Restaurant review: Café Fish, Tobermory, Isle of Mull

WHAT is it with Mull? In the course of one meal and two pints I ran across an Argentine, a Uruguayan, a Swede and an honest-to-goodness Cockney geezer. On the table to one side was a crew of Germans, on the other some Welsh folk, while the cast of bit players included Norwegians, Americans and Aussies. After a couple of days I felt I was visiting the Tower of Babel.

However, the one thing that is authentically and undeniably Scottish about Mull in general, and Caf Fish in particular, is the produce.Therein lies the reason for the runaway success of this little gem on Tobermory pier, with its panoramic views over the bay and Calve Island. There may not be many boats still operating out of Mull, but there are enough to service this outstanding little restaurant and, given the Herculean struggle to get a table, it's clear the good folk of the island appreciate the winning combination of fish landed less than a hundred yards from the stove, plus a sensitive treatment in the kitchen.

But then sisters Carolyn and Lindsay McDonald have a lifetime of experience, after growing up in the family hotel, The Anchor, in the Loch Fyne fishing village of Tarbert. They've brought the emphasis on fresh fish with them, and their own boat lands shellfish daily, while other local boats supply staples such as monkfish, Dover sole, cod and squid. All the other key ingredients arrive from around Mull: the oysters from Croig, mussels from Inverlussa and all the salad, herbs and tomatoes from the gardens at Glengorm Castle.

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Given the emphasis placed on bringing "stunningly fresh" produce to your table, Guy and I decided we would restrict ourselves to fish and shellfish dishes, which didn't turn out to be too tricky given that 90 per cent of the main menu and 100 per cent of the hefty specials board consisted of stuff plucked straight out of the sea. Not that we had much time to give it a lot of thought as we arrived half an hour late, after stopping to try and tow a broken-own pick-up off the main road. The joys of island life.

Fortunately no-one seemed particularly bothered by our tardiness. Success can make restaurants unbearably precious or fantastically relaxed, and it has obviously had the latter effect on the good folk of Caf Fish. Their laid-back attitude is contagious, and the place was a seething hubbub of happy chatter, fuelled no doubt by lots of white wine and a contentment at the quality of the food.

Even when we lingered longer and were the last to leave the place, metaphorically chewing the cud long after the rest of the foreign legion had departed, there was no pressure to finish off and ship out.

Yet for all the lovely views, convivial atmosphere and the cheery attentiveness of the staff, places such as Caf Fish survive and thrive because of the quality of the produce and the proficiency of the chef. Given its cheek-by-jowl proximity to the island's fishermen, the former should be a given, and any doubts regarding the latter were allayed by an unfeasibly large bowl of unctuous, gloriously rich shellfish bisque, a creamy dish that would be guaranteed to warm you up on the chilliest winter nights.

If my starter set the right tone, Guy's smoked mackerel pat with oatcakes wasn't in the same class. Not that it was actually bad – even I can't get smoked mackerel pat wrong – but it was sufficiently bland that Guy didn't bother finishing it, which came as no surprise after I'd tasted a forkful.

If the jury was still out by the time we got to the main courses, Guy's hefty bowl of langoustines went some way to swaying the verdict, with my fish stroganoff from the specials board making sure the two gentlemen of the jury didn't so much deliver a formal acquittal as send the accused a bouquet and box of chocolates for having had the temerity to question the outcome.

Fish stroganoff is a new one on me, but this was a fantastically well-contrived and executed dish in which the massive plate of prawns, scallops and chunks of haddock and salmon were covered with a sour cream and bisque sauce, all served around a large mound of wild rice so substantial that finishing it off was never an option.

Puddings in seafood restaurants are usually a barely-concealed afterthought, but the menu at Caf Fish promised all sorts of wonders. That momentary thrill of anticipation wasn't fully delivered by a thoroughly ordinary sticky ginger cake with vanilla ice-cream, but an impressive rhubarb, apple and sultana crumble with cream more than made up for any lingering disappointment.

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As a postscript, it's important to make it clear that, despite their almost identical logos and their absolutely identical name, Caf Fish in Tobermory is no relation to the Caf Fish that opened this summer in Leith. Even if they do share the distinction of being enormously popular and welcome additions to Scotland's culinary canon.

vital statistics

Caf Fish

The Pier, Tobermory, Isle of Mull (01688 301253,

Out of Pocket

Starters 3.50-10 Main courses 8.50-16 Puddings 4.50

Rating 7.5/10

This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 1, 2009