Sunday, 18 July 2010

Something fishy up North - Crabshakk, Glasgow

Most of my food memories of my teenage years when I grew up in Glasgow revolve around one place: 24/7 Cafe on Sauchihall Street (which after various incarnations is now called Steak and Cherry, I don't think it serves steaks or cherries mind...). USA Breakfasts and curly fries at 3am celebrating a night trying to kiss boys and wiggle our hips and ‘small and humble’ breasts like Shakira to ‘Whenever, Wherever’ if we got into The Garage or The Shack (the place to go if you were around 17 in Glasgow in 2001 before it burnt down), or cheese toasties and milkshakes to commiserate a night of getting turned away for dodgy fake IDs and ending up at Destiny at the wrong end of town trying to avoid boys with teeth missing wanting to kiss us and attempting to feel the beat of dodgy happy hardcore soundtrack. It was only a really bad night if one of us failed to get in to 24/7 on the account of being still too drunk.... but let’s not dwell on that.

Going back to Glasgow to visit now my dining-dial is still set to the early noughties – French martinis at The Social on Royal Exchange Square, the disappointment of finding that OKO (Glasgow’s first catching on to the sushi trend in the Merchant City) has shut, god, I can still remember when I was at university in Edinburgh the trip through on the train for the excitement of Wagamama opening north of the border. But Glasgow’s dining scene has moved on since then and so have I.

Crabshakk (look past the ridiculous spelling, I hate it too) opened last year and caught national attention when various Saturday supplements reviewed it including Kate Spicer for The Times while up with fishboy Tom Aikens filming Iron Chef. Having heard mutterings before from Glaswegian fish-loving friends my interest was piqued; when I found out even my mother (who doesn’t like shellfish, oh the travesty) had been, I knew I had to get a table. So Choux Boy and I decided what better way to celebrate our engagement (again) than to eat lots of fish and drink lots of wine. Perfect if you ask me.

Glasgow pretty much is divided into ‘town’ (The shopping Z of Sauchihall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyle Street and surrounds) and ‘the Westend’ (Byres Road and the university area) with two distinct camps of fans. ‘Town’ is more flash, more cocktail bars and fusion-dining with a spattering of old institutions, while ‘the Westend’, with its student and arty inhabitants, is more low-key and understated cool. The Crabshakk falls geographically and demographically between the two, located at the unventured end of Argyle St round from the mega-concert/exhibition centre the SECC. The unassuming narrow glass frontage is easy to miss: a discreet sign on the door and catch a glimpse of whole crabs being demolished at the huge bar that dominates the downstairs, and you know you are in the right place. ‘Get a table upstairs,’ was my mother’s instruction. ‘Downstairs the tables are so narrow Joan and I could barely fit our fish and chips on them – it’s just like bits of driftwood!’. Whether my mother appreciated the chic seaside vibe was questionable, but the calm blue walls, wood-panelling, coastal prints and model boats on the wall suited the theme. But still our friendly shaggy-haired waiter led us up to the glass-edged mezzanine level (the perfect vantage point for spying on what people were eating at the bar) and a large non-‘driftwood’ table – which was just as well as there was a lot of food to be ordered.

Like Santa Maria del Sur was to steak, Crabshakk is to fish, don’t come here if you don’t want to order it. Menus were cardboard strips, bulldog-clipped together – oysters, mussels, squid, scallops, lobster, and of course, crab. A steak, a veggie risotto and a few sides (chips, bread, salad) were about as off-piste as you got. A mini-blackboard of lunch specials were whisked over – smaller portioned catches – and it was decision time. Not to limit our options the Boy and I went for the old chestnut of sharing everything: six oysters, starter portion of scallops in anchovy butter, a lunch special of grilled mackerel on a bed of leeks and beans with an olive tapenade dressing, bread, salad, and of course, a whole crab. Well, when in Rome...

Fresh oysters and a couple of glasses of prosecco kicked of the celebratory mood nicely – not much that could go wrong there. And from the 12.30 quietness when we arrived, the tables will filling up with Friday lunchtime groups of businessmen (champagne and mussels all round), families and couples; it was chocca.

Scallops came sizzling in a mini cast iron-pot... and looked amazing. Two huge and plump with a baby friend to fight over, cutting into them and the texture was about as buttery as well, butter. They melted in my mouth as the Boy and I fought over the last morsel. The anchovy butter that crusted onto the pot round the edges was crying out to be soaked up by hulks of bread.

‘Do you know that is pure fat you are putting on your bread,’ says Choux Boy, in an unusually healthy observation.

‘I know... Mmmmm!’ At this point I really don’t care, anyway fish is healthy isn’t it?

‘Another glass of prosecco?’ asks shaggy waiter.

‘No, a bottle of the Chardonnay.’ We were on a roll.

I think one of the best things about crab (or even lobster) is that you really feel like you are working for your reward. All that cracking and scrapping and accidentally spraying crab meat at the next table, as the gravely-voiced man in the Guinness advert says ‘Good things come to those who wait.’ Tick tock tick... But sometimes you’re starving, so the mackerel was a good idea – a snack while we dug around for our food.

I got cracking while the Boy tucked into his mackerel half, then I down tools for mine – fresh and tasty but the most interesting part of it was probably the tapenade dressing, which was an unexpected hit. With the two of us toiling the crab was quickly de-constructed – going down the patient route of fishing out all the prime white meat and adding it to the main shell of brown meat to mix together and spread on the bread. Eventually, it was time. And it was worth it: full and flavoursome and tender.

The main event might have been over but we weren't done there, resting happily surveying our kingdom (and almost seriously considering ordering another portion of the scallops as another sizzling pot of temptation was served as a main course at the bar downstairs) Shaggy returned cheerfully clearing up our mess and doing the usually waiter chat of trying to tempt us with one more course. He needn't have worried we were sold: affogato and a special of chocolate tart. 'And maybe some coffee afterward?' Oh, yes, two macchiatos. Shaggy trotted downstairs happy.

Both majored on creamy, seed-flecked vanilla ice-cream and rounded off the feast nicely although not spectacularly. Time for the bill, which was the biggest treat - £90. I'm sure you'd agree: an absolute bargain. And only four and a half hours on the train from London. Get there fast.

1114 Argyle St
G3 8TD
0141 334 6127

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