With his first restaurant review of the year, Murray Chalmers opts to visit a restaurant in Perth that redefines his love of food.
“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating,” Luciano Pavarotti.
I’d been looking forward to eating at the The North Port for quite some time, ever since I started following head chef/owner Andrew Moss on Instagram.
His online posts are so inspiring and alluring that it was obvious a great talent was at work here. Although he and I must agree to differ on the merits of jokingly calling Nicola Sturgeon Jimmy Krankie in a celebratory announcement about the restaurant’s reopening.
It’s been a rocky road for the entire hospitality industry and the path hasn’t always been illuminated as much as some would have liked. Antipathy towards the government – both UK and Scottish – is obviously completely understandable at such volatile times when collective personal survival often had to be prioritised over business.
Tough decisions have had to be made, and those decisions have shown inconsistencies that have affected all our daily lives and involved a great deal of personal sacrifice for everyone in the country.
My heart goes out to a sector that has been brought to its knees by the pandemic. I see friends struggling to survive, working like crazy just to minimise their losses, and I believe it’s now incumbent on all of us with disposable income to eat out as much as we can and to support local and independent venues when possible.
It’s only by doing this that we can help restaurants employ more staff (should they be able to find them – but that’s another Brexit story) and to open for longer. Try eating out on a Monday right now and you’ll see what I mean.
It was very important for me to find somewhere small and independent to visit in this first full restaurant review after lockdown.
It was also my hope that the place would be nigh on perfect because, whilst these reviews will always reflect the truth, we’ve all been through the toughest of times and I think it’s fair to employ a gentler, more empathetic and forgiving language right now as the hospitality industry battles to survive.
I definitely chose the right place in the North Port because this is where we had a perfect lunch and where no allowances had to be made for flaws or glitches, of which there were none.
In truth, it was asparagus that drew me here.
I’d eulogised about Eassie Farm asparagus on my own Instagram page because the season was about to start, and I was avidly looking for those magical words “picking now” on the farm website. Andrew mentioned that he sourced asparagus from Eassie and was as excited as I was for the new season, which was enough of an endorsement for me.
Eassie itself is a great example of why we must support local business, especially one as seasonal as theirs.
And, on an aesthetic level, if you ever see Eassie Farm asparagus on a restaurant menu, you can bet that the chef will be a good one because working with produce this good shows a level of discernment that will hopefully be reflected throughout your entire meal.
For the past 30 years, Sandy and Heather Pattullo have been producing the best asparagus and sea kale in the UK from their farm in Angus, although the Pattullo family have actually farmed in this bucolic spot since the 1840s.
Visiting their charming farm shop is a complete joy, although sadly it’s one that is now over for 2021 as the season has just ended (asparagus ends on June 21, the longest day, and sea kale will begin in January 2022).
Only these two wonderful seasonal vegetables are produced here, and they are both so good that they are used in many top restaurants in London, as well as in the better restaurants locally.
We were lucky enough to eat at the North Port just as the asparagus season was drawing to a close, and what a lovely place it proved to be to celebrate such a noble symbol of resurrection and life.
The North Port looks really great. Built in 1774, it’s thought that its original use was as accommodation for sailors from the port near the building. Subsequently it was a house (a recent flood unearthed stoves behind a wall), an antiques shop and a succession of other restaurants.
It opened as The North Port in 2014.
It’s a beautiful space with wooden floors, dark walls and low ceilings. A narrow spiral staircase leads to the kitchen and the toilets and, apparently, a ghost in a small corridor — although I have to confess that my thoughts were so focused on navigating the stairs after recent surgery that I might have welcomed a helping hand, earthly or otherwise.
Colours are dark throughout, in a very pleasing Farrow & Ball in Clerkenwell style. A cast iron fireplace in the main dining area holds many burning candles, the wax dripping atmospherically as we ate. The tables are very well-spaced and each contains such lovely glass bottles of hand sanitiser that it feels more like you’re in an old apothecary rather than a waiting room in a pandemic.
So far, so good.
Our waiter, Kieran, was completely brilliant — one of those people who knows what you need before even you do. Despite working a busy room on his own, he never let the ball drop and was such a pro that he not only knew the menu inside out but told David, completely unprompted, which of the desserts contained gelatine (David is vegetarian).
Kieran also recommended we try the Sanbitter by San Pellegrino, a startlingly vibrant non-alcoholic version of a Campari that comes in the most beautiful little glass bottles, which instantly transport you to Venice. When I expressed delight at this new discovery, Kieran said it was available on Amazon and I had a case of this wonderful nectar at my door two days later.
So, the surroundings are lovely, the waiter was great and all we had to hope was that the food lived up to our already heightened expectations. Happily, it did — and more.
As we ordered from a menu where I could have eaten anything and everything, David suddenly thought to ask for bread, to which Kieran — rapidly becoming the best waiter ever — waved his hand and reassured us: “Oh don’t worry, the bread will just arrive.”
When it did, it was home-made, warm and accompanied by whipped butter and the most delicious pea and hazelnut dip, none of which was even charged for.
This is indicative of a place serving food made with skill, using ingredients of top quality, for what seems like bargain prices. Not charging for this delicious bread is such a nice gesture and one that reflects a wider, fairer ethos in its pricing. This is all too rare!
As an example, a recent desultory experience more locally started with some stale bread and tired olives, the bread not home-made and charged at £3.50, the tasteless olives a staggering £4.50. We walked out of this place feeling ripped off and won’t return for a long time; the whole experience felt transactional and that’s not a nice feeling as a customer.
Here at the North Port, the free home-made bread, butter and dip immediately set the tone for a pleasant experience. Go figure who is getting it right and who will be getting our repeat custom…
I started a faultless lunch with Perthshire pigeon, beetroot, raspberry and elderflower (£8), an exquisite combination on the plate and in the mouth. So delicious! I followed it with Loch Etive sea trout, almond dumplings, Eassie asparagus, sea kale and meadowsweet mayo (£19).
Again, this was a perfect dish, the sea trout beautifully moist and perfectly complemented by the other ingredients. I was intrigued by the almond dumplings, which resembled gnocchi, and gave necessary ballast to the delicacy of the trout and the meadowsweet sauce.
From a menu unusually filled with interesting vegetarian options (one gripe about many Tayside restaurants is their formulaic vegetarian offerings), David chose a starter of roast cauliflower, curry mayo and a caper and raisin dressing.
This was delicious and proved that the near ubiquity of roast cauliflower can still be overcome with interesting flavour combinations.
David’s main course was centred around the great Eassie asparagus, this time enhanced by the almond dumplings and some delicious chicken of the woods mushrooms.
An accompanying sauce was so delicious, we might have asked for a jug of it and, in fact, this would be the only enhancement I’d suggest to this quietly resonant dish. David’s set lunch was a bargain £16 for these two remarkably good courses.
Accompanying this, we shared some chips, which are this month’s best ever — this is a hard-won trophy and thus we can be flighty in our favours — and some perfect seasonal veg.
From a fascinating dessert list featuring many unusual flavour combinations, we shared an ace cherry blossom parfait with meadowsweet marshmallow, the most exquisite sorrel sorbet and an apple crumble (£8).
Next time I’d be torn between the sweet cicely pannacotta with an almond wafer and lemon purée (£8), the sea buckthorn ganache with caramelised white chocolate parfait, almond and pineapple weed meringue (£8), or a Nutella sandwich with a glass of milk (£8) which is so much more than it sounds.
Top stuff and nice to see so much use made of wild ingredients here, both in the savoury dishes and the desserts.
What a delight this place is. Really, I can’t recommend it more effusively.
Great ingredients, skilled cooking, fantastic service and lovely surroundings.
The joy of eating out is distilled into this little gem.
North Port Restaurant
8 North Port
01738 580 867
Food = 5/5
Service = 5/5
Surroundings = 5/5