Friday, March 31, 2017

Seven pretty good grub-orientated joints in Aberdeen, from cheap to exorbitant

The Inversnecky Café 

An institution. On the beach, rocking a Jersey Shore boardwalk (only concrete) vibe, complete with adjacent somewhat grubby fairground and seagulls. Or as I would say, shows. Ideal off-the-boat breakfast, great parking, stern, buffeting beachwalks available. Good coffee, and everything you could ask for in a fry-up. Also pioneered the daft blackboard notice and has great ice cream for the one or two days a year when it's sunny. Actually, that's a cheap shot: Aberdeen is one of the sunniest places in Scotland. And speaking of cheap, the Inversnecky ain't dear. No website! How cool is that?

The Silver Darling

Wonderful quayside setting, with a light, airy cruiseliner dining room which becomes beautifully atmospheric at night. You can watch the ships coming and going while eating very good, very ornate, very expensive dishes, with a leaning towards the city’s excellent seafood. Can be a bit intimidating, perhaps because you're wondering if your Black Amex still works. Be prepared for  £55-£80 a head at night, including wine. Lunch around half that. Only for serious expense accounts, freebies and Big Nights Out. In 30 years of travelling through and staying in Aberdeen, I’ve been there once.

 The Moonfish Café

My top Aberdeen choice. Superb, tiny room, small, mostly seafoody menu but with meat and vegetarian options. Not cheap, but not in same price bracket as The Silver Darling - £40-55 a head including wine at night for three courses and their always excellent cheeseboard, lunch half that or less. But you can eat more abstemiously for less moolah, and because it’s a cheerfully informal joint, without any worries that the staff are being sniffy about your cheapskatedness. Book well in advance. Not a place for intimate conversation - hard surfaces means people with headphone-induced tinnitus can struggle. Still brilliant, though.

Rye and Soda

Hmm...I really like this place, but I have a feeling I’m a bit too elderly to fit in at certain times of the evening, when the cocktails are flowing and that weird Aberdeen combination of hipster beards and diamante glam is a-waggling and a-glinting. For a meaty brunch, though - and it markets itself as ‘an American brunch café by day’, it is unsurpassed (see Food Story below for veggie options). Huevos Rancheros, all the classics of hangover-alleviating breakfast, the astonishingly evil pizza chips, and really good coffee including a decent Aeropress. Great, informed, friendly service, too.


Brewdog-owned these days, Musa offers some great opportunities to pair mainstream and obscure, Brewdog-curated (as well as brewed) beers (tasting measures offered) with high quality Scottish food.  The grub is perhaps just a touch fussier in presentation than it needs to be and not especially cheap. But then, this is Aberdeen, even in an oil price downturn kinda situation. They have live music, often jazz, and changing art exhibitions in what is an unusual and not entirely comfortable space which can get very hot and busy, particularly if there are performers squashed in front of the wine racks. Dinner Around £30-45 for three courses including drinks. Can wind up more expensive than you think it's gonna be. They do a two-course lunch special for £16 excluding booze.

Food Story

I’ve heard rumours of bacon sandwiches being available, but think of this as essentially a vegetarian café and you won’t go far wrong. I’d say it was preposterously post-hippydom-dungaree-trendy if  it weren’t for the blingy Prosecco-quaffing shift that tends to drift in during the evening. No licence, reasonable corkage, so you can bring in your crate from Oddbins and get bubbly at speed, then nip out for replenishments.
Great falafels, chillis and lasagnes, wonderful salads, and probably the best sourdough bread available to eat on-site in Aberdeen. For me it’s somewhere for lunch, late (relatively healthy) breakfast and mid-morning ab-dabs, as the cakes are truly superb. So is the coffee and (if you’re into it) their range of space cadet teas. Hilarious toilets. And very reasonable prices, with nobody making you eat too much. Good atmosphere, gets very, very busy. 

6 Degrees North 

Naughtily opening just down from Brewdog, only for the uber-brewers to open another branch almost alongside, 6 Degrees ( distance north of Brussels; they’re Belgian beer fans) is an offshoot of parent brewpub in Stonehaven and has a phenomenal selection of obscurely drinkable stuff. It is also a really good place for a semi-liquid lunch or early tea, with their sharing charcuterie platters a treat and also a total bargain. Not for teetotallers or Proseccotisti/a.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Shetland Truck culture

Once this addiction starts
I cannot stop
I need an Ifor Williams top
Though never will a sheep or dog,
Woman or child 
Scratch my tailgate

I hate the thought 
Of grubby paws, or bags of Tesco shopping
Scarring the luscious Mitsubishi sheen.
I've been there. I had a HiLux once,
A crew cab, with roll-bar, shotgun rack
Springsteen, Steve Earle and Daniel O'Donnel tracks
Red tins of beer

It ended in tears:
A wife, a collie, trips sooth to IKEA
Talk of baby seats and daft ideas
Concerning Citröens, Peugeots, or worse
A Vauxhall Zafira
I did not hear her
For I was gone, long gone
Working offshore in Venezuala 
My relationship a failure

But I saved sufficient cash
For a Barbarian, with leather seats
The sound so sweet
Of its diesel engine in my ears
Crankshaft and gasket failure fears
Assuaged (That was in the early L200 years)

And so I drive from North Roe down to Sumburgh
And back, in only clement weather
I'll wash her with the finest chamois leather
And in the heated garage
Stroke her gently

She's better than a Bentley
Or Nissan, or Toyota
Not one iota of regret
Do I feel
This love is real
I count my blessings and my luck
In finding you, my one true pick-up truck
My L200
My precious! Do not fear

I'll never over-rev you in third gear

(And, when launching a boat into the sea,
I promise not to reverse you down 
Door-deep, until your footwells are awash
With salty water
Which, long ago, I did.
Warned many times, I just refused to listen
However, that truck was leased, and besides
It was a Nissan)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dog Psychology For Beginners: poem

One dog stumbles, blind, towards the smell of toast
One dog creeps upstairs, into our vacant bed
And pretends to be asleep, while waiting for the post
To come. That mailman will be dead
Or  badly barked at; Dexter can’t bear to miss

Rug, the aged and infirm, will howl in furious fright
Should Dexter, raging at some fluorescent stranger’s cheek
For being visible, give voice with all his might
And threaten deadly, toothsome measures to a meek
Innocent and hapless lurker
Or shirker

Dressed in yellow or orange, extremely reflective
Dexter, clearly suffered in the past at someone’s hands
Woman or man, who knows? I’m no detective
But  our dog has learned to hate, to fear and understand
That safety-inducing bright
Means fight
Or flight

Rug, the blind and deaf St Bernard, lives by aroma; by her nose.
She gets excited these days only by Chinese food
When a takeaway is planned, somehow she knows
She’d live on chicken curry if she could
She’s young and free
It’s the MSG

One dog remembers noodles, oyster sauce and rice, stolen or fed
One dog was hurt by someone wearing orange or yellow clothes
(They can’t see red)

They don’t forget

(c) Scar Quilse, 2017. All rights reserved

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Delicious: Hot jazz on a chilly Aberdeen weekend

A trip to the 2017 Aberdeen Jazz Festival

Trio Vein

I always quote the Bonzos: Their track Jazz (Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold) is a dada-esque parody of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s trad roots, found in all its 32 bars of cacophonous (they all played instruments they’d never picked up before) glory on the album Gorilla.

It kind of sums up my thoughts on some elements of jazz, though frankly the word ‘jazz’ is like the word ‘music’ -  it covers a multitude of sins and blessings. But it also could, I pondered as I wandered through the rain towards His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, cover the idea of a jazz festival in Aberdeen. In March.

And I had worries, too about the Curtis Stigers/Ryan Quigley Big Band gig I was heading towards, notably what my plus-one, - my 22-year old indie hipster daughter - would make of an evening comprising mostly songs made famous by Sinatra, entitled One More For The Road.

This was the first time the Aberdeen Jazz Festival, organised by Edinburgh-based Jazz Scotland, had attempted to fill the cavernous but lovely  HMT, and it was busy. Those who had come remembering Stigers’ brief worldwide, mullet-wielding  fame in the early 90s with the likes of I Wonder Why and You’re All That Matters to Me were not disappointed - he performed both, beautifully - but the rest of the gig was a warm, self-effacing, and very entertaining romp through Sinatra’s greatest hits, plus a scattering of Stigers’ own takes on the genre.
Curtis Stigers and the Ryan Quigley Big Band

The Quigley band was exemplary throughout, playing with fire, passion, all the technical chops you’d expect and great good humour. And my daughter - who’s a classically-trained and occasionally orchestral musician, after all - loved it. These songs, beautifully played and performed, are history-proven, time-tested, and among the best ever written.

Stigers, suited and booted, looks like a scrawny, desiccated, older George Clooney and mixed happily with the audience during the interval. He’s a very good saxophonist, too, and it’s worth delving into the nooks and crannies of this eclectic talent’s output. His work on the soundtrack to TV series Sons of Anarchy is astonishingly powerful, notably his version of Son House’s blues gospel classic John the Revelator. His voice is a flexible instrument, and his jazz credentials are impeccable, going back to his beginnings. I’d buy his new album, which represents this show’s content but was recorded with the Danish Radio Big Band.

So, a triumph, and I could have gone on to the informal club at the centre of the festival, Aberdeen’s legendary Blue Lamp and enjoyed, no doubt, some more interpretations of the classics, this time Colin Steele tackling Miles Davis. But having been up since 5.00am, it was time to crash back at the Skene House Apartments in Rosemount, my home for the weekend. And very nice too. Good breakfasts, great staff, and just down the road is the wonderful Breadmaker café and the excellent Maidin Vinyl record shop. That’s what I call a location!

Next day I was engaged with things culinary and liquid, of which more elsewhere, and the evening took me to the Blue Lamp, which is a really fantastic venue, candlelit tonight and giving a very convincing impression that it’s really located somewhere in Brooklyn or just across 110th Street. It’s also completely packed for the Swiss band Trio Vein, with special guest the American saxophone legend Rick Margitza. This is contemporary, ‘modern’ jazz by piano-and-drums brothers Michael and Florian Arbenz, and bassist Thomas Lahns. Rick Margitza interracts as if he’s been playing with them forever, and while this is demanding, intellectual, occasionally abstract music it also has a warmth which makes it playful and without intimidation.

I skip off before Scottish full-on jazz-funk party outfit Fat Suit, who I know are very good indeed. Back to Skene House and a documentary on BBC4 about country music. This is what age has brought me to.
Silver City Soul Revue

Sunday is the day the festival takes to Aberdeen’s streets, with all the risks that involves. The weather, however, mostly behaves, and a selection of visiting and local acts are able to play at various open-air locations and indoor venues throughout the city centre, all for free. 

This is where the festival really, for me comes alive, with clearly enthused and occasionally joyous volunteers guiding us hither and indeed thither to investigate some unexpected musical delights. The Silver City Soul Revue down in the sub-Union Street depths of Aberdeen’s ancient Green are, for me, quite inspiring - whip smart covers of all the soul greats, and some funk treasures including Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music, White Boy sounding swaggeringly convincing. Up to the entrance to Marks and Spencers, where the wide-ranging nature of the festival is displayed through a local blues rock band’s effective channeling of Zeppelin and Purple.

And then, as a spattering of rain comes in from the sea, it’s off to the long-standing Belmont Street bar Drummonds for shelter, mineral water and what gradually emerges from the long, tunnel-like venue as a one-man blues band. A diminutive figure plays electric guitar and harmonica, hidden behind a gigantic bass drum. It’s great, and gradually I realise I’m listening to and watching a Scottish musical legend, the great Mike Whelans. Last seen by me in the Thule Bar in Lerwick 30 years ago, at the end of a Shetland Folk Festival, singing La Bandiera Rossa with Tich Frier and the late Davey Steele.

Time is running away with me, but as I’ve spent some 20 years passing the band stand on top of the Trinity shopping centre without ever seeing a band on it, now is an opportunity to see the edifice functioning as it was designed.  And Dope Sick Fly, a highly-rated Glasgow band who combine rock, funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop brilliantly, absolutely own the stage and the Astroturf in front of it, even though it’s getting cold and their Alabama-born singer Ant Thomaz is huddled in a very odd (but warm-looking) cardigan.
Dope Sick Fly

Truly, I only saw and heard a fraction of what was on offer at the festival. But what’s really appealing about the event is the range of styles on offer, the accessibility and sheer enthusiasm and friendliness of those involved. My experience? This jazz was hot. And delicious. Oh, and on my way to the airport, I stopped off at Maidin Vinyl and picked up some bargain LPs. Sinatra and 1920s ragtime. Scalding!
Cardigan cool

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A light lunch at Udny Green - eating where Donald Trump failed to get in

Eat on the Green, Udny Green, by Ellon, Aberdeenshire. Dinner £39-45 per person. Lunch £25-30. Menus and winelist online at:

The Kilted Chef is wearing breeks today, albeit tartan ones, and nursing the after effects of a night in Edinburgh where his restaurant Eat on the Green did NOT win the ‘Best Restaurant Experience’ gong. That went to Glasgow’s seafood joint Gamba, which I once ate in, very expensively and not without dissatisfaction.

Mr Wilson doesn’t seem bothered. Eat on the Green is one of North East Scotland’s top  dining destinations, located in a former pub in the rather perjink village of Udny Green, near Ellon. The interior brings together the sumptuous, the pure-dead-flash and the homely; its appeal to Aberdeenshire’s somewhat reduced Porsche-and-champagne set (there’s a Laurent-Perrier sponsored ‘clubroom’ , Le Salon Vert, with silvery sofas and a chandelier made of dangling bottles, not Kristal, by the way) leavened  by some quite serious art (including a massive Gerry Burns) two lovely private dining rooms, one off the kitchen and a  reception desk beamed in from the Starship Enterprise.

All of this in a low-ceilinged building with lots of quirky corners and a newly-refurbished £20k men’s toilet, any surface off which you could eat your dinner. That, however, is unnecessary as we are at that ‘chef’s table’ from which you can see into the kitchen, but don’t have to sweat with the brigade. Unless you want to pay your £200 and be a ‘chef for a day’ on one of Mr Wilson’s cooking courses.

He’s a star, Is Mr Wilson, but a genial one, and entertaining as he tells his tale of a local boy returning to his roots and finding culinary success in this initially suspicious farming community.

“How much are ye takkin fir a bowl of soup?” He remembers the craggy local comments. “Aye, I quite likkit it. But it’s affy dear.” He was determined, though, when he set up the restaurant in 2004, that it would be fine dining without snobbery (“We’re not a burger bar”), the best ingredients sourced from as near at hand as possible. Which wasn’t without difficulty. A few leery local suppliers kept him at a distance until they realised just how good Eat on the Green was, and how popular. With big names too. Sean Connery, Alex Ferguson. And Donald Trump’s golf complex is just down the road.

“We turned him away,” confides Mr Wilson, with a discreet hint of pride. “He and his entourage wanted to have dinner, but we were full.”

Mr Wilson’s career started at the Strathburn Hotel in Inverurie at 16, before a move to the prestigious Ballathie House in Perthshire (“I took a 50 per cent pay cut at 18 and a half”), Cromlix House in Dunblane as head chef and time with Baxters as a development cook. based in  Grimsby. Yes, Grimsby, where Baxters had a plant developing ‘fresh soups’. Inevitably, he began to hanker for home.

It was in England he developed the kilted persona which became popular with local TV producers, and has become his hallmark in the USA and beyond. He’s tireless in raising money for charity, seems good to his staff (they all exhibit an effortless friendliness you don’t get from cheffy shouting) and is a family man with four children, one recently born. 

“My wife says that when I cook, it reminds her why she likes me.” 

I am here as part of a whistle-stop food, drink and music press trip organised by Visit Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen Festivals. For lunch. It’ll be the usual slivers of showy, fancy food full of foibles, I surmise. A palate-tantalising taste and then on your way.

I couldn’t be more wrong.

What Mr Wilson does is take the opportunity to present us with the best of his ingredients and what simple, heartfelt, very careful high end cookery can do with them. Or in the case of what is more cheese table than board, present local products in their pristine state. They didn’t stay that way for long. I still feel guilt at what I did to that amazing, unopened smoked Clava from Inverness-shire.

Post-canapés and champagne, gigantic sharing plates are paraded through one after the other: black pudding balls, deep fried (haggis and black pudding are the coming cool ingredients of 2017, I am informed by another member of the party). Tempura vegetables and caramelised roasted roots veg, all  from the restaurant’s own polytunnels. Venison, right on the money with that tender texture it’s so difficult to achieve. Pork belly, three ways, halibut in a delicate, tangy sauce. Arbroath Smokie in pearl barley risotto, delicate and moist. Scallops and giant crayfish, from nearby Foinaven Fish using boats based in Buckie and Peterhead. Huge, generous quantities, all the cooking calibrated to perfection. While Mr Wilson turns the tables, literally, and quizzes each of us in turn about what we do , why we do it. He likes to talk, to meet people. Going around his guests and chatting is part of the deal for him, rewarding, instructive and essential. Food is social. And essentially unpretentious.

"I’ve never been into that spacebomb and foie gras sort of thing. Finesse without the bullshit, that’s me. Mince and tatties, but done really well.”

It’s the beef cheek, cooked for 14 hours and with a deep, utterly irresistible gravy, that knocks me sideways. I’ve had this cut before and found it impossible to eat, the strange, grainy texture and thin lines of fat sucking all the moisture from my mouth.

“If you cook it long enough, the fat dissolves,” says Mr Wilson, and that’s the simple truth. This is fantastic, melt-in-the-mouth meat which responds to the warning he was given when he opened the restaurant: “Remember, it’s good beef country here - remember, loon!” Me, I’m in beef bliss.

Couldn’t eat another thing. Except, oh, all right then, some slates (enough with the slates, OK? We Want Plates!) of puddings too perfect to ignore in their pressing of all those chocolate brownie, fruit and tart/sweet buttons. And what about some cheese?

All right then.

Now, I wasn’t paying for any of this, I hadn’t seen any prices, and I wondered if we were looking at the kind of colossally expensive place only really accessible for special treats, celebrities and football managers. It’s got a private champagne club, for heaven’s sake! But a quick look online showed that  Eat on the Green is actually very reasonable indeed. Dinner is £39 for two courses, £45 for three, with a very uncheeky £5 beef supplement. A decent bottle of Rioja is less than £30, a dram of Glengarioch £4.50. Obviously, boats can be pushed out if you so desire.

Me, I’m thinking about Gamba, the fortune I lavished on our family dinner there, the unexpected, somehow lax fussiness of ungenerous servings. Eat on the Green is on a different level. An admiring Gordon Baxter, Mr Wilson’s former boss, arrived to celebrate his 80th birthday at Udny, and afterwards told his former protegé: “We’re here...and you’re there. You’re the real deal.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Promised Land, 18 March 2017

Still brown-eyed, still handsome
Still mean as a cottonmouth
Bitter, wary, watchful
Of the new north and the old south

Suitcase packed, guitar, a car
A clean shirt, cash, a gun
Things you can put your faith in
When you can't trust anyone

No woman, no disciple, fan
Friendship is only words
Just pick-up bands, a half-hour set
And Johnnie Johnson's chords

Like Johnnie, never too bad
Never good, you were the best
Motorvating over that hill
Leaving behind the rest

Gone now; vicious, suspicious
Owed by a million bands
Poor boy forever on the line
Exiled from the Promised land