A trip to the East Neuk is always such a delight and this week I had two consecutive excursions, the second in such glorious September sunshine it made the beautiful villages of the Fife coast shimmer.
This is an apt description as many of the houses are painted in jewel box hues, lending them a magical, painterly quality that’s vastly enhanced by that wonderful coastal light.
There’s something about this part of the world that really makes the spirits soar and I often think of moving here – as you travel northwards on the A917 each village gets more beautiful than the next – until you get to Crail which is, for me, the prettiest star.
Elie, with its wide sweeping beach and some buildings of specific architectural merit, is probably the most metropolitan of all – certainly it always seems full of tourists in the summer months, with a high proportion of English accents.
As such it often feels a bit like Cornwall or Norfolk in that there’s a lot of dressed down affluent fashion, from striped Breton T-shirts to pink cords and Ralph Lauren polo shirts – the kind of stuff you wear when your life’s all about rediscovering Joni Mitchell albums and OD-ing on Jo Malone and Perello olives.
If Toast ever wanted to open a shop in Scotland to sell their posh, easy-like Sunday morning loungewear, Elie would probably be the spot to do it – depending on how you see yourself this is a place full of PLU (people like us) or PLT (people like them).
Most of us probably sit somewhere in the middle, living what you might call “the deli years”.
A 2018 survey found that half the houses in Elie were second homes – or possibly even third – vastly swelling the population in the summer.
At that time the place feels big and cosmopolitan enough to support at least two good restaurants, both very different in scope and execution yet both continuing the relaxed seaside vibe in their design and modus operandi.
The Harbour Cafe
It had been my intention to review The Harbour Cafe at Elie ever since I got one of their seafood boxes delivered to my house during lockdown.
Apart from the fact it contained the freshest fish sourced from the inestimable David Lowrie in nearby St Monans, the other contents of the box were indicative of smart minds at work – hell, they even supplied a rock to bash the lobster with, and a bib to wear as you ate it!
Having now eaten in the cafe itself I’m happy to see that the same rigorous attention to detail evident from the box is also applied to the dining experience here in the mothership.
The first surprise is how small the actual structure of the place is, but that explains why it’s always so difficult to get a reservation. But what a structure!
Berthed at the end of the harbour, this shack-like space is about as far as you can go without getting your feet soaked or re-enacting Roxy Music’s Siren cover featuring Jerry Hall as a mermaid, glowing on the rocks.
It feels good. It feels relaxed. And most of all it feels somewhat primal as all you can see is sea, sky and stone.
This is my kind of place! Reggae was playing softly as we were led to our table facing the North Sea – in fact had we been there at high tide we would have felt almost adrift.
Wine appeared. Bread came. A gentle breeze wafted through the open awning, my shoulders dropped and all seemed right with the world. Absolute bliss.
Before we go any further, the sad news is that by the time this review appears the Harbour Cafe will be shut down for the season, reopening in spring 2022 – in fact the actual structure, which co-owner Mark built himself, will be dismantled and in storage.
This closure was forced on the cafe a little earlier than normal due to staffing issues, something that is currently crippling the hospitality industry.
Since this is a problem that is only getting worse, I thought it might be interesting to ask chef and co-owner Amy Elles how Covid, lockdowns and Brexit had affected her business which, ostensibly, seemed to have bounced back well from the pandemic.
As such the story of the Harbour Cafe speaks volumes about an industry that needs urgent support.
“Covid and lockdowns had a catastrophic effect on our business,” she said.
“Everything we had was turned upside down. Our catering company flatlined, just like all other events companies. The only opportunity to pay any wages was the Harbour Cafe, which was a huge pressure.
“I appeared on Great British Menu, which was a huge opportunity to show the world our little restaurant in the
East Neuk. However, it aired at the beginning of lockdown which meant we had 2.8 million viewers but weren’t allowed to open.
“In between that time, thinking outside of the box led us ‘inside’ the box and the art of making our own ‘at home’ restaurant box. Through this we were able to survive lockdown.”
I asked Amy about the most pressing issues for a small independent business like theirs.
She said: “The labour market needs to return to normal. I’m not sure when this can happen but – for us and our friends within the industry – none of us thought we would be struggling with staff. Why is that? Well, it seems to be a mixture of Brexit, furlough and people changing jobs.
“Why close now, when bookings are buoyant and the season is only just drawing to a close? We all worked so hard during the run and were so lucky not to have to shut again due to Covid.
“Towards the end, when we didn’t have enough staff cover, we felt it was important not to over-stretch all of our resources, and we wanted to end on a high. We’ve been fully booked all summer and didn’t want standards to slip by using emergency staff. We had worked too hard for that to happen.”
The food we ate here was exquisite and I report this happy in the knowledge that the Harbour will be restarting their box deliveries soon, so we can all sample the delights of this place before they reopen next spring.
This is really everything you want to eat, from the divine skewers of pickled herring pincho with fermented chilli sauce and sourdough (£6.50), to the smoked haddock pâté with home-pickled cucumbers (£7), the perfect langoustines (£19), the burrata and tomato salad (£16.50) and the most wonderfully fresh grilled mackerel served with potatoes and a brilliantly assertive aioli (£17).
A perfect Sunday lunch in this most beautiful spot ended with a Santiago tart (£4.50) which I still remember from my lockdown delivery box, and a little pot of local strawberries served with Toblerone sauce (£6.50). If Toblerone sauce has been missing from your life until now you need to rectify this soon.
What a perfect way to say goodbye to summer.
The Ship Inn
As I think it’s strange to recommend a restaurant that’s now closed for the rest of the year, I returned to Elie a few days later for an alfresco lunch on the terrace at the Ship Inn.
Here the view is very different to that of The Harbour Cafe – but equally enchanting. As I arrived the sun came out and the sand seemed to stretch out forever.
This is a very different experience to the Harbour but still I enjoyed my simple lunch of a fish burger with tartare sauce, red cabbage sauerkraut, baby gem and chips (£14.95).
The menu on the terrace is small and much more populist in feel than at the Harbour.
That’s no bad thing per se, and I was pretty happy with my fish burger, which was basically like a fish supper in a brioche bun.
Not so much a single fish as a portion- controlled one, it tasted fine although the fish lacked seasoning and the chips – which were crunchy and light – were more like those deliciously miniature shards of potato you find at the bottom of the bag. Nice one! As fast food goes, this was good.
If it had been colder I might have had Cullen skink (£6.95) or the Belhaven Best battered haddock with chips, tartare and crushed peas (£14.95-£9.50 for a smaller version) but charging £11.95 for pitta bread with hummus seems a conceit too far – even if it does contain harissa, sesame dukkah, cherry tomatoes and za’atar fries.
There are no desserts although I have to reiterate that this is a special menu for outside seating and the Ship Inn offers a much more extensive menu for indoor dining (the restaurant was closed the day I visited).
Crail Gallery and Tearoom
Last stop on this seaside sojourn was the ever-fantastic Crail Gallery and Tearoom where I sat on their lovely small terrace and looked over the North Sea as I ate cake.
A wonderful zucchini and lime confection came with lemon curd and a smile and was just what was needed to end a perfect day.
This place is an absolute gem and it’s just round the corner from the wonderful lobster and crab shack at Crail Harbour. What’s not to like?
On the way home I stopped at the East Neuk Salt Company in St Monans where I sampled their wonderful flavoured salts that are now being used in more and more local restaurants. The chilli spiced salt was totally addictive, managing to be both explosive and subtle all at once.
Last word must go to TV and radio presenter Edith Bowman, all round lovely woman and Anstruther born and bred.
She said: “It’s only now, over 20 years after leaving, that I appreciate how rich our wee corner of Fife is, and I crave my Kingdom fix.
“The rugged lived-in coastline has such character and stories to tell, it’s wonderful to see investment both financially and in people to rejuvenate the walks and sea pools in these wonderful fishing villages.
“The quality and abundance of local produce is something that puts us on a world stage of culinary opportunity.
“Having my cousin drop off a lobster fresh off his creel boat for my mum to throw on the barbecue is such a treat.
“The East Neuk is a special place with special people who really strive to celebrate and explore everything this wonderful wee corner of the world has to offer.”
The Harbour Cafe at Home: Follow them on Instagram for information on their home delivery boxes which start on Oct 15.
The Ship Inn, The Toft, Elie, Fife, KY9 1DT
T: 01333 330246
No bookings taken for the terrace – first come first served.
Crail Harbour Gallery and Tearoom, Shoregate, Crail, Fife, KY10 3SU
T: 01333 451896