Moonfish Cafe, 9 Fixed Wynd, Aberdeen AB10 1HP. Lunch starters £9.95 to £10.95, mains £14.95, desserts £8.50, two course dinner £30, three course £38, wines from £22
In the oldest of cities, the dead are never far from the living. Here at the Moonfish Café in Aberdeen, the view, through a narrow cobbled lane, is from the 12th century Kirk of Saint Nicholas, a moody edifice in the city’s familiar palette of wintry grays. It is surrounded on three sides by a cemetery full of those who built this city: men of God and men of Mammon and politicians, and they are mostly men. Among this monochromatic scheme of moral rectitude there is a flash of color: the tomb of one John Henry Anderson, a 19th century magician dubbed the Great Wizard of the North by Sir Walter Scott.
Anderson had many claim to fame. He perfected the bullet grip and spent much of his later years exposing the growing armies of spiritualists and psychics who preyed on the vulnerable and the desperate. Even better, he is credited in some quarters – I won’t be definitive, the world of stage magic is torn with claims and counterclaims – with being the first magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat during of a scene number.
This writer will be forgiven, I hope, for seeing all of this as an analogy just waiting to happen, for the best restaurant meals are really like a bunch of happy bunnies pulled from waiting hats; of revelations and merriment and entertainment. On a day when the color of the sky matches that of the Aberdonian granite, that’s just the thing. The Moonfish Café, which opened in 2004, has it all. It’s a simple, square room with little beige wood paneling and warm, hanging light globes. For decoration, there are a few artificial privet globes that might look cheesy but aren’t. Granted, the heaters aren’t on here today, although it’s only 10°C outside. Again, it’s Aberdeen in September. I suspect they don’t hold up with central heating until you can scratch your initials in the frost inside the window.
No matter. Chef Brian McLeish’s cuisine will warm you up quickly. He arrived at Moonfish in 2011 and in 2014 he reached the finals of Chef: Professionals, which means I may have already passed judgment on his cooking; everything gets a little blurry after a while. That said, there are very few annoying chef’s touches on display here. No thick sauce is slapped on the teardrop plate with the back of a spoon. Nothing is imprisoned on just one side of the board. Instead, it’s a crowd-pleasing menu of slightly shaken bistro fare, at very good prices; a cuisine that never drifts towards the culinary equivalent of a false eyelash or a permanent tan.
At lunchtime starters barely break a ten while mains are under £15. There’s warm sweet pumpkin bread to start, with a bowl of garlicky black olive tapenade and a salty dollop of chive fromage blanc. A whipped duck liver parfait, firmly in the skin-hydrating territory I love so much, arrives in a Kilner jar, topped with toasted almonds and a tangle of arugula leaves. Below is a thick layer of Cumberland Jelly.
The latter represents a particular McLeish tendency towards sweetness, which will pay big dividends at the end of the meal. In a main course of monkfish, roasted to mimic the vibrant purple and honey tones of char siu pork, the natural sweetness of the fish makes for a sickening plate, even allowing for the acidic kick of the cucumber salad on the side. It’s a rare misstep. A thick slice of toasted bread with heavily stacked prawns as a starter, crusted with black and white sesame seeds, may be drizzled with a sweet chili sauce, but in this case it is much appreciated. Pour a little lime if you want to cut it.
There’s a bowl of greasy Shetland mussels, in sunflower-colored saffron broth, sprinkled with crispy croutons, and another of beef carpaccio, a deep purple of bishop’s tonsure shirt, sprinkled with walnuts and blue cheese nuggets. There are also spears of asparagus, certainly far from their season. Here in Aberdeen, many things often are. They come grilled, on a smear of mashed sweet onions and under heaped shavings of pickled egg yolk and Parmesan cheese. Yes, we were four. Yes, we had worked out that we could nail the whole menu between us if we put our backs to it. Here to serve, and so on.
Next to this dish of monkfish, there was a snowy hake pavé, with purple broccoli, virgin sauce and horseradish cream. Slices of lamb rump, rosy in the eye, accompanied by grilled Little Gem lettuce with a Caesar dressing topped with large grated Parmesan cheese; a flaky borek, a savory Turkish pastry, is filled with fennel and potato and sits on a cream of celeriac. Each of these dishes had been thought out, the main idea being: these people need to be fed.
So for dessert, a particular strength. There is a mousseux parfait with blackberries on an apple compote, sheltered in a wigwam of fine crumbly meringue. A thick block of dark chocolate cremeaux is surrounded by spirals of orange caramel and topped with a cardamom cream, which in turn sits under a fennel seed crisp. I may have put these ingredients in the wrong order. Carefree. Once they meet on your spoon, they happily get along. Then there is the lemon posset. There are plenty of very pretty things on the cream of the set: a toasted meringue turban worthy of Elizabeth Taylor in her raid, and a raspberry coulis sprinkled with fresh fruit. But the best and most breathtaking of all is a basil sorbet. It’s hard to get the balance of floral, sweet and sour in a herbal sorbet. McLeish has it all figured out. Plus, it’s a gorgeous shade of green. I would love to sit in a room painted this color.
This afternoon, the room filled up quickly. It’s easy to see why. Moonfish Café is a civilized place. The service is efficient and discreet. The wine list, although short, is well thought out and almost all is available by the glass. Add to that the marked skill and good taste of the cooking and you have what even the late John Henry Anderson, lying in his grave opposite, would, I’m sure, have recognized as a certain kind of magic .
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