THE opening of their new restaurant last year couldn’t have been timed worse for celebrity chef Nick Nairn and his wife Julia. They opened Nick’s on Henderson Street on February 28, 2020. However, despite having to close the new eaterie and the Nick Nairn Cook School at Port of Menteith due to the pandemic, they retained a resilient demeanour and focused their energy on launching a brand new venture.

“It was probably the worst time I’ve had in my entire career in 36 years of hospitality,” admits Nick.

“However, from all that has come something really good.”

With a stronger focus on outdoor dining and a family-friendly atmosphere, Nick and Julia have officially opened Nick’s at Port of Menteith on the site of their School.

HeraldScotland:

“At Port of Menteith it’s very much a family atmosphere. We’re child-friendly, and dog-friendly and, while Nick’s in Bridge of Allan is also child-friendly, in the evenings it’s a bit more grown-up. It becomes more of a destination restaurant – the food is a bit more complex and a bit more ‘cheffy’.”

Nick, 62, describes the menu at Nick’s at Port of Menteith as being perfectly suited to families looking for comforting food made with expert care.

“I have to say I’m loving the food and I’m loving the reaction we’re getting from people,” he says. “Our pizza chef Paul [Hughes], who I’ve worked with for the past six years, offers, I think, the best pizza in Scotland.

“I’m doing some food alongside that. We have langoustine, squid, steak and chips, and nice salads, all done really well using the great produce we have locally.”

HeraldScotland:

Paul is serving a range of Roma-style pizzas made using five day-aged dough. The toppings include Great Glen venison salami, Campbells haggis, Katy Rodger’s crowdie and a North African-inspired speciality with Chicken Shawarma, rose harissa, chermoula, toasted pine nuts, brandy-soaked raisins and pomegranate.

The new Stirlingshire restaurant, on the shores of Lake of Menteith, seats 40 inside the light-filled dining room, with glass doors opening onto a further 100 covers outside under a stretch tent, and a series of pergolas clad with festoon lights. In addition to the restaurant, Julia has opened an adjoining lifestyle store for visitors to browse a range of cookware classics, cookery books, tableware and interiors items – from locally made lighting (Jaggy Thistle Crafts) and textiles (Amy Britten) to glassware and candles, honey from nearby hives (Callander honey), beers (Harviestoun Brewery), and Nick’s own gin made from Scottish botanicals.

HeraldScotland:

Nick acknowledges that opening a new restaurant and a store at the site of his Cook School was never part of the plan.

“Unfortunately, with the pandemic it’s impossible to run the Cook School safely and it will remain closed until we don’t need to socially distance,” he explains.

“We will have to make some investment to redesign it in a way that makes it safer. We’re going to downsize the number of people from 24 to 14.”

With the hospitality industry effectively brought to a standstill last year and with “no money coming in”, Nick and Julia were forced to get creative when faced with the Covid-19 restrictions.

“During the first lockdown the weather was great, we were getting out in the garden, and we could see a way ahead,” says Nick.

“But by the second lockdown I was in the depths of despair at times. The business just seemed to change every week.

“We did take-outs, we did deliveries at home, pop-ups, barbecues, we tried every single thing and we kind of knew all we were really doing is keeping our customers close. We weren’t making any money. We were losing money most of the time but we hoped people would at least remember where we are.”

The Scottish chef, food consultant and broadcaster admits the inspiration for Nick’s at Port of Menteith stemmed from a pizza pop-up event hosted by Julia where, he says, many people were converted into customers.

HeraldScotland:

He also credits unexpected lockdown pleasures such as gardening and outdoor dinning as being instrumental in the creation of the new venture.

He says: “It was interesting observing how starved people were of that restaurant cooking experience. And appetite has been fairly strong since we opened, particularly at the weekends.

“I want to see it busy. I want to see people coming out to spend time there. You can come and have a drink, or come and browse the shop, have a coffee, pizza or langoustines and steak.

“Part of the joy of being a restaurateur is in creating that atmosphere where people are enjoying themselves. I really feed off it and Julia and I feel a tremendous sense of achievement from it.”

HeraldScotland:

After enduring a tumultuous year of restrictions, both Nick and Julia remain optimistic when it comes to a recovery period. Looking ahead, the pair say their next big project will focus on getting the Cook School safely up and running again.

For Nick, meanwhile, the new series of The Great Food Guys, a cookery show co-hosted with Dougie Vipond on BBC Scotland is back on screens.

Nick’s at Port of Menteith is open Thurs–Sat, 12–8.30; Sun 12–6.
01877 389900 for reservations.

 

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Tempura Squid with Vietnamese dipping sauce

HeraldScotland:

Ingredients

2 medium squid, cleaned and sliced into 3mm rings

For the batter:

400g plain flour
100g corn flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
500mls ice cold sparkling water
For the dipping sauce:
25ml lime juice
25g caster sugar
25ml Thai fIsh sauce
½ clove garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon coriander stems, very finely sliced
Pinch of chilli flakes

Method

Mix batter ingredients to consistency of double cream.

Heat oil for deep frying to 185°C and dip the squid pieces in batter.

Place in oil and fry until crispy and golden for 3-4 minutes. For the dipping sauce, combine all the ingredients. Serve with lime wedge.

 

Seafood Linguine
Serves 2

HeraldScotland:

Ingredients

1 banana shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, very finely sliced
40ml extra virgin olive oil
½ red chili, finely chopped
Juice of half a lemon
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
4 tbsp finely chopped parsley
100g raw king prawns
70g squid, cleaned and sliced
70g white fish (we use ling), diced to size of pinky nail
300g spaghetti or linguine
30g butter
20g finely grated parmesan, optional

Method

Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water. Heat the oil and add the shallot, garlic, and chilli and allow to soften for five minutes.

Add the tomatoes, lemon juice and butter. Mix well to emulsify, add the fish and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cooked spaghetti and mix well together, divide into two warm serving bowls. We top ours with a grilled half langoustine.