Restaurant review: The Fishmarket Restaurant, Mallaig
Mallaig on a Tuesday night is as quiet as a morgue, but for a gaggle of tourists at the fish and chip shop. Fortunately, the idea of seafood in the West of Scotland is no longer confined to haddock and chips. Having belatedly realised we have a product worth boasting about, almost every pub seems to have opened a restaurant serving "fresh local seafood".
The Fishmarket Restaurant, on the edge of the harbour, wins the contest for shortest journey from boat to plate. Mallaig harbour isn't picturesque, it's a workmanlike place of ferries, fishing boats and chilled warehouses, but this only adds to the authenticity, as does a seal bobbing around in the harbour waters. The waitress assures me that, yes, everything is fresh, everything is local.
There are certain "musts" for a fish restaurant in the West of Scotland. You must serve haddock and chips. You must serve scampi. You must have The Best of Runrig playing on a continuous loop. During any given dining experience, the diner must hear the live version of Loch Lomond at least twice. The Fishmarket ticks all those boxes. But it also offers a wide-ranging, unpretentious, menu to suit a range of tastes and budgets. The kitchen sticks with tried and tested combinations: scallops with pesto, mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, halibut with creamy mushroom sauce. It has a no-nonsense approach favoured in much of rural Scotland and it works: low-key decor, big portions and prices that are less than you'd pay in cities.
My starter, creamy scallop and prawn chowder (8.95), is an interestingly fresh take on cullen skink. It's the kind of genius idea which probably only works in Scotland, where the season demands a summery dish, but the weather is apt to be cold, leaving you hankering after something warm and creamy.
The chowder manages creaminess without being cloying, and is populated with generous slices of scallop and meaty little prawns. Slices of potato and veg make it a hearty option, though the veg appears to have been chosen chiefly on grounds of colour: carrots, sweetcorn and red peppers make the plate look something like an artist's palette.
After some deliberation, I choose a medley for the main course: prawns, monkfish and scallops with asparagus, sugar snap peas, pinenuts, vanilla and muscat (20.75). The fish is laid out in a neat row of alternate slices on a bed of crunchy veg. Three slices of lime, lemon and orange sit on the side of the plate like scatter cushions on a white sofa. This is cookery as interior design.
The scallops are great. I've rarely tasted a competently cooked Scottish scallop that isn't. The prawns are uneven. The first – on the small side – is chewy, suggesting too long on the stove, but the second is perfect, with the meaty softness of a fresh prawn cooked just right. The light, sweet sauce complements the mild flavours of the shellfish.
The chunks of monkfish are somewhat devoid of flavour, and the sheer size of them begins to feel like a challenge. I really don't need the serving of three quite large "baby potatoes" which are eyeing me accusingly from a side dish.
I don't need dessert either, but the malted chocolate cheesecake (6.50) has been calling to me ever since I first read the menu outside the door. And it doesn't disappoint. It's cheesy, creamy and moreish, making me glad I have a bracing walk uphill back to my hotel.
I turn from my harbour view and discover that the other tables have been vacated, wiped down and set for the next day. I am, in fact, alone. Dining solo has never bothered me, but being the only one left in the building save for a patient waitress who could probably do with finishing her shift is a special kind of alone. It's time to go. Having eaten plentifully and well, I couldn't eat another mouthful. And in any case, Donnie Munro is about to crank up the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond for the third time.
- This article was first published in The Scotsman on July 30, 2011