It’s all very confusing. You finally revisit St Monans Seafood Restaurant, after meaning to for years, only to find the whole place has changed internally and has rebranded itself in the image of its long-time head chef, Craig Millar, complete with a roving @.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the restaurant’s fantastic position. The little fishing port of St Monans is achingly quaint, a higgledy-piggledy jumble of East Neuk cottages clustered around the harbour, most of them facing out to sea.
The knackered old shipbuilding shed that was a century-old eyesore was pulled down last year, and the result has been to transform the centre of the village. And unlike Elie, just three miles down the coast but now overrun by big-city second-home owners, St Monans’ lack of a sandy beach or golf club means it is still a vibrant community.
Like Elie and Anstruther, where Michelin-starred chef Bruce Sangster’s eponymous restaurant and Peter Jukes’ ultra-traditional seafood restaurant The Cellar remain long-established favourites for Fife foodies, St Monans has in its Seafood Restaurant – sorry, Craig Millar @ 16 West End – a restaurant that has built up a rock-solid reputation over almost 20 years.
After starting in 1993, when chef Tim Butler bought a harbourside pub called The Cabin and opened a restaurant specialising in seafood from neighbouring Pittenweem, the story has been one of unfettered success. A sister restaurant opened in St Andrews in 2003, since when the futuristic glass cube on the West Sands has won a slew of awards.
In some ways, St Andrews overshadowed progress at St Monans, where Millar beavered away regardless. That was remedied last year, when the whole restaurant was remodelled, moving the kitchen to the back of the building to make room for an extra 24 covers. There are now eight tables with spectacular views, straight over the terrace to the sea and the Isle of May beyond. More than that, the whole place has been spruced up and gentrified, and the light and airy dining room with its smart tongue-and-groove walls is a million miles away from The Cabin circa 1993.
But if the interior and the name have changed, the ingredients that have made the Seafood Restaurant a rip-roaring success are still in place. Not only are there those sea views and Millar, who has been with Butler for 13 years, ten of them as head chef in St Monans, but there’s also that relentless focus on seafood.
We started with a small glass of gazpacho that had a slightly vinegary, sour edge but had a commendably strong garlic content. If I liked it and Lucinda didn’t, then there were no misgivings about her starter. The Thai mussel broth was the pick of the pair; a smooth, buttery beauty of a soup with a formidable chilli and lemongrass kick, it had at its centre a small hillock of fresh mussels, each one sublimely firm with an almost nutty flavour.
My light pink, hot smoked organic trout had a beautiful texture and was undoubtedly good, but a tad too subtle and unsmoky for my tastebuds; nor did the small cubes of beetroot or slices of radish inject the pep I’d looked for. Or maybe it’s just that from our table I could actually see the East Pier smokery, where owner James Robb produces excellent smoked fish with the sort of enjoyably strident taste I prefer.
Before our main courses, we enjoyed an interesting and enjoyable cured mackerel and crab Caesar salad, with the slivers of mackerel providing a daringly strong taste that pretty much replicated that of anchovies.
This was in nice contrast to my main course of succulent stone bass with a rather indistinct mélange of chorizo, sweetcorn and wild mushrooms that never even threatened to overwhelm the admittedly subtle flavour of the fish. You should always be careful what you wish for, but some stronger chorizo, for instance, would have given the dish a good deal more character.
Lucinda’s choice of halibut with baby vegetables, pea cream, spring onions and carrot purée was an altogether much bolder and more incisive dish, with the fish equally well cooked as my bass, but with a palpable freshness and vigour lent to the whole ensemble by the potency of the accompanying pea cream. The only pause for thought was the rather incongruous presence of a random baby turnip.
We rounded off with an excellent strawberry panna cotta, though that was also slightly marred by the addition of two bizarre sticks of what can only be described as intensely peppery nougat. There were, however, no misgivings about a trio of cheeses in which a superbly aged Isle of Mull cheddar and some delicate home-made biscuits were the undoubted stars.
All in all, this was an enjoyable meal in comfortable surroundings with peerless views – set in the perfect village for a post-dinner stroll. The wine list is decent and although the waitresses seemed worryingly vague when it came to the provenance of the fish, the service is otherwise prompt and efficient. It is, however, formidably expensive, with just two courses costing £35, which puts it firmly into ‘special occasion’ territory. Is it worth it? With the summer sun setting over the Firth of Forth, definitely; on a dreich midwinter day when the haar’s in, just maybe.
Bill please Two courses £35; three courses £40; four courses £45; tasting menu £55 (or £80, including wines)