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Ron Mackenna: The Catch At Fins Restaurant, Fairlie

After lunch we walk across the courtyard to ask the man behind the fish counter where the little cod fillets came from.

There are issues with certain dishes, but when the chef keeps it simple The Catch At Fins Restaurant is up there with the best. Photograph: Nick Ponty
There are issues with certain dishes, but when the chef keeps it simple The Catch At Fins Restaurant is up there with the best. Photograph: Nick Ponty

"We get them from the Clyde," the busy waitress had said earlier after she had gone to the kitchen to enquire. I raised my eyebrows at that. Wrongly, as it turns out. That is actually where they're from, hauled up as a by-catch of those squat lobsters sitting right beside it on the fish counter.

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I asked because the cod fillet I had about 20 minutes ago was dazzlingly white, moist and deliciously fresh beneath its crisp just-fried breadcrumb coating. They sell themselves way short at Fins, or The Catch At Fins or Fencebay Fisheries or whatever is the correct name for this restaurant, shop and smokehouse in a farmyard.

How? By not spelling things out. Clyde-caught codling sounds great but who would have known? The man behind the fish counter - who earlier on was wandering the restaurant in a supervisory fashion - comes out when he sees us looking at the haddock fillets and tells us proudly he smokes them very lightly in his smokehouse.

Light smoking means it won't keep as long, he adds, but it tastes better. Actually, we had one of those haddock fillets. Even being covered in melted cheddar and spinach could not disguise its beautifully delicate flavour. Possibly one of the nicest pieces of smoked fish I have ever tasted.

Talking about the haddock fillet leads us on to the cullen skink we had for starters. It, too, was magnificent. Full of chunks of that delicious haddock and Ayrshire potato with genuine flavour and a fragrant, creamy texture. Is there a more abused dish in Scotland nowadays than cullen skink? Every two-bob joint in town thinks it can get away with dropping flakes of some leathery old boot of a haddock into thin milk and claiming it's the real deal. It isn't. This definitely is.

And then the fish man standing there in his jumper and Wrangler jeans goes on to tell us that Fencebay recently came second in the World Cullen Skink Championships. Crikey. Shouldn't they be boasting about this in the restaurant? The two waitresses are pleasant and efficient but they're working way too hard to have time to stand about and list where the seafood comes from.

The menu? It's a terrible plastic-backed affair that when it's not trying to stick to the equally awful varnished pine tables has a cafe-style layout and absolutely no detail. True, there's a chalkboard of specials on the wall including sole, monkfish curry, even smoked halibut, but it doesn't say from whence they swam.

We had the Fencebay tapas. Yeah, the clue is in that name. It included mussels smoked in the shell and out, salmon (hot and cold smoked), trout pâté and smoked slices of sausage, duck and chicken. It had its moments, but don't these things always end up tasting universally cold, clammy and smoky? Especially the meats.

Incidentally, the hand-cut chips served with the fried cod turned out to be potato wedges or potato quarters. Ho-hum. And the vegetables that accompanied the mains consisted of plain steamed cauliflower, broccoli and carrot. Old fashioned and so dull; it's better not to bother at all.

The scallop, squat lobster and bacon gratin at £17.95? Ah, I was hoping to avoid mentioning it. If the cullen skink and the smoked haddock are two of the best fish dishes of the year, then this was probably the worst. Most of the squat lobster tails were like rubber bands (though curiously a few weren't), there were two overcooked scallops and one big piece of pink roe, ugh, and, worst of all, it was served in an mushroom sauce that tasted like it came from a Campbells soup tin.

Bad enough to spoil the whole meal? No. But a hint that not only is this restaurant nowhere near the finished article yet, but it's a lot better at simple seafood that's not been mucked about.

The Catch At Fins Restaurant, Fencefoot Farm, A78, Fairlie (fencebay.co.uk, 01475 568989)

Menu

Fabulous seafood, smoked and fresh. Platters, tapas, plenty of gratins and even a curried monkfish. Let down by silent sourcing. 4/5

Atmosphere

Almost but doesn't quite pull off white-walled rural steading feel. Let down by - ugh - pine tables and pine ceiling. A bit tired in places. 3/5

Service

Pleasant and working hard so no time to talk. Not very clued up on sourcing and what happens behind the scenes. Probably too few of them. 4/5

Price

While the cod was good value at £11 others, such as the gratin at £18, seemed too expensive for the setting. Careful ordering advised. 3/5

Food

Fabulous smoked haddock, cullen skink and fresh cod, but the squat lobster gratin was terrible. Simple dishes best. Huge potential. 7/10

TOTAL: 21/30

If you know a restaurant Ron should review, email ronmackenna@fastmail.fm.

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