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Scottish Cuisine Is Not What You Think

The coolest restaurant in Glasgow is doing incredible things with seafood.

Some 35 minutes from the sea, in Glasgow’s East End, is The Barras, a major street and weekend market that’s been operating in one form or another since the 18th century. Barra, the Glaswegian dialect for "barrow," refers to the handcarts merchants used to use to hawk their wares.


It was here that I first ate shellfish, from a polystyrene cup. I was five years old and with my papa, who liked to go to The Barras before Albion Rovers F.C. rugby games. Back then, the market was a beautiful, busy, and flourishing place where anything and everything was bought and sold and anything and everything felt possible.

The Barras remained like that for years — and then it wasn’t. By the 1990s, the market devolved into an abyss of dodgy DVDs, fake Gucci bags, and run-down bars. And the nearest thing resembling food on offer was an out of date deep-fried pizza.

But in recent years, the area has begun attracting the youngteam, to use the sly Scottish term once used to describe street gangs that now refers to young hipsters who are a little rough around the edges, with affordable rents. The musicians and artists followed, and you know what comes next: Regeneration was written on the walls. And so it’s happened that the East End is now filled with fashion designers, crafters, photographers, coffee roasters, artisan florists, and small co-working enclaves.

A’Challtain general manager Daniel Welsh.
The A’Challtainn team: Milos Fiser, Mel Barr, Derek Park, and head chef Gary Gill.

Street food pioneers and local iconoclasts Brian Traynor and Ricky Scoular had always used vacant spaces for their wildly popular, word-of-mouth seafood pop-up restaurants in Glasgow. Then they found a permanent location for their restaurant A’Challtainn in the courtyard in the center of The Barras — making the old market a destination once again. Traynor and Scoular source their seafood locally and do incredible things on a plate — not in a polystyrene cup. Their cuisine is contemporary while remaining firmly rooted in Scottish tradition.

Multi-purpose courtyard, lower dining, and upper terrace dining all indoors at A’Challtain.

The Glasgow food scene is serious from this view on the upstairs mezzanine at A’Challtainn, where traditional main dishes like smoked salmon, rabbit loin, and venison filet are paired with local ingredients like celeriac, potatoes, and beetroot.

Daily specials, the kitchen, and the upstairs dining room. The restaurant’s philosophy is to blend high-low concepts of Scottish street food with contemporary fine dining. Scottish cooking has been influenced by both the Vikings, who introduced smoking foods, and the French, who perfected sauces and presentation, but the Scots have always added their own spin on things.

A fresh, 2-pound Shetland lobster is alive and pinching.

Seafood is the star of Scottish cuisine. The country has more than 6,000 miles of spectacular coastline, as well as sea lochs, firths, inlets, and nearly 800 islands that all yield their own bounty. Here in the kitchen, mussels fresh from the Shetland Isles are washed and scrubbed.

Scotland is known for its salmon, which is farmed sustainably in remote parts of the country. Like the Scotch whisky of seafood in these parts, salmon is served in a variety of ways but is particularly popular when smoked. Here, the chef turns the traditional smoked salmon into a crab cannelloni filled with creel-caught Orkney crab meat, then dots the plate with apple gel, squid ink, and puffed capers.

A’Challtainn head chef Garry Gill prepares this inventive salmon.

Every freezer in the Scottish countryside contains a haunch of venison to be used for stews and casseroles in the winter. Venison is traditionally always served with tatties, or mashed potatoes, but at A’Challtain venison filet is plated with smoked celeriac puree, pak choi, confit potatoes, and beetroot meringue.

Venison filet with smoked celeriac puree, pak choi, confit potatoes, and beetroot meringue.

Rabbit is a traditional Scottish meal, in no small part because rabbits flourish in the fertile soils and young heathers in the moorlands on the east coast. A’Challtainn’s take on the traditional Eastern Highlands rabbit dish consists of braised loin, a leg beignet filled with leg meat (fried dumpling), kale, bramble jus, and herb crumble.

This awesome seafood dish has its roots on the west coast. Gigha halibut comes from the rough waters surrounding the beautiful Scottish Isle of Gigha, an area that specializes in artisan products and sustainability. Langoustines are caught at Loch Fyne, whose waters provide rich feeding grounds for some of the world’s best shellfish. Purple curly kale has long been a staple of the Scottish diet.

Pan-seared halibut is plated with Israeli couscous risotto, purple kale, langoustines, and lemon oil.

Chickpea curry, a traditional North African dish, gets a Scottish twist with the addition of monkfish. One of the most commercially valuable species for Scottish whitefish fishermen, monkfish is of particular economic importance on the west coast, where it’s the Scottish working man’s late-night dish of choice after the drinking session known as a wee swally.

Succulent, well-flavored oysters are from the beds of Loch Fyne served with a pile of purple kale. Oysters were once so plentiful in Scottish waters, they were a staple food for the poor. Today, Scottish oysters are a delicacy prized around the globe.

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