestimable Two Fat Ladies, which flummoxed many folk when it opened on the down-at-heel Dumbarton Road in the late Eighties. He’d call his cab “the bus to oblivion”, although we never worked out whether he was referring to its destination or his state of mind by the time he reached pudding.
Either way, back then, Finnieston, despite its proximity to Glasgow University, was nothing like the vibrant enclave of the West End and, in particular, Byres Road. Over the intervening years, however, its big Georgian terraces and wide streets have gradually been colonised by shabby chic. It’s a process of gentrification that has seen the West End spreading gradually eastwards towards the M8.
Nowhere has this change been more vividly reflected than in a remarkable flowering of achingly fashionable restaurants and eateries clustered around Finnieston. Most of them are bloody good too, with the list of must-try venues within easy walking distance expanding by the day to include Crabshakk, the Sisters and The Gannet, plus a slew of oldies but goodies like Shilla and Mother India.
Yet few have arrived with a bigger splash than that made by Ox and Finch. Indeed, since the place opened in the spring, Jon MacDonald’s restaurant has been so full that getting a seat has required a feat of almost epic endurance. We only got in on a Sunday night after initially accepting a table at 9pm, although we were rung and told that a cancellation meant we could come 45 minutes earlier.
It is perhaps unsurprising that MacDonald’s first restaurant venture has proved so successful given that the man himself has developed a loyal and knowledgeable following while running street food brand Scoop and as the founder of Glasgow pop-up dining specialists the Food Cartel, with his van a familiar sight at festivals around Scotland. A former chef for the McLaren F1 team, his approach was “to keep it casual, unstuffy and unpretentious, while providing really good meals that are very accessible”.
All very laudable, and aspirations which fit into the Finnieston zeitgeist. They are, moreover, fully realised in his 70-seater Sauchiehall Street restaurant on the site of the old Konaki Greek Taverna. With booths running down the middle of the room, a tiled bar at one end, lamps hanging down from the heavily corniced high ceilings, and shelves heaving with wine almost the whole length and height of one wall, the whole place has a studiously utilitarian feel in which the mix of retro, kitsch and classic details suggests that a huge amount of thought has gone into ensuring the decor is pitch perfect for its hipster clientele.
So, too, with the ever-so-slightly unconventional menu, which specialises in tapas-style “sharing dishes” that arrive in an entirely haphazard order. It was suggested that we order five or six, so I chose eight, just to be sure, and was very pleased I had (although to be fair, one was a snack and the other was from the vegetable section, which doesn’t really count).
I like this method of eating, and the Ox and Finch does it superbly. Save for the chorizo popcorn, which could have stood a considerably more intense flavour and was greasy to the touch, all the dishes passed muster.
First to arrive was a beautiful carpaccio of rib-eye with truffle dwarf peaches, pine nuts and small chunks of the nicely grainy Italian hard cheese Grana Padano, which was absolutely perfect.
Next up was the blow-torched miso salmon tataki with sesame, ginger and pickles, a disarmingly simple dish that relied on top quality ingredients and which didn’t let us down. From there the flow of dishes out of the kitchen was constant, with a regular overlap meaning that we often had two dishes (never more) to choose from, which ensured that everything arrived straight from the kitchen without delay.
Three chunks of just-succulent-enough hanger steak with Jerusalem artichoke and shiitake mushrooms came and went, as did a slab of succulent confit pork belly with a super-velvety white onion purée studded with raisins and capers, before Bea’s favourite dish, a bowl of king prawns with tomato, chickpeas, parsley and feta, was dispatched in workmanlike fashion.
A trio of seared scallops with chorizo Iberico and sweetcorn disappeared with indecent haste, while the dish of (slightly overcooked) broccoli with anchovies, almonds and poached egg wrapped up a remarkable tsunami of dishes, all delivered by an unfeasibly cheery and personable roster of waiting staff.
Pudding was odd, mainly because my peanut butter parfait only tasted faintly of peanut butter and was bullied by a beautifully rufty-tufty cherry sorbet. Bea’s equally subtle coconut pannacotta came with a dab of mango and a thick slick of eye-wateringly good black olive caramel in the bottom of the glass, all accompanied by pistachio soldiers, and providing a rousing finale to a very enjoyable meal.
And make no mistake, this was an excellent meal in which style was matched by substance. At least now I know why I could never get in.