Sugar Boat

30 Colquhoun Square, Helensburgh

01436 647 522

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Lunch/Dinner: £10-£30

Food rating: 9½/10

I’VE been aware of attempts to build up Helensburgh’s profile as a good food destination, but as luck would have it, I ended up there just as day one of the town’s first food and drink festival was packing up. Bad planning that, but in my defence I’d point out that with attractions in the vicinity, such as Geilston Gardens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, it’s easy to get waylaid. But stepping into the newly opened Sugar Boat, it’s clear that Helensburgh’s rebranding as a place with more to offer than a poke of chips while shivering on a seaside bench, is no overnight sensation.

I’d be happy to find a restaurant like Sugar Boat anywhere. It’s a properly professional outfit with a breezy metropolitan confidence that’s clearly based on time-served experience in smart outfits in London. So no provincial wannabe fine dining nonsense, no parochial "the locals wouldn’t eat that" hang-ups, no big fish in a small pond "look how clever I am" cockiness. It really is a pleasure to see an operation that’s so well thought-out: kitchen team, front of house, bar, drinks, they’re firing on all cylinders.

Sugar Boat shows ambition – it doesn’t play safe or stereotype its customers as conservative – yet realism about what people are likely to want to eat when, and how much they’ll be prepared to pay for it, means that its breakfast, lunch, and brunch menus all contain elements of the lip-smacking dinner menu: homemade corned beef, sauce ravigote, fish soup. Look, for once even kids get treated decently: a two-course menu for £6.50 with four sensible, yet healthy, savoury options, and three reasonable desserts.

From the restaurant we can see into the kitchen, a civilised space to work in, not the sadly all too common overheated hell-hole. The first thing I notice is how well the kitchen is staffed: I count four chefs and two kitchen porters. The next thing I see is how often the head chef tastes food, teaspoon at the ready to check flavour before each dish goes out. I’m also struck by just how "on it" the front of house staff is. Want something? You’ll get spotted instantly.

We needn’t have worried that the starter of "burrata, red cabbage, beetroot chutney, Ed’s bees Glasgow honey" would just amount to good sourcing. This was a shrewd exercise, juxtaposing the milkiness of the fresh cheese with nuanced sweetness (finely chopped, mildly spicy fruity beetroot/fragrant honey), and crunchiness (silkily thin red cabbage, vaguely pickled, with heaps of tiny capers). My prejudice that cooked leek is often stringy is reinforced, however, by a visually attractive braised and char-grilled offering, served at ambient temperature with goats’ curd, hazelnuts, and not enough of its excellent Merlot dressing.

But the leeks are the only hiccup. We’re on to the bouillabaisse, thick essence of seafood, the soup itself is testament to all that keen tasting, checking, flavour correcting in the kitchen. The fish – mullet, bass, cod – is pearlescent. Thin, brittle toasts are the vehicle for phenomenal rouille stained with a generous pinch of saffron strands that bleed their earthy colour and character into the emulsion.

Anyone who can’t see past fillet and sirloin needs to taste the Sugar Boat grilled bavette (flank) steak, a happy marriage of tenderness and taste. It comes with glazed shallots that melt and divine amber-crusted boulangère potatoes made with beef dripping, with tender ox shin layered up in them, all scented with thyme.

The strawberry millefeuille is faultless: crisply fired, textbook-perfect laminations of flaky pastry. I just wish there were more strawberries, or coulis, in or around it. Despite my smugness about my homemade crumble – restaurant versions never come close – I’m reluctantly forced to admit that this raspberry one, so short, so crumbly, leavened by flaked almonds, is pretty damn good too, and that’s before you get to the dreamy, eggy vanilla custard.

Sugar Boat is open for business seven days a week. If you ask me, it’s not just a new restaurant for Helensburgh, but also a rather remarkable community asset.