GLASGOW, Scotland - Anchovies do not tend to arouse high expectations. The unremarkable brackish slivers are easily taken for granted. But sometimes, like when you find your way to a quiet, historically industrial neighborhood in a Scottish city, you can discover them playing a supporting role so lovely, they steal the show.
And so it goes at Crabshakk. The three-year-old restaurant occupies an exquisite slice of real estate next to a laundromat and a stylish rum bar, not far from an industrial port cum convention destination. Reservations on weekends are hard to come by.
In the slender space of shiny white tile, nautical wood, and iron fixtures, business folk, arty hipsters, and famous footballers dig in with gusto when aromatic seared scallops arrive in the skillet. Nestled in the crook of their roe, their oceanic aromas are enhanced by the anchovies’ intense saline smooch. And then there are the crab cakes - addictive nuggets of tender crab meat flecked with parsley and chili flakes and barely fried.
Mackerel, haggis, crab, and smoked haddock have long been the stalwarts of Scottish cuisine. They are not pretty words. The sound of Scottish foodstuff is the sound of the working class: durable and utilitarian.
As if to further realize the city’s motto, “Let Glasgow Flourish,’’ Glaswegian chefs have cast their gazes far beyond the city limits, taken creative liberties with fusty standards, swapped fried for fresh and, in the process, exchanged the title “cook’’ for “chef.’’ And all the while, they have kept “local’’ in mind. Those staple items in the larder are a versatile stock. Dress them up right and they are stunners.
At Crabshakk husband and wife John MacLeod and Lynn Jones, an architect and yoga instructor, respectively, have a penchant for elegant food without the trappings of formality, a style they have long found ubiquitous in the United States but rare in Glasgow. So they snatched up an abandoned newspaper shop and MacLeod transformed it into a jewel box with tiny tables, a long, gleaming bar, and an open prep station. The intricate cornice along the ceiling of the teeny mezzanine was discovered when they knocked out a dropped ceiling. It’s a brasserie with the heart of a seaside fish shack. The space and fare are without frills. Flourishes are tossed in for fun. (If the house gravlax stirs a hankering for gin and tonic, it’s because it’s seasoned with juniper.)
Seamus MacInnes is a key figure in Glasgow dining. He has a devotion to regional food. “A lobster, homemade mayo, chips - that would be my last meal,’’ he said. His menu at Café Gandolfi, a Merchant City institution, is an homage to all things Scottish. Local purveyors arrive in the morning with fish and vegetables that are eaten up by closing. MacInnes often makes the rounds in the dining room, a handsome affair of dark wood furniture with antique knickknacks scattered throughout. That much of the staff has been there for years and knows the regulars enhances the restaurant’s sense of place.
Bar Gandolfi opened upstairs in 2002, offering a sleeker ambience where guests sit amid steel beams, exposed brick, and exotic wood countertops. Then in 2007, MacInnes expanded, opening Gandolfi Fish a half-block away, a designer fish and chips shop outfitted with bright reflective surfaces, black leather furniture, and aquatic imagery.
Regardless of the setting or how much a recipe seems to stray from a traditional dish, there is a respect for food here that is extreme enough to spur emphatic reactions from staff. When I ordered the Arbroath smokies, I was met with a wistful, nostalgic smile from the bartender. Traditionally and exclusively prepared in the seaside village of that name, the intensely smoked haddock strips are commonly eaten straight off the bone. Here, however, they are cooked in a velvety tomato, basil, and cheese stew.
The foundation for this movement was set 40 years ago when the Ubiquitous Chip opened as a tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the ubiquitous fish and chip platter. The Chip remains a veritable multiplex of a restaurant, with a bustling, sepia-toned pub upstairs connected to a bright, casual mezzanine dining room that overlooks a dim courtyard-set bistro that, with leafy decor and lights rigged like constellations, evokes a garden at the Blue Lagoon. Here is where the guinea fowl luxuriates in prune and Armagnac chutney and the vegetarian haggis has uncommon kick.
Those dishes are mere precursors. Stravaigin, a sister restaurant, opened in 1994. The striking space suggests an uptown bungalow: Old floors have been appropriated as ceilings, scruffy storm doors are bar tops, and walls are decked out with driftwood, antlers, Thai masks, and more. That mash-up is reflected in the kitchen. Quail arrives by way of the subcontinent, a masala-steeped affair on a bed of cashew and saffron semolina. Tangy tamarind puree adds kick.
There’s a more Brit-centric atmosphere at The Butterfly and The Pig, a sprawling venue containing a pub, a lounge, a tea room, an upstairs club, and a dining room that will make you miss your grandmother. It’s a study in shabby chic, with Victorian wallpaper, rustic wood tables, mismatched plates, and embroidered napkins. It seems an obvious setting for authentic homespun cookery. If the menu seems inscrutable, it’s because it’s written in a Glaswegian accent. On the Finnan haddie, a time-honored haddock preparation named for a fishing village near Aberdeen: “Haddie hannan finny fanon cooked in lemony butter . . . mmmm, with mash-ed potatoes and poachy the egg.’’
In the lounge, which feels more like a hipsters’ drawing room, I stumbled into conversation with a charming couple. When I learned he has been a chef for 12 years, and works at the Chip, we moved to a table for dinner. His name is Iain Walker, he is trained in classical French cooking, and he has no plans to leave Glasgow any time soon.
“The city has been far behind in terms of cultural influences, but it has one of the best larders in the land: British rare breed pigs - saddleback, Gloucestershire old spot - Aberdeen angus, a diverse range of produce,’’ Walker said, tucking into his haddie, poking the poached egg with a fork, turning it into a condiment. “Plain fare is what Scotland was known for: potatoes, smoked fish. The Chip has always been a mainstay, but the food revolution really kicked off about five years ago.
“Now everyone wants provenance and Scottish dishes can bring all that forward. People have started to recognize the produce you get here is as good as what you get from France.’’
If you go...
1114 Argyle St., Finneston
The delicately prepared seafood is as classy and casual as the narrow, thoughtfully designed bi-level dining room. Crab cakes $11.75, $21.43.
Café Gandolfi, Bar Gandolfi
64 Albion St., Merchant City
Dark wood furniture by noted designer Tim Stead, stained glass windows, and fresh native seafood and produce define this Glasgow institution, where the kitchen delivers clever riffs on traditional Scottish dishes. Don’t miss the Arbroath Smokies, $12.88.
84-86 Albion St., Merchant City
In the sublime dining room of this Café Gandolfi spinoff, the prix fixe ($24.22-$27.45 lunch; $27.45-$32.31 dinner) is a study in flavors and textures, from luminous mint vichyssoise to bolder smoked mackerel pate.
12 Ashton Lane, West End
You can sit in the bustling upstairs pub, the “Wee Pub’’ at street level, the elegant, expansive courtyard bistro, or the pleasant, laid-back mezzanine, and you get fresh, unpretentious, thoroughly Scottish food. It’s a shame the grilled monkfish drenched in fennel and almond sauce ($11.25) is only a starter.
28 Gibson St., Kelvinbridge
The Scottish larder goes on a global bender in this airy, rustic-chic, sepia-toned eatery. When chefs here fry fish, they ditch the chips in favor of pickled fennel, dried tomato and orange salad, and hazelnut-tarragon vinaigrette, $25.84.
The Butterfly and the Pig
153 Bath St., West End
Urban hipsters hijack granny’s attic in this shabby-chic Victorian drinking-dining playground. For your fix of home-cooked goodness, get the asparagus-studded smoked salmon terrine ($9.72) and the Finnan haddie ($17).Liza Weisstuch can be reached at www.lizaweisstuch.com.