Roy Beers Glasgow West End Dining and Drinking September 07

Update - Roy's Glasgow West End Dining & Drinking Report - September 2007

Photo: las ramblas. Sketches of Spain

A few weeks ago in this column I half-jokingly suggested that it wasn't at all difficult to decide which is the greatest jazz opus of all time ( I was writing about the difficulties involved in judging bars and restaurants), and argued that it was, and remains, Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. If you don't know the piece it is a powerfully evocative and moving "high jazz" derivative of Rodrigo's most famous conzierto, which you'd recognise instantly if you heard a few bars. For me it somehow sums up what post-Franco Spain is all about. The Davis version includes unmistakable references to the occupation of Spain by Napoleon, and the subsequent resistance struggle - and this in turn is symbolic of the Franco oppression and, after too much suffering, the country's final liberation and reunification with the civilised world.

What has any of this to do with the price of Manchego? Well, just the other week, it was playing full belt in one of the most interesting new restaurant openings the West End has seen in recent years.

Pinxto, in Dumbarton Road in Thornwood - more or less across the road from Cherrybean cafe - isn't actually a Spanish restaurant at all, but a Basque one, and if you think the distinction is a bit hair-splitting you'll concede there's a very significant point of difference when you peruse the menu.

But as it happens there are some new actual "Spanish" openings too - mainstream Castilian, Andalusian, etc - which confirm the general trend. In case you hadn't noticed almost everybody is doing "tapas" these days, from Indian restaurants (ie, serving Indian food in a mix-and-match casual dining format similar to that of Spanish tapas) to the "tapas" selection of sushi available from the estimable Home Wok Sino-Japanese carry-out in Byres Road. Meanwhile well-established local act El Andaluz, Cresswell Lane, continues to be wildly popular, and there are several thriving Spanish restaurants in town (for example La Tasca and El Sabor).

Two of the latest arrivals on the west-of-city centre scene (and more about Pinxto in a moment) are in fact Spanish in inspiration: there's Satchmo's in Bank Street, which curiously but not inappropriately combines the imagery and music of the legendary Louis Armstrong with Spanish tapas (astute readers may have noticed there's a bit of a theme developing here); and then, way out west in Bearsden, there's the exciting new venture from Harlequin, best known for its Indian restaurants.

It's called "Las Ramblas" , after the Catalonian version of the Barras (this is doing it a disservice) in Barcelona. Eerily, during the only time in my life I have ever been there, a chap was playing that Rodrigo opus on a guitar. I had just been given a guided tour of the city's equivalent of Tennent's Wellpark Brewery, the Damm Brewery, and was musing on the fact that while beer lorries heading for Spain from Catalunya are marked "cerveza" the ones distributing locally are badged "cervesa" - which is perhaps a neat illustration of a proud people's determination to hang on to their language. And their (relatively speaking) independence.

I've never mentioned any Bearsden restaurant until now, but this is as good a time as any - it's not as if it's very far away, after all - and 'though I haven't checked it out yet Harlequin appear to have pulled out all the stops to make it as engaging an Iberian experience as possible.

The Bearsden tribute venture, which appears to be a labour of love job by Harlequin owner Sanjay Mahju, comfortably accommodates up to 100 diners, and features a "live" kitchen with Spanish chefs preparing "fresh, authentic Catalan cuisine" to order.

Sanjay has apparently lavished some £1.4m on buying and transforming the former China Experience into his take on an authentic tapas bar and restaurant.

"My first visit to Las Ramblas was an inspirational experience," he says, "and I have since returned many times to pick up various items of crockery and furnishings from the area to lend the restaurant an authentic flavour."

He adds:

"The opening of Las Ramblas introduces a new dining option to Bearsden residents which I'm sure will prove extremely popular - the flexibility of tapas means that it is both a great way to indulge in a delicious snack over a drink or two, or to enjoy a full meal sharing a selection of dishes among friends."

The Las Ramblas menu includes chorizo frito al vino (spicy Spanish sausage sauteed in red wine); chuletitas de codero (lamb chops marinated in garlic); queso de cabra al horno (grilled goats cheese smothered in sweet chilli marmalade); gambas pil pil (king prawns sauteed in olive oil, fresh chillies and garlic) as well as specials and seafood or vegetable paellas. It sounds well worth investigating.

Pinxto - and The Return of Mr Barcelona

Coincidentally at around the same time Las Ramblas was set to open restaurateur Allan Mawn was preparing to open his new venture Pinxto. It's on the site of a former cafe a couple of minutes past the Crow Road junction on Dumbarton Road (number 562) heading away from town - and I recommend an early visit.

Many West Enders have fond memories of the restaurant he launched at the bottom of Byres Road about 15 years ago. Called Barcelona it was the only "Spanish" restaurant in Glasgow at the time (in fact Catalan) and featured everything from fine Hispanic wines to brandies, and cigars. The food was splendid. Then Allan sold up and moved on to other ventures, and in recent years the same site has won a fine reputation as No.16, which is also a handy name if you can't quite remember the address.

Allan, as it happens, is a fanatical Hispanophile, and having mastered Catalan cuisine in all its delightful variety he has - among many other adventures, for example running busy student unions on both sides of the border - become an expert in Basque cuisine as well. He tells me frankly that he brought Hispanic cuisine to Glasgow "seven years too early" - but now he is back in fine form with the proverbial "something completely different".

Despite being royally entertained at the opening night I still haven't had the full story from him, because as a chef-proprietor Allan was managing the difficult job of alternately a) Disappearing into the kitchen to do his chef bit and b) Entertaining everyone and enjoining them to sample his cuisine. Which, from what I tried, was no hardship at all. Guests included Robin Morton, who many will know as the man behind Brel; distinguished trade figure Eddie Tobin, Ken Smith from the Herald Diary with some charming lady colleagues, and not a few people who remember the former Barcelona venue with affection. The consensus appeared to be "he's done it again".
I can confirm that this function, which Allan had erroneously told me would be "half a dozen people" was a fantastic success - and based on what I saw, and ate, I've told everyone who will listen to go and try it out.

So what's it all about? The first thing which greets you is one of the most attractive bar counters I've seen in years, behind which is a long tray of the eponymous (love that word) pinxtos. You pronounce it Pin-cho. These, I think Allan would agree, translate as Basque canapes. The Rolls Royce of bar snacks. They are available in many different varieties, typically featuring an array of seafood, chicken, pork, etc, skewered with a cocktail stick on to a round slice of toasted Basque bread. There are veggie options too. And they are completely addictive, and cost just £1 a go, which for the quality is practically a giveaway.

The decor is a serene green, low key but classy - a very nice evocation of what it might be like to be in a suave little cafe-bar in Bilbao, perhaps - and customers are welcome to relax with a drink (and a pintxo or two) or enjoy a full meal, as the mood takes them.

Allan's own press release mentions some of the more memorable dishes from his selection, for example txangurro - crab ravioli - pan-fried morcilla with apples and sage; avocado salad with gazpacho dressing; pan-fried scallops with chorizo crisps, and escalvada custards with manchego wafers, "all at sensible prices". This is beyond dispute. Special offers include three tapas for £6.95 at lunchtime and £8.95 early evening.

You may also care to sample Absolut chilled tomato soup, with a shot of vodka (nice touch - a Bloody Mary soup!); or Valencian saffron rice cakes, prawn tortillas with herbed yoghurt, tuna banderilla with caper berries and lemon dressing, or crisp baby squid with saffron and green apply alioli. Or, indeed, Bilbao style mussels with white wine, garlic and parsley, or slow-cooked lamb with coriander, red peppers and rioja or any one, or indeed several, of what seems like dozens of other fascinating choices.

It's definitely different. It's beautifully presented, and certainly offers a radical counterpoint to all of the other Iberian offers I can think of in Scotland (ie, including Edinburgh). That goes for the drinks selection too, with its selection of Basque and other Hispanic wines, its Asturian cider, and - for those of us who like a beer - the ever-popular San Miguel: or for a wee taste of "young" Barcelona you could try a bottle of Estrella Damm. Then there's Cruzcampo from Sevilla ... which reminds me of yet another Spanish brewery I tramped around during a somewhat hectic trade trip about a decade ago. I could go on and on about the cava and the Rosado, the organic Sanglovese Bonarda from Argentina, the Chardonnay from La Mancha and much more besides - but hopefully this conveys the general idea: this is not your average place at all. Nevertheless it has many shopper-friendly options, with bottles of wine starting at under £10, and around seven wines available by the glass.

This part of the west is unquestionably changing very quickly, and several of my pals who live nearby have already told me they're delighted to find such an asset on their very doorstep. Opening times are still being finalised and I suspect weekends will be busy, so if you don't live close enough just to wander along I'd advise phoning if you plan an evening visit late week - it's 334 8686.

Snow in the BotanicsThe Battle of the Botanics

As you may have gathered from the pages of The Herald the G1 Group plan to open a nightclub on the site of the former Botanic Gardens subterranean railway platform has provoked what newspapers call "a storm of protest". I went along to a protest meeting at Hillhead Library the other week, and so, as it happens, did G1 owner Stefan King, who defended his plan in person. The best account of the whole business I have read so far was online in The Guardian/Observer, obviously written by somebody who knows the area very well; but the other reports which have appeared, such as they are, all concentrated on the fact that the meeting was a full house and that 200 would-be attendees were turned away. The capacity of the upstairs hall is 110, the meeting was informed, and that's certainly a lot of folk for your typical public meeting - so no fault of the organisers that it was oversubscribed. However given the pre-publicity, not least in a passionate "aux armes!" opinion piece/feature by Ann Simpson of The Herald - the broadsheet page was copied and brandished as a sort of icon at the meeting - I'm not surprised at the numbers.

There have been one or two new developments since the meeting, and please see the separate page on the Botanics debate (which we'll update as and when it seems useful). The story has a very long way to run and there will be a lot of argument and elucidation (not to mention planning, licensing, etc decisions one way or the other) before we are done with it. G1 owner Stefan King told me he has plans for the venue which will "astonish" some of the critics, and also made it clear he will pursue the plan for as long as it takes - he has already gone to inordinate lengths to lay the groundwork for the scheme. Many others, of course, have their own ideas. Stay tuned!

Desi Sunday and Rijstaffel Tuesday

Glaswegians' appetite for novel regional and national cuisine is legendary, and - as Pinxtos neatly illustrates - there are plenty of enterprising operators ready to go the extra distance to lay on something a little different.

The one-time Cafe India at Charing Cross is a one-time technical West End restaurant which has now reopened in the Merchant City, following the blaze which razed the original building beside the Mitchell Library to the ground. Its owners aim to put it back on the map, albeit in a different part of the map, in short order.

As I've said many times before the Indian cuisine in Glasgow derives almost exclusively from the Punjab, the lsub-continent's legendary North-West, so Cafe India's new Desi Sunday menu (September 23) aims to bring a welcome South Asian flavour to the Merchant City Festival.

The term 'desi' means 'local, regional' or 'indigenous', as opposed to 'videshi' meaning 'foreign', and is used to refer to people or things of South Asian origin. So Cafe India's Desi Sunday will feature traditional, authentic Indian cuisine served by waiters wearing traditional Indian dress to the sound of traditional music; and displays of dancing, as well as traditional jewellery and henna body art, will also enliven the proceedings.

The menu will include starters such as chicken mailai tikka - bite sized chicken tikka marinated with cream, cheese, shahi jeera (that's a form of cumin, folks) and cardamom, cooked on the charcoal grill.

Mains choices feature garlic chilli chicken - barbecued chicken pieces cooked in fresh garlic and chilli sauce with caramelised onions - and dum ki biryani, cuts of lamb with basmati rice cooked with saffron, cardamom, mace and mint. Desserts include Rassomalai - a traditional Indian dessert made from dumplings soaked in sweetened milk, flavoured with cardamon and rosewater. If you can't make it on the 23rd, never fear - the event could well become a regular weekly event if it is as popular as the owners hope it will be.

Back in the West End Stravaigin 2 in Ruthven Lane has come up with an engagingly exotic culinary wheeze of its own - a Rijstaffel night. Anyone who has visited Amsterdam will tell you a rijstaffel is the classic way of enjoying Indonesian cuisine, Dutch style: it means "rice table", and is - in a funny sort of way - a sort of far eastern tapas concept. The rice bit is a communal bowl of rice, and the table bit is an assortment of what can sometimes be literally dozens of different dishes, all containing a few bites' worth. The potential for mixing and matching is huge, and of course you can enjoy the dishes in combination or in any order you fancy.

When I first encountered this many years ago I had an attack of the horrors when - a bit like that Disney version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice - what seemed like a never-ending procession of dishes was brought to the table. I thought I'd mis-ordered and that our meal for two would cost me my entire holiday money. In fact the order was exactly right and the whole meal, which was unforgettable, came to about the same as your typical night out in a Glasgow Indian restaurant.

I've often since wondered why nobody has tried to open an Indonesian restaurant on these lines over here. Now Stravaigin'2s blackboard is wooing passers-by with wildly exotic menu choices for the night, and unable to resist anything novel - particularly at somewhere like Stravaigin2 - I have duly checked in for a meal for two. It doesn't feature dozens of dishes but does offer a more than adequate assortment ... and I have a hunch it will be pretty good.

Photo: brochure. The West End Festival 2007 Dining and Drinking Awards, August 2007.

The West End Festival may only seem like a distant memory, but everyone involved with this year's expanded Awards has been agonising over who should win what ever since, and the winners were only finally, finally finalised this week. As Scotland's premier drinking and dining area (sorry, Edinburgh, to quote Arnold Brown, "a castle is not enough") there are inevitably many contenders, and only a few gongs for the very best. One thing which came through strongly is that none of the obvious "runners" failed any significant test, from the judges' point of view, and in more than one category there was definitely a photo-finish.

I, Robot

We'd like to give particular thanks for his valuable input to Michael Bowes, director of Barhand (the 21st century robot drinks dispense system - and I'm not taking the Metal Mickey!) who's also a real West End drinking and dining aficianado. Michael will probably be slightly embarrassed to be reminded that he's a much-lauded and also startlingly young and successful Glasgow business entrepreneur (Scottish Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005).

And other Mystery Shoppers

Of the various other judges suffice to say everyone was at pains not to simply make a list of their personal favourites: as stated previously one of the most difficult tasks is to judge between little and large venues which are contenders in the same category. The quality and patience of staff was reckoned a big factor in every category; and apart from main attractions, for example Stravaigin's food offer, we particularly looked for winning points such as well-maintained facilities at peak times; prompt glass collection; and in some cases product knowledge - which also includes knowing how to serve a drink properly. All of the judging was "mystery shopping" and no final decisions were made on any one person's say-so.

The winners of the West End Festival 2007 Dining and Drinking Awards are:-

  • Most Enticing Pub: The Goat, Argyle Street
  • Best Festival Music Venue: Joint winners:- Bar Brel, and Oran Mor; in Ashton Lane and on Great Western Road/Byres Road respectively
  • Best Traditional Music Pub:- The Lismore Bar, Dumbarton Road
  • Best Food Venue: Stravaigin, Gibson Street
  • Best Festival Cafe: The Rio Cafe, Hyndland Street

We'll have much more on these venues in weeks to come, and hopefully regular interview pieces with their owners or managers between now and next year's Festival extravaganza. In the meantime this year's winners will receive their framed certificates in due course, and we hope they'll display them with pride.