The Promise of the Headless Octopus

Something is going on “doon the barras”.

When we visited last week for a “dauner” roon, there was a lot of building work going on. In amongst the many tourists who stop to take pictures of the old buildings, where men working hard, cursing the strange phenomenon of the sun, and pulling up old rickety kerbs. We were on our way to St Luke’s, a former church, which is now home to a restaurant and arts venue. Not serving food until 12 and my son claiming his usual starvation we relocated to a wee pub across the road, Van Winkles. Another lovely spot with a nice menu and a beer garden at the back.
A quick google later and I learned that the area is undergoing massive change. The Calton Barras Action Plan seeks to regenerate the market and the surrounding areas. Historically the Barras is an important thread in the fabric of our dear Glasgow. In the interwar years, a young mother of nine set up a market place to allow traders to sell their wares on the back of their “Barras”. A densely populated area at the time, people flocked here. The young entrepreneur subsequently opened the Barrowland Ballroom. A dance hall and now a world-renowned music venue. Whilst the Barrowland venue has sustained a booming trade, the market and surrounding are has lost its lustre and crowds in recent years. Something that the CBAP project aims to turn on its head, and allow this historical area to shine once more.
The centrepiece of this regeneration is A’Challtainn bar and restaurant. Meaning Calton in Gaelic, it is clutching our Scottish history in one hand whilst doing the Highland fling through our current culinary scene. We visited on a Saturday evening, and it was mobbed. There are a good number of fish restaurants in Glasgow these days. Gandolfi fish is definitely worth a wee swim too. I am not a fan of the Crabshakk, with a thinly sliced seating arrangement, designed to maximise bums on seats, the proximity to other dinners causes the Greek to whisper his week across to me. There is no space for my ear trumpet, so I just nod along and swig my wine. The food is lovely but presented all wrong. Seafood and shellfish do not need pompous ceremony to announce their arrival. They merely have to lie on the plate; holding up this season’s must have lemon. “Look at me”, they shout, “aren’t weeeeee so delicious”. Nor do the oysters need to arrive on a silver tray on stilts, with ice cascading down the plate. These theatrics have little to do with the food or the talent of the chef. The diner would be aswell standing up and putting a sign around his neck reading: “IVE ORDERED THE OYSTERS NOW. LOOK AT ME”
In Spain, the seafood is thrown down on your table with all the magnificent crustaceans cosying in with one another. On a trip to A Coruna years ago, my good friend and I would head out every evening sit our arses down and wait for the inevitable. “Seafood please”. Plomp. Spider crab chilling out with some langoustines. Mussels hugging the side of the silver buffet platter, wee clams cooried in. One chilled bottle of wine, two sets of crab crackers and pickers and that was our evening. Talking shite largely, but really savouring each other’s company and our ultimate fidget food. I thought of that holiday when eating in A’Challtainn. They have a shellfish counter section on their menu. The Greek’s oysters arrived with no ceremony, just their wonderful selves, straight off the flight from Barra and ready to accept their fate. I knew why I was there. My mother had been the week before and each evening on our nightly phone call she had commented “ohhh those mussels”. I was already decided in my choice. Whilst the Greek studied the menu, I was a strong confident woman. “It’s the mussels for me”, I confirmed.

This restaurant appreciates and respects the sea. I think its surroundings are a huge draw, but the quality of the produce is flawless. Some of the best mussels I have tasted, the Greek sat with his eyes closed for several minutes after those oysters. Clutching the tabasco and I suspect meditating. The last time we visited was in October last year. The squid was sensational. One of my pet hates in a restaurant are those flaccid fried rings of nothing that are called “Calamaris”. They are clearly a distant relative of a Johnny onion ring and nothing to do with the creature in question. Only in Greece and now A’Challtainn have I seen the real thing. A big ugly looking thing that again is confident in his own fabulousness. He was not on the menu this visit. Why? He ain’t in season.
There is also a section of starters and mains that air on the convoluted side, but have been skilfully paired with thoughtful and supportive accompaniments to the stars of the show.

A’Challtainn is not without its teething problems. There were many floor staff on the ground, but it seemed to be missing a head to this octopus. We had to ask for our drinks 15 minutes after ordering. The young girl who served us was clearly very busy and stressed. She described the evening’s special as a South American crab claw and squat lobster pot. What actually arrived was a pot brimming with the flavours of South East Asia. Delicious, but not what we ordered. We also had to prompt for the safe landing of the oysters from the cold counter. A person overseeing this busy evening of trade seemed to be missing.
That aside, we will be back. Crab crackers in hand. Ready for some oyster meditation, with the eternal hope that chipirones will be found in Scottish waters. Hopefully greeted by the presently AWOL head of the octopus.

Happy Sunday xx


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