By Clare Speak
I’m sitting by the bay watching bottlenose dolphins play in the wake of passing ships. I have a glass of chablis in my hand and half a dozen fresh oysters on a plate in front of me. Heaven. But I’m not in Florida, the south of France, or some glamorous corner of the Caribbean. This is Aberdeen. In mid-March.
Like the dolphins, I was drawn to the north of the UK with the promise of a good meal. Aberdeen’s restaurants and producers have been scooping awards left and right in the past few years, and it turns out the food and drink scene here is small but mighty, and very big on provenance.
My dolphin-watching spot is The Silver Darling, an unpretentious, modern seafood bistro sitting right in the mouth of the harbour in what was the old Customs House.
Dishes to devour, other than the divine oysters, include smoky Shetland mussels with paprika and chorizo, and a hefty portion of crispy battered North Sea haddock. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen kept its AA Rosette this year.
Despite the cold, in the city centre I stop to try a scoop of honeycomb ice cream at Mackie’s 19.2. The number being the distance in miles between the shop and the family farm where the ice cream is made (as well as chocolate, and even haggis-flavoured crisps).
For dinner there’s fashionable but unfussy Moonfish. Head chef Brian McLeish, a runner-up on Masterchef the Professionals, creates pretty but substantial plates that leave us drooling – think treacle-cured sirloin with blue cheese and cauliflower, or fillet of turbot with potted shrimp and samphire.
It’s a short walk from here to Orchid, winner of Scotland’s Best Cocktail Bar 2017. Bar manager Adrian Forde gives us a thorough tasting tour through gin history, featuring plenty of house-made Porter’s and edgy yet sophisticated house cocktails.
The highlight of my trip, though, is an hour’s drive inland in Aberdeenshire for an indulgent tasting menu at Douneside House, AA Hotel of the Year in Scotland.
The staff at its three-AA-rosette restaurant know where everything – even the plates – comes from, and our menu gives the field-to-fork distance of each dish’s main ingredient.
Secreted away in the atmospheric library, we’re treated to a stand-out six course menu. A pleasant surprise is the smoked wood pigeon (from 13 miles away) with quail egg and morels, in a seriously rich consommé, paired with port wine.
Velvety red beetroot ice cream (0 miles, from a glut grown in the hotel grounds) with morsels of candied walnut and Granny Smith is another unexpected delight. But my favourite is the delicate fillet of oak smoked salmon (32 miles), paired with the lightest champagne. I’m full to bursting, but there’s no doubt I’ll be coming back to Aberdeen.