“A very small man can cast a very large shadow” – George
I’ve been thinking a lot about smallness recently, perhaps inspired by
my admiration for Mick Lynch, the secretary-general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.
That sounds insulting, although it’s not meant to be.
I’m certainly in no position to look down on anyone for anything, being a bit short myself – something which has never bothered me at all. I mean, Alexander the Great was a shrimp at 5ft 6in as was Winston Churchill, and they didn’t do too badly in life.
My mum always revelled in being what she termed “wee and wiry” and in Scotland we often preface descriptions of people or things as being “wee”, irritatingly patronising as that can sometimes be.
But in using the term “small”, I’m obviously not referring to Lynch’s height, nor am I demeaning his knowledge, success, power or popularity – things he has already achieved in spades.
In this case “small” means people like you and me, folk who the famously imperious Liz “just call me Elizabeth” Hurley once deemed “civilians” – her legendary put down of anyone who wasn’t on TV.
The workforce, the underdogs, the people who don’t take the path of least resistance, the outsiders who turn out to be anything but rank, people struggling to keep buoyant in these hard times.
The thrill of seeing people overcome huge obstacles to get their message across is never more needed than today, when so many of us feel the futility of trying to make ourselves heard.
Small businesses know this too – while larger companies could often withstand the perils of Brexit and Covid, smaller ones bore the brunt quicker and felt the lasting effects more acutely.
Restaurants are no exception, and this is one reason why I prefer to focus on independents rather than chains in these pages, especially because meals are paid for out of my own pocket.
It’s perhaps serendipitous that I discovered The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry on a day when I became dwarfed by my own inner Willy Loman, the character in Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman who is “out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine”, the guy of advancing years who isn’t needed in New York but instead clings to the belief that he is vital in New England.
This was a day to remember the little guy and how much we all matter.
In truth I was driving back to Fife from Edinburgh, worried about the state of the world and, more prosaically, how I would write this very column.
It was a Tuesday and nowhere interesting was open that I could get to in time for the photos to be done (the food photos are done before the review is written, and the deadline for them is tighter).
Before leaving Edinburgh, I’d Googled restaurants in North Queensferry and somewhere called The Shore Grill and Fish House popped up. It seemed to be open and it looked pretty good. Result.
Punching it into the satnav I headed for North Queensferry, suddenly thrilled to be going somewhere I’ve never been before (you have to remember I’m 62 and must take my fun where I find it).
The Shore Grill and Fish House proved so elusive that I’d probably still be looking for it now had I not wisely stopped the car just before I drove into the Forth.
As I gazed in wonder at the magisterial beauty of the Victorian rail bridge above me, I thought there must be somewhere to eat in such a picturesque place as this, where nature and engineering meet to such awe-inspiring effect.
It was a sunny day and I suddenly felt that the world was my oyster – but where were the damn bivalves?
It’s to my senile shame that I’d completely forgotten that the Wee Restaurant was here, even though it’s been on my list of places to visit for a good while.
After all that I have to say what a find this place is.
Edinburgh friends will no doubt smile when I say it’s a find because this wee restaurant has actually been serving simple good food and wine since 2006. I know this now because it’s the first statement you see on their website, and I can certainly confirm that the food is much better than just good.
The Wee Restaurant
The Wee Restaurant is a complete joy and owners Craig and Vikki Wood (plus their son Ethan, who served me) should be really proud to have made such a success in a village that’s 20 minutes from the capital, separated from it by a river and three bridges, and unobtrusively berthed in a picturesque village.
This place is everything I love about restaurants and I was pleased to see that it’s actually regarded as a classic by foodie friends in Edinburgh.
That it’s also on “our” side of the river is a bonus for we Fifers, even though no one need get territorial about it.
As you might expect, the Wee Restaurant is small, with just 28 covers – but it doesn’t feel especially petite and the tables are well spaced.
The welcome from Ethan is effusive, which is not always a given with solo diners. It’s the sign of a bad restaurant or maître d’ when lone guests are shoved on the worst tables, often near the toilets. I always refuse this because, in truth, the only thing I enjoy as much as a solo lunch is lunch with friends – and I’m damned if I’m going to be given the worst seat in the house just because I’m by myself.
Here, there’s none of that nonsense and I was offered a choice of tables, although the one I would have wanted – with a far- reaching view to the river – was already occupied. This was a good sign as it was only 12.30pm.
The space itself is charming, a word I’d use to sum up this whole experience.
Decorated simply, it’s a pleasing mix of exposed brick, muted checked carpet, easy, comfortable furnishings and mirrors and abstract art on the walls.
The building itself, more than 200 years old, has been a smiddy, a post office, a greengrocers and a wool shop. It feels cosy and relaxed, somewhere you’d want to linger. The vibe is smart enough for a special celebration but casual enough for somewhere to pop in to when you get hungry as you walk along the coastal path. It’s lovely.
A blackboard on the wall offers descriptions of cocktails, half an East Neuk lobster, fries and salad for £24 and the note that the current cheeseboard comprises Wensleydale, Ossau-Iraty from France, Fourme d’ambert and
St Tola Ash, a raw goat’s milk cheese from Ireland which I especially enjoy for its fresh, lemon flavour.
Seeing this I kick back, knowing I’m in safe hands.
Reading that the chef-co-owner has previously worked at Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, on the Royal Scotsman train and the lovely Crinan Hotel made me even more confident.
I could have eaten everything on this menu and was particularly drawn to the smoked Orkney beef fillet, Mull cheddar, Marcona almonds and black garlic aioli starter (£12) and the classic combination of hand-dived Orkney scallops, celeriac remoulade and Stornoway black pudding bonbons (£14), also a starter.
However, as I wanted to get the best experience from a place I hadn’t researched I decided to ask Ethan what he would recommend and, although he found it a tough choice, he did say that many regulars came here for the mussels – so that is what I had.
The Shetland mussels with basil, red onion, bacon, pine nuts and parmesan cream (£12) were as delicious as they sound, the various flavouring adding to the molluscs in a way that enhanced their flavour yet didn’t overpower.
Some good bread was brought to mop up the juices and it was here that something lovely happened. The bread came with butter from the Edinburgh Butter Company (almost as good as my favourite French butter, beurre d’Échiré) and some tapenade that was so delectable I commented on it to Ethan when he asked if everything was OK.
Seemingly delighted I’d so enjoyed it, Ethan asked if I’d like some of this home-made olive anointment to take home with me, an offer that proved so warm and generous that my mildly fraught day suddenly seemed infinitely cheerier.
Warned to keep the tapenade in the fridge I have to say it didn’t last long enough to need preservation. I had the last of it with some tomatoes on toast for breakfast the following morning.
Kind gestures like this are what contribute to lastingly good memories of a place and this certainly gave me a feeling that this business is built on passion and soul, rather than merely just a desire for a quick buck (incidentally, Ethan had no idea I was reviewing the lunch, so his kindness was genuine).
My main course of roast rump of Perthshire lamb, hummus, garden peas, Glamis asparagus and basil jus (£25) was the taste of June condensed onto a plate and simply a perfectly harmonious plate of food.
The lamb was beautifully pink and the asparagus was so fresh it could have been picked minutes before. A dish of gratin dauphinois with Gruyere cheese (£5) wasn’t really necessary but it was the best dauphinois I can remember eating (even from the 10 years when I had a house in
France) and thus was a compellingly correct addition.
A dessert of three delectable home-made sorbets, presented as a sundae with toasted coconut and candied pecans and freeze-dried berries (£9) was the perfect end to a perfect meal.
As I was so full I’d substituted the sorbets for my original choice of white and dark chocolate pot, with Scottish raspberries and chocolate soil (£9) which I intended to eat as a tribute to the wonderful David Wilson, ex-owner-chef of the Peat Inn, whose definitive recipe for a chocolate pot has been referenced by many chefs, including Nigel Slater. Next time.
The Wee Restaurant is brilliant. I had an exquisite lunch there, the service was perfect, and the setting is just adorable. My whole lunch cost £48.50, which is good value for food of this quality – and there was a lot of food.
This is the kind of quietly confident perfection I adore and, although it’s been here for 16 years, I left this wonderful place feeling like I was in on a secret. Sometimes the wee guys do win, you know.
I can’t wait to go back.
Address: The Wee Restaurant,17 Main Street, North Queensferry, Fife, KY11 1JG
T: 01383 616263
Price: Starters from £9, mains from £22, desserts from £6.50
- Food: 5/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5