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The Fish People Cafe

The Fish People Cafe

350 Scotland Street,

0141 429 8787

Price Rating: 2

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Price Ratings

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££ – mid-price
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It’s all at sea here

Review published on 22/04/2013 © Sunday Herald

There’s nothing like turning a disadvantage into an advantage. The Fish People Cafe in Glasgow describes its location as “located on Glasgow’s South Side with easy access to the M8 and Underground”. The reality is that it’s more or less in Shields Road station, in that the weird commercial wasteland of shuttered shops and dead businesses in Tradeston created by the motorway and decades of disastrous city planning.

The fish shop opposite, located in a starkly functional unit, is only brightened by the lively trade it generates with its sparkling fishmonger’s slab. The cafe, on the other hand, feels welcoming, a riot of sea shanty-inspiring nautical blue, built out from the modular steel. It takes a leaf out of the European book, with frosted glass partitions creating a sheltered corner and blanking out the urban wilderness beyond.

Not that the neighbourhood is without charm. In sharp contrast to the otherwise alienating townscape, Charles Rennie Macintosh’s immensely beautiful Scotland Street School, now a museum, stands just across the road, its warm red sandstone and twinkling baronial windows making it feel as welcoming now as it must have been to the first primary school tots who attended it in 1906.

The school’s room 22, the cookery kitchen, with its gleaming wooden table and iron range, is a wonderfully nurturing space. One can imagine what fun it must have been for a class to cook away in there, and the dishes on the curriculum were surprisingly demanding. These days, most children’s competency extends to chocolate crispies.

But as the blackboard menu for September 5 1908 shows, the kids then were making meat pie with potatoes, and fish soup, the latter made with a cod’s head. Forget all the food technology nonsense that has since cursed the curriculum. Back in the day educationalists had the right idea: teach kids to cook from the earliest age. Pity we hadn’t stuck with that philosophy instead of leaving subsequent generations to the tender mercies of the processed food industry.

The Fish People Cafe certainly has the vibe of an establishment that knows how to make a fish stock fit to please an Edwardian cookery teacher. Front of house echoes the seafood brasseries of Paris, with marble, steel and oyster-bar opulence. Clearly, the supply of seafood is top notch here but the cooking and thinking side of the operation is less so.

Why serve soda bread with tapenade? They belong to different culinary traditions and don’t go together. And what was the point of cooking mussels with leek, lemon and chorizo? The pungent sausage (of the luridly orange sort) killed the leek flavour and even dominated the bivalves, which can normally stick up for themselves. Sardines seemed to have been slicked with chermoula paste just before cooking, rather than being marinated in it. I have had fresher fish, and the olive-green hue of the paste suggested that it had been prepared in advance and stored, not briskly blended up with fresh herbs in the kitchen that morning.

Fillets of grey sole were certainly good ambassadors for their species, but plainly baked, set on peas, and with no obvious presence of the promised thyme, or any sauce, they were too close to invalid food for comfort, even with crispy pancetta. A whole Anglesey sea bass, cooked on the bone tandoori-style with pungent curry oil and lemon, was an altogether superior proposition. Shame it came with dark, oily-smelling chips. If ever there was a basmati rice opportunity, this was it. Cabbage stir-fried with shallots and bacon was altogether nicer.

Something seemed to have gone awry with the apple and cinnamon rice pudding with almond crumble. It tasted as if the compote had slightly burnt in the pan, leaving a smoky taint. The rice was stodgy, and the topping like desiccated biscuits pounded with nuts. You didn’t feel you had to finish it. A choux bun, filled with a rapidly melting pool of caramel mascarpone, would not pass muster with a domestic science teacher, its top too darkly baked, its innards humid and sticky. Some further tuition in Room 22 seems in order.

Shoal power

Review published on 15/10/2012 © Sunday Herald

Didn’t you book?” Leo asks, as he climbs precariously up a towering stool and grabs hold of the bar area from which we’ll be eating our lunch. Mate, I tried. I phoned three bloody times and they’re always fully booked, apparently. Hence this cunning raid on the Fish People Cafe, slipping in around noon and being directed to a space at the bar where it transpires I’ll be closer to the strangers sitting next to me than is decent in civilised society. I immediately try to put a seat’s space between myself and my neighbours, despite being on nod-nod, smile-smile terms, but the waiter intervenes, nodding at the three empty stools to my right and saying, “Noo, noo, noo surr, these are booked.” Hmm. They’d better be, I think to myself.

Fortunately, the food arrives and for a whole moment myself and my new friend on the left are looking down at my shrimp cocktail with chilli and pear and jokingly debating its merits. Then I eat it. Very, very nice. Pears and chunky little shrimps go remarkably well, especially when bound in a smoky, paprika-inflected take on marie rose sauce. On my right, Leo is extolling the virtues of the Shetland crab and potato salad. It’s packed with a punchy dressing that’s full of tarragon and studded with capers, and there’s a lot of moist, sweet crab. Incidentally, both these starters are full of seafood. Only right, given it all comes from the popular little Fish People shop we can see squeezed in beside the Shields Road subway station over there – hence the name.

While telling a story I’m not supposed to repeat involving Leo, golf and Donald Rumsfeld, we decide against the fish pie, the baked grey sole and the Barra scallops and go for the chunky fish stew and the haddock and chips. The stew comes with mussels, scallops, chunks of fish – is that sea bass? – sweet shrimp and prawn. It’s beautifully presented with a spiky rouille and grated gruyere as an accompaniment. As an exercise in perfectly cooked, perfectly presented seafood it’s actually, literally, quite perfect. As a stew, though? There’s a little tasty, tomatoey liquid in the bottom of the bowl, but not enough to put these accompaniments to the test. I’ll put it down to one of those rare occasions where I don’t mind not getting what was promised.

The haddock batter is crisp and light enough for Leo to disassemble, poking the flaky white fish before eating most of it and proclaiming he can taste the beer in the mix. I can’t, but we both decide it’s excellent. Reasonable chips, not thin or crisp enough to be great, accompany all this before we move on to dessert.

I should say at this point I’m eyeing the still-empty seats beside us with some derision and I’ve also swivelled round to check that every table in the room is indeed full.

Did I mention the decor? Crisp, clean, modern; chairs and accessories in that creamy duck colour that will be familiar to every middle-age male with a hankering for the products of Milan bicycle company Bianchi. There’s a lot of glass, and a twinkly coldness that could be dangerous to the ambience but somehow works. There are also – aha – quite a few empty seats in the room. But, no, no, no, they were occupied, Leo insists, as I tuck into lovely poached pear with a warm dark chocolate sauce and crumbly bits.

We’ll put the empty seats right beside us down to no-shows and not waiters filling the bad seats first. And we’ll put the booking problems down to the hard fact that this place is exceptionally popular. Is that justified? Given today’s food, it certainly is.