THE Tolbooth seafood restaurant has a secret weapon up its sleeve that’s guaranteed to have diners salivating before they even step foot inside the door.
It’s something that is completely free of charge, but absolutely works wonders at getting you in the mood for the dishes to follow.
That secret weapon is Stonehaven Harbour.
How could you not want to gorge yourself on seafood after walking past empty lobster creels, netting and creaking fishing boats, all the while sucking in the fresh, crisp sea air?
Anyone who experiences all those things then promptly orders one of the non-fish items on the menu should just get their coat and leave.
To start I went for one of that day’s specials, chargrilled sardines with Romesco sauce, which seemed summery enough to take my mind off the storm clouds that we could see rolling in across the bay.
The fish arrived whole, their silvery skin blackened and delicious. A quick squeeze of (also charred) lemon and I was good to go.
As a sign of their freshness, the backbone pulled neatly away from the flesh (an action that’s only marginally less satisfying than peeling the screen guard off your new mobile phone).
The Romesco sauce gave the fish a punch of red peppery sweetness and had a decent hum of garlic.
But the wafer-thin finger of bread it came served with – a crostini – was way too small to have any meaningful impact on the dish.
My wife ordered salt and chilli squid and so, as is customary with all squid dishes, the first words out my mouth were: “How is it? Rubbery?”
Given how many restaurants seem incapable of preparing squid without it having the texture of a flip flop strap, most times she answers yes, but not today.
Dusted with flour and spices to give them a slightly crusty outer texture, the squid came with sesame-flavoured pak choi and garlic mayo. Lime and coriander finished off the Thai theme.
My main course of sea bass came lightly smoked then placed under the grill to allow the skin to crispen up and blister.
The smokiness worked wonders with the mild aniseed hum that came from the fennel and dill risotto. A chilli emulsion delivered sweetness rather than heat.
The samphire was a little bit woody though, and didn’t have the usual salty, seaside flavour.
Across the table, my wife was making light work of her seared hake fillet with spring onion mash and crushed peas.
The caper emulsion (they like their emulsion here) worked like a pimped up tartar sauce and really brought the dish alive.
If the meal had ended there we’d have walked away stuffed and satisfied, but the lemon meringue cheesecake was far too tempting.
Zesty and sharp (but not too sharp) and served with a vaguely herby lemon verbena ice cream and shards of meringue, it was a perfect palate cleaner to a great meal.