As a proud semi-Scot I’m always happy to have an excuse to visit the homeland (before I have to use my passport to get there!). Although London is very much my home now, the call of the North is never too far from my thoughts, especially when London’s grind appears to be getting one up on me. At Bonnie Gull our produce comes in daily from all around the British Isles, and whilst Devon and Cornwall enjoy the bulk of our spend, we use a handful of key suppliers in Scotland that send us incredible home-caught produce. As some of these companies have been supplying us throughout our 3 year existence I thought it was high time I paid them a visit to understand where it all comes from and maybe flush out some of that London grind while I was there.
After a night with friends near Glasgow we set off North up the Western side of Loch Lomond. My girlfriend, Lottie, patiently endured repeated renditions of Runrig’s tune by the same name and I’m sure was thankful when we broke away from the Loch at Tarbet and the singing petered off. We drove up through Argyll Forrest Park, past the aptly named “Rest and Be Thankful” viewpoint and on to the top end of Loch Fyne. It was too early in the day for lunch but it is never too early for oysters, so we pulled up at the original Loch Fyne Oyster Bar (a far cry from the sullen chain we know in the South) to enjoy a fine selection of Arisaig, Lismore and Creran rocks. If only Scotland’s new drink driving laws hadn’t prevented me washing them down with a cool glass of Chardonnay. Lottie, unbound by the burden of the wheel, indulged herself with a midday tipple to rub it in.
Moving on we swung round the North of the Loch and turned off at Inveraray. We drove up past Loch Awe to the headquarters of Inverawe Smokehouse– exclusive suppliers of all our smoked salmon, trout and mackerel. It was a busy day at the smokehouse with some filming going on as well as a group of French retirees who had come over for fishing lessons. Still the staff found time to welcome us and we were given an exclusive tour of the facilities by Tony who oversees the smoking process. Prior to working at Inverawe, Tony had worked at a local sausage factory. If he was half as passionate about sausages as he was about smoked fish they would probably have been the best sausages in the world. Big Tony was the kind of character you want to bottle and sell in Tesco – a big, thick accented West Coaster, full of genuine warmth and incredible pride in his job. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked as we passed the farmhouse beside the smokers, “Well see that there? 110% haunted!” He proceeded to recant his rather unremarkable evidence for the haunting of the house, a story he had no doubt told a hundred times to groups of American tourists but he told it to us as if it was the first time – long dramatic pauses and eyes full of wonder at the words coming out of his own mouth.
The smoking process was a fascinating one and our tour involved an incredible amount of hand-washing and donning of various overalls and hairnets. Health and safety is taken seriously here and all signs are written in English and Polish for the benefit of the workforce. Seeing the fish at various stages and understanding Inverawe’s passion for quality and consistency was reassuring to see why we pay a premium for their produce and why we use them exclusively in our restaurants. Lean pink trout, sustainably-bred in local farms showed incredible colouring and a smell that had me in pieces. Clearly seeing the hungry in my eyes Tony led us to the on-site café to treat us to a bowl of homemade chowder with their own smoked haddock and salmon. After lunch he insisted on driving us over to the side of Loch Etive to show off the vista. People in this part of the world don’t take their surroundings for granted. “God’s country” muttered Tony as we looked out over the water.
We moved on to Oban and after a boozy night with friends in a back and beyond ‘pub with cabins’ (that happened to serve delicious local langoustines), we set off on the ferry for Mull. It seemed our visit had coincided with the island’s annual Rugby 7’s tournament so our crossing was a rowdy affair – ACDC pumping from a ghetto blaster on the top deck whilst big lads with cut-off sleeves prepared for their game by necking tins of Tennent’s.
We drove up the island to the main town of Tobermory – famous to us Scots as home of the kids TV show ‘Balamory’’. A post-card picturesque town centred around a group of coloured houses on the harbour. By now the rain had kicked in so it was a bit gloomier than the postcards made out but perhaps a truer reflection of its normal state. After some exemplary haddock and chips in a local caf we meandered up the single track road towards our digs at Glengorm Castle, stopping off at the famous Isle of Mull Cheese farmhouse for a bit of sampling on the way.
Glengorm is a striking, secluded castle set amongst its own estate where they produce fantastic beef, lamb and venison. The back of the castle falls away with rolling hills down to the beautiful coastline where birds of prey, including golden eagles are often spotted. The castle is part guesthouse, part family home and has a incredibly welcoming feel to it with no locks on the bedroom doors and a library with a ‘help yourself’ whisky bar.
After sampling a few choice local malts we took a ‘taxi’ (rickety old minibus) back to Tobermory through the driving rain to a seafood restaurant simply named Café Fish. It had been recommended by a former employee of ours who went to work there after leaving London but as we quickly found out from talking to other people on the island, this was a bit of a hot spot and a restaurant the whole island was proud of. We were welcomed to the tiny first floor room by Ryan, the 22 year-old manager who had been well prepped for our arrival. Their 30 covers were all full when we arrived and we were told that they would do four to five full sittings that evening. After being given a menu, we were talked through a blackboard of no less than 15 daily specials – all local seafood with simple garnishes – some big hitters such as local lobster (interestingly no cheaper than in London) but also lesser-known gems like velvet crabs. We feasted on scallops, langoustines and turbot and left in our minibus with big fat smiles on our faces. A simple and well-executed meal delivered with genuine local warmth. Proper Bonnie Gull type stuff!
The following morning we drove down to Salen Pier to check out a well-known local scallop supplier called the Ethical Shellfish Company. The company is run by local hero Guy Grieve (best known for his book Call of the Wild which he wrote after spending a year alone in the Alaskan wilderness). Guy was unfortunately over on the mainland at the Mhor Festival, run by one of my favourite retreats, Monachyle Mhor. However we had spoken on the phone in advance and he had left his shed open for us to go and poke around and see his natural (and as the name suggests) ethical method of hand-dived scallop supplying. Caught from their small boat Helanda and done so with no damage to the seabed.
Later that afternoon we dropped in at the Tobermory distillery; running since 1798 it is one of Scotland’s oldest and produces two quite different but equally enjoyable whiskies in Ledaig and Tobermory. Having been teased with a tasting, I was keen to dive into the whisky library back at Glengorm. Of the 15 on offer there were seven that were new to me, so I made it my mission to have one of each. As we sat in the library sipping whisky and looking out to sea, we were joined by a fantastically named sixty-something Californian couple – ‘Boyd and Bobby-Lee’. Boyd was “coming home” to discover his Scottish roots, although with his perma-tan, long white hair and bangles I wasn’t sure how he would be received in the local island pubs when he described himself as a Scotsman! After he had tried all of the 15 whiskies at least once, Boyd entertained us with the tale of his romance with Bobby-Lee. She was a semi-famous actress and model in Hollywood a lifetime ago and married to an Olympic swimmer. They had had a short affair 20 years ago and then by chance met again in a New York elevator six weeks prior to their trip. They immediately fell back in love and decided to elope to Scotland for a few weeks of soul searching. They never mentioned whether they were still married to other people but this was a Hollywood tale so such trivia wasn’t going to ruin a good story.
The next morning we packed up and started on our journey back to Glasgow. We opted for a longer scenic route by taking the ferry to Lochaline followed by another from Corran to Inchtree. From there we started an incredible drive through Glencoe – one of Scotland’s most breathtaking mountain ranges. With sun warming golden mountainsides still topped with snow, I insisted on stopping at every viewpoint to soak it in. Alas my camerawork didn’t do it justice so I’ve poached one from a professional. From there we managed to take another detour to re-visit Loch Fyne where this time were we able to enjoy a full lunch. Star of the show were big juicy langoustines pulled from the water right in front of the restaurant and a fitting last meal in this seafood-rich corner of the West Coast.
A couple of hours later, sitting on a plane bound for Heathrow, I was hit with a real sense of sorrow to be leaving this incredible little pocket of land and sea so well stocked with culture, scenery and fine natural resources. In the haze of the big city it's easy to forget the stunning coastlines and natural produce that surround us. A world away in just an hour's flight and a cultural feast to any Londoner who has forgotten what lies beyond its boundary.
After recently tweaking our Exmouth Market restaurant with an exciting new small plates menu, a great new wine list and cocktail bar offering, we’re now all set to launch our package of ‘Shore to Door’ experiences in April. These sociable, interactive and above all delicious events are perfect for anyone with a passion for great food and drink that’s responsibly sourced and sustainable.
Ever wanted to be able to shuck oysters like a pro, or master the act of filleting a fish? Then our monthly Seafood Masterclasses are for you. Held on the fourth Sunday of each month, you’ll have the restaurant – and our executive chef Luke Robinson all to yourselves. Learn how to prepare and present the trickiest of fish and seafood that is cooked to perfection, whilst sipping on our signature Bonnie Mary cocktail and enjoying a three-course lunch with paired wines, designed to deliver full on flavour. Bottle up your knowledge and newfound confidence, complete with recipes to take home, and look forward to putting your skills to the test with friends and family next time you’re round the dinner table.
Master-classes cost £80 per person, up to a maximum of eight people, booked exclusively or as a mixed group.
Sea Food, Drink Wine (#SeaFoodDrinkWine)
On the second Wednesday of each month, join a group of 20 guests for an evening of wine tasting and seafood eating, along with frequent appearances from merchants, growers, winemakers and special guests from the wine trade. Pinot Noir with Seabass? Champagne with Oysters? Each month, the focus will be on a different region, grape or wine style as we taste eight wines before sitting down to dinner and polishing off the bottles under the guise of ‘food & wine pairing’.
Sea Food, Drink Wine costs £40 per person and is for a maximum of 20 people (over 2 tables of 10), booked exclusively or as a mixed group.
The Kitchen Counter
You’ve had the kitchen table experience, now come to Bonnie Gull and reserve the Kitchen Counter. Spanning the kitchen pass and the bar, you’ll enjoy a 5-course tasting menu overlooking the kitchen. Our executive chef Luke Robinson will ensure you’re well looked-after and there will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions about the provenance of the food and ingredients.
The Kitchen Counter is available to reserve exclusively from Tuesday – Thursday evening for 6 or 7 people and costs £60 per person excluding drinks. Wine pairings can be arranged on request.
Twitter @BonnieGull #SeaFoodDrinkWine
Email email@example.com as the contact for reservations/enquiries from the public.
Ahunter@bonniegull.com for press enquiries.
It’s been a busy couple of months…now that I’ve got a chance to catch my breath I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of you who have been to our new restaurant, Bonnie Gull Seafood Cafe, which opened on Exmouth Market in April. Now that we’re through the teething issues and curve balls that a new opening presents, it’s nice to be able to look back at an exhausting but successful launch. It was not without its issues of course – not least a delay in our license coming through which meant in the first few weeks some of you had to bring your own booze. Thank you for your patience through this and also for your feedback, which has had a huge influence on shaping the menu and the service.
I’m pleased to say that the new Bonnie Gull has gone down really well with both customers and critics alike (bar one miserable bearded chap but I suppose he’s got a rep to keep!). As with all new restaurants there are lots of changes during the opening period and I’m really happy with the huge improvements that have been made in a short space of time as the team have quickly found their feet in EC1. If you dined with us in the early days I would encourage you to re-visit because now that the menu and service has settled it’s really blooming into a great restaurant.
The size and location of the new restaurant allows us to try a few things we can’t offer at Foley St such as 'Bonnie Hour' – a daily promotion between 4:30 and 6:30pm where we offer a range of £5 cocktails and fantastic Dorset Blue oysters for just £1! We’re also offering a pre-theatre menu for £14 between 5-7pm – the perfect start for evening at Sadlers Wells. To view our latest menus at Exmouth Market click here.
Our original restaurant, Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack on Foley St, continues to go from strength to strength. We’ve now got a terrace license which gives us a bunch of extra covers outside and turns our little corner into a buzzing spot on a sunny day. It’s busier than ever down there now so booking in advance is highly recommended.