Crabshakk1114 Argyle Street,
0141 334 6127
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Catch of the day: Fish lovers feel the pinch
Review published on 16/03/2009 © Sunday Herald
Its a brave soul who opens a seafood restaurant these days. Generally,"seafood restaurant" means "expensive restaurant" and, in a recession, that's a problem. Ingredient costs are terrifying, and so certain dishes must necessarily carry a high price tag. As stocks have plummeted, prices have rocketed, so we now pay for mackerel what we once paid for sole. Shellfish has always cost a pretty penny, unless you were talking reconstituted crab sticks. Likewise salmon, unless it was flabby farmed salmon. The prime Scottish stuff, gems like diver-harvested scallops and langoustines from small-scale, artisanal fisheries, are necessarily pricey. The one exception is rope-grown mussels, which give you flavoursome protein and miraculous nutrition - all that zinc, iron, and so on - for bargain-basement prices. In fact, if I was opening a seafood restaurant, I'd go for a Belgian moules frites theme. After all, Scotland is full of mussels and we love chips.
Moving on from price, there's the minefield of sustainable sourcing. My head is in a spin just contemplating it. It's not as simple as avoiding some species. You have to know what fishery a catch comes from, and that changes all the time. Try to get a convincing answer from your fish supplier, and most likely you'll have him wriggling on a hook.
You also have to engage with our nation's fiddly little piscine prejudices and hang-ups.
Many people can't take (well, they say they can't) the developed flavour and aroma of oily species with a good eco reputation, like mackerel and herring. Then there are the bone-avoiders, those that freak out at even the crispest skin, the Scottish snobs who frown on inferior English" species like pollock and coley and the ones who only really like fish if its snowy-white and encased in batter.
Into this stormy sea sails Crabshakk, a smartly appointed seafood bar cleverly slotted into a narrow, vertical shop space on Glasgow's Argyle Street. The menu radiates a confidence that people like: straightforward, no-nonsense seafood. There is precious little by way of prime white fish: no sole, halibut or turbot. Instead, the centre of gravity is crustaceans: crabs, lobster, oysters, mussels, vongole (clams) and langoustines, simply cooked or raw and pretty much unadorned.
You can work up from one oyster at £1.50 to fruits de mer for two at £48.
Scallops often get too conservative a cooking treatment. I liked them Crabshakk's way, anointed with chopped anchovies and a sprinkling of sage, then roasted on a cast-iron skillet in a fierce oven. Their crab cakes were impeccable too: crisp, fragile patties loaded with white claw meat that had been ably seasoned with a hint of chilli and fresh green herbs. You couldn't fault the half lobster on the shell. In fact, it was one of the best lobsters I have ever eaten. It yielded succulent, sweet flesh capped with bubbling nut-brown butter, and had none of that bouncy, overcooked chewiness that plagues lobster. I can't say the same, though, for the squid. The menu said it was roasted, but someone had lost their nerve. It came in a cast-iron skillet but it was drowned in red wine, so it was neither a roast nor a stew.
Chewy in bits, it served as a reminder that you must either cook this cephalopod fast - chargrilling is ideal - or long and slow.
Half-way houses don't work with squid.
Choose prime seafood like we did and you'll clock up quite a bill (an entirely fair one, though) but in the current climate, cheaper options beckon. Crabshakk does a good-looking fish club sandwich (a neat idea), a bisque, a chowder, deep-fried whitebait, smoked mackerel and horseradish, all affordably priced, and a classic battered fish with chunky chips. But even the latter, at £9.95, is beginning to look a bit too expensive.
Many dishes come just with a rocket and chard salad, so side orders like hollandaise sauce, bread and chips all up the ante.
If I ran Crabshakk, as a matter of urgency I'd put a few more economical options on the menu to make good seafood go further (paella, fish pie, fishcakes, kedgeree) and balance the more costly dishes, and sort out the desserts. With a choice of only ice-cream or pannacotta, they could do with a bit of inspiration and more effort.