NESTLED on the Moray coast, just three miles from the county town of Banff, the picturesque fishing village of Whitehills is one of those communities that used to rely on what it could take from the sea but has had to reinvent itself as the days of fishy plenty came to an end. These days its tidy little harbour, which is one of just a few on the Moray Firth accessible in all tides, holds more small yachts and gin palaces bought with Aberdonian largesse than fishing boats.
Sadly, despite the odd conspicuous flash of oil wealth, Whitehills is just a little too far from the economic honey pot of Aberdeen to really benefit from its recent financial renaissance, while the tourists that flock to the west coast generally bypass this coast. This is their loss: the towns and villages of the Moray coast like Pennan and Portsoy are remarkably unspoilt and, when sunny, provide some of Scotland’s best (and best-value) holidaying.
Whitehills is less picture perfect than some Moray ports, but one of the reasons it’s attracting visitors from the surrounding area is its recently refurbished pub, the Seafield Arms. Half hidden down a back street opposite a pottery housed in an old kirk, the place does a roaring trade, with its wood-lined, nautical-themed bar usually full, its family-friendly beer garden with tables for lunch and bouncy castles for the kids a popular meeting place in the summer, while its three bedrooms are full throughout the tourist season.
Most of all, the Seafield Arms has developed a reputation as a dining destination. As we drew up in the car park, it was difficult to envisage how this understated little pub could be the place so many locals had recommended, but as we were led into the restaurant, it all began to fall into place.
There are few decent places to eat in Banffshire, but for those that do exist – such as The Harbour restaurant in Gardenstown or the County Hotel in Banff – a sea view is an integral part of the offering. At the Seafield Arms, however, we found ourselves in a tidy room kitted out in muted neutral colours without views. Low ceilings with spotlights, wooden floors and red velveteen chairs made for a comfortable, well-presented environment.
The biggest surprise was the menu, which landed on the table with a thud. With 30 starters and main course à la carte options, plus a set lunch of six starters and six main courses, this was more like War And Peace than a menu. I buttonholed a waitress and asked whether every dish was made freshly, with non-frozen ingredients, as it said on the menu, and received a shocked look; I thought she was going to ask me to wash my mouth out. Suitably chastened, we all set about digesting this chunky gastronomic document.
Ailsa, our resident fussy madam, decided to skip the starter but the two boys went for the deep-fried calamari and spent the next 20 minutes in raptures. Crisp batter, soft, fleshy calamari, super-garlicky mayonnaise, all delivered in industrial quantities, ensured their usual machine-gun fire of chat was replaced by groans of appreciation.
Bea’s large helping of piri piri tiger prawns was equally well-received, especially as they were very spicy, which suited Vindaloo Girl perfectly. I’d been pre-primed and had ordered the Thai fish cakes, which turned out to be every bit as impressive as I’d been told – stuffed with fish, and served with a sweet chilli sauce and fresh lime.
By the time our main courses arrived we had already started to reappraise our opinion of the Seafield Arms. This was superior gastropub fare served in farmer-sized portions, and we could immediately see why it has a burgeoning reputation.
Our main courses were equally impressive. All three youngsters plumped for the enormous burgers, which are made with minced steak, from cows raised on a local farm which has been hung for 28 days, and which is then served with cheese, relish and hand-cut chips. Once again the reaction was rapturous: their verdict was that they’d never tasted better.
Bea pushed the boat out, spending £23 on the fillet of pork with local black pudding, roast butternut squash, wild boar tortellini with redcurrant jus, and found herself confronted with a meat mountain that she struggled to finish. The meat was succulent and not remotely bland; the trimmings elevated what could have been a dull dish.
The Seafield Arms makes much of its commitment to the local economy and its determination to support local producers, and even has a long page of “local game and freshly landed Whitehills fish” on the menu. As Bea had plumped for the pork, I decided to go for something fishy and eventually decided to prolong the Thai theme via the spicy red Thai curry with monkfish, cod, tiger prawns and langoustines served with saffron and jasmine rice. Our accommodating waitress asked the chef to tone down the spiciness, and what came back was a bowl stuffed full of huge chunks of fish, with the meatiness of the monkfish being nicely offset by the lighter texture and more subtle tones of the cod.
By now we were all absolutely stuffed but determined to do our duty and sample the puddings (yes, I know, we’re a stoic lot, the Baths). Nobody could face a cheeseboard containing three familiar Scottish cheeses (Black Crowdie gruth dubh, Isle of Mull cheddar, and Lanark blue) but Lochie loved his bespoke ice-cream and sorbet mountain, Ollie’s sticky toffee pudding was moist and very sweet, Bea’s lemon posset was so tart that it set her teeth jangling, while my gorgeously light chocolate mousse cake with hazelnut praline and ginger honey ice-cream went down a storm. The only shocker was Ailsa’s tiramisu, which was exactly as our waitress had warned her – delicious, but packed with so much marsala coffee liqueur that she’d need to be carried out.
That rounded off a meal that was unexpectedly excellent, if also considerably more expensive than we’d anticipated. Yet fundamentally, with its fantastic service, staggeringly large portions and consistently well-executed dishes, this was a wonderful find in an area that desperately needs more decent places to eat.
5 Chapel Street, Whitehills, Banffshire (01261 861209, www.seafieldarms.co.uk)
Starters £4.95-£12.95 Main courses £8.95-£29.95
Children’s main courses £4.95
Two course lunch £9.95