Venturing to one of Fife’s restaurant gems, Murray Chalmers takes a trip to Craig Millar’s restaurant in the East Neuk.
On a sunny day there aren’t many nicer experiences than to sit on the terrace at Craig Millar’s eponymous restaurant in St Monans whilst a succession of great dishes appear in front of you.
In fact, it proved to be quite the moment – the sun dappling off the water mere steps away, the whitewashed terrace wall and the few plants dotted around making us think we’d somehow arrived in Greece without getting on a plane.
As we marvelled at the sheer joy of it all a mum and her son swam in the nearby harbour and some beautiful dogs scampered across the beach – for a moment it seemed like all was right with the world.
Even better it seemed like all was right with the world back in 1954 and that we had regressed to a happier time of fluffy white clouds, Doris Day movies and Charlie Parker records. Just don’t mention Enid Blyton!
So it proved to be for us last Thursday when our early lunch reservation meant that we could bag the premier table outside, the umbrella protecting us from the harshest bounce of the rays whilst allowing a completely unfiltered view of the water. Absolute bliss!
St Monans is so special, as is the whole of the East Neuk. You could almost hear men in yellow cords, striped socks and checked shirts braying loudly that, really, you could be in Cornwall – Cornwall, of course, being the sine qua non for sybaritic waterside pleasure in many people’s eyes. Well guess what? On a sunny day the East Neuk of Fife can rival anywhere for seaside beauty and a sense of escape; today it felt quite perfect.
Amazingly, Craig Millar isn’t even the only brilliant hospitality venue in St Monans – whilst he bestrides the rocks on one side of the harbour the equally wonderful yet very different East Pier Smokehouse is just a short walk away on the other side.
There the ethos is more casual and shack-like; here at Craig Millar it’s a tad more formal though definitely not buttoned up and stuffy. I love both and still marvel at how fantastic it is that such a small place has two ace restaurants.
With top fishmonger David Lowrie just around the corner and the excellent Bowhouse market a few minutes away, this is something of a foodie enclave, all the more remarkable because everyone here operates in a very low key, unassuming manner.
Before lunch I’d recommend a walk round the beautiful harbour and a visit to the small but fascinating St Monans Heritage Collection which is dedicated to the history of fishing in the area. It was closed when we went this time but it’s well worth checking their opening days if you want to gain a perspective of how a once thriving industry has evolved and, sadly, diminished.
If you can get an outside table at Craig Millar then do so because that view is stupendous. During the course of our lunch someone at another table saw dolphins basking in the distance and the excitement that ran round the small terrace was palpable. What a show these beautiful creatures put on for we lucky diners! Also, top marks to the restaurant who supplied binoculars in order to see the spectacle at closer range.
The food here is sublime. This is a restaurant operating with an assured, confident hand, a place where everything works to the degree that you barely have to think. As such it’s just what is needed right now at a time when just leaving the house makes you feel like you need a checklist to survive.
Before Covid I would be on so many planes that I’d often leave home chanting “tickets. money. passport” and then remember I was only going to the Spar shop for some milk. Now our new mantra is “facemask, hand sanitiser and please God let it be over soon”. Anything that provides a respite from this is welcome. This is one such place.
I didn’t really have to look at the menu here because I already knew what I was going to order. My eyes instantly scanned the offerings for the magic words “cheese soufflé” which appear under intermediates (starters are also offered although even a glutton like me couldn’t manage four courses at lunch).
The lunch menu is concise and features at least two of Millar’s greatest hits – the aforementioned soufflé and a pea mousse with pickled shallots, mushroom, parmesan and focaccia toast. Both are exemplary and I would say both are somewhat non- negotiable for sampling on your first visit.
Enough has been written about the cheese soufflé here to wager that if it were ever taken off the menu there would probably be some kind of middle-class uprising – you know, a furious tapping of loafers on stripped floorboards, a shaking of fists battle- scarred by pruning David Austin roses, Viognier corks pulled out with disgusted, brutal force – that kind of very cross rebellion that we Brits excel at whilst democracy itself collapses around us.
I was even more fired up about the soufflé when I realised that my friend and Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin had singled it out for praise when she visited Craig Millar pre-C**id.
You could say expectations were high. They weren’t just met – they were exceeded.
The cliché about a soufflé is the wobble but, like most clichés, it’s based on an inescapable truth – a soufflé rises and falls on its wobble and, really, a soufflé that falls is a soufflé that fails. Empires have fallen on less….
There was a mild, pleasant breeze wafting over the terrace as the cheese souffle appeared and it was this wholly unscripted moment that started the whole Craig Millar cheese soufflé epiphany in motion.
As this creation was set down in front of me the breeze blew gently and the soufflé – as light and delicate as a feather on an Alison Watt painting – seemed to quietly vibrate.
It was miraculous and caused me no end of joy and, were I the kind of person who used the phrase “simple pleasures” now would surely be that time.
I sat for what seemed like an eternity, lost in the reverie of the wobble and the wind until the smell of that quivering mound of glory became too much and I simply had to smash that cherished thing to pieces.
From here on I was a convert – Craig Millar could have served me anything and I would have eaten it.
Instead, I watched David enjoy Millar’s other classic starter – the pea mousse – which was the taste of summer on a plate. Absolutely delicious!
Service here is on the money – formal enough to get everything right, informal enough that you end up chatting to the servers about the weather and the view.
They must have had the same conversation so many times and yet they’re charming enough to make you feel like you’re the very first person to ever eulogise about both.
Our main courses were just as perfect; my cod with peas, broad beans, cauliflower puree, vermouth and parsley sauce was so light, so harmonious, that I could have eaten double the portion.
This really leads to my only slight quibble about lunch here – there are no side dishes. I know the arguments against them and I know that many chefs want to present their dishes as complete, balanced plates – but, for instance, I would have loved some Ratte or Jersey Royals potatoes with my cod, something to add a bit of heft to the dish.
There were no vegetarian main courses on the lunch menu but the waiter recited one that was so delicious I think they should add it straight away.
Puff pastry filled with parsnip puree, peas, broad beans, feta and spinach was served with a parmesan and parsley sauce, sunflower seeds and a crispy onion crumb and was just wonderful – although, again, David felt that it would have benefitted from a side dish or a salad. Whatever, it was a delight.
Special mention here must go to the bread which was warm from the oven and came with an excellent shallot butter – so good we ordered a second basket, partly because we didn’t want to waste a drop of the excellent sauces still on our plate, and I only lick plates in the privacy of my own home.
By now everything was a breeze, and not just the type that makes your soufflé shudder. We were in safe hands. This is assertive, highly accomplished cooking that simply makes you feel good. The setting is sublime and the service faultless.
For a few hours you really believe that, if you could just stay here, everything would be ok in the world. I posted a few pics to Instagram and people really did think we were in Greece – and we actually felt like we’d gone on holiday, a mere hour from our homes. This place is that transformative and that lovely.
We shared both available desserts and both were gorgeous – a whipped chocolate ganache with salted caramel ice cream with blood orange and a tuile, and a panna cotta with poached strawberries, consommé and a salted almond crumb. Superlative stuff.
I absolutely loved it here.
Of course, we lucked out with the weather and the great terrace table, but this meal would have worked anywhere in the world, in any weather.
Here though it felt like the Gods were smiling on us – and not before time! A wonderful restaurant and an absolute bargain for this standard of cooking.
Address: Craig Millar @ 16 West End, 16 West End, St Monans, Fife, KY10 2BX
T: 01333 730 327
2 course lunch = £25
3 courses = £32
4 courses = £38
- Food = 5/5
- Service = 5/5
- Surroundings = 5/5 for the terrace, 4/5 for inside