It can be tricky to find a good restaurant on the Isle of Bute, particularly during winter when much of the Victorian seaside resort of its capital, Rothesay, tends to close down outside the tourist season.
"I used my chips to form a barrier between the sauce and the crab cakes to leave the latter palatable"
But Easter weekend sees the reopening of Mount Stuart, the Victorian Gothic stately pile at the heart of the island. The visitor centre here serves a historic afternoon tea with duck crostini, smoked salmon sandwiches and scones with clotted cream.
The paddle steamer The Waverley will soon resume regular visits to Rothesay pier too, dropping off day-trippers to queue for the fish and chips or ice cream served in the various emporia by the name of Zavaroni.
There is also a great food festival at the end of the summer. Eat Bute showcases small suppliers from the island which is renowned for its meat and cheese.
Which begs the question: why are there so few good restaurants?
Similar-sized towns around the West Coast abound with excellent small-scale bistros, gastropubs and fine dining hotels, so perhaps this gap is something to do with Bute’s reputation as a day-trip destination, rather than a weekend away, and the timing of the last ferries to Wemyss Bay and Rothesay.
Although we’ve had countless fish suppers during visits here, March is not a time to be sitting on a sea wall eating out of newspaper, so we decided to persevere in looking for something a little more sophisticated.
Harry Haw’s is a comparatively new enterprise, with a great interior. The former shop front gives a framed view out to the floodlit Rothesay Castle and inside the walls are dotted with atmospheric photos of happy holidaymakers in the town’s heyday.
Four of us trooped in, starving after a blustery walk around the stunning Kingarth golf course on the other side of the island.
The menu doesn’t thrill however. Teriyaki beef and Thai green curry rubs shoulders with fish and chips and lasagne, but finding something that I don’t regularly make at home for a weeknight family dinner was a challenge.
The starters offered the best chance of originality and creativity; I plumped for the baked halloumi stack with carrot and coriander patties (£5.50). The cheese was nicely grilled, the carrot and coriander patties could have been crisper but the real problem was the sauce – which turned out to be something of a theme. The tomato base had none of the zingy separate flavours you expect in a salsa. If it was homemade, it hadn’t been freshly made, which led to a uniform flavour and did nothing to elevate the dish from the bog standard.
Archie’s cream of vegetable soup (£3) was tasty however, and Lizzie’s panko crumbed deep fried brie with red onion chutney (£5) was nice, if dated. The idea that is, not the ingredients.
The other half’s black pudding and haggis fritters with peppercorn sauce (£5.95) were fine, but far too large a portion for such rich ingredients. And again the sauce wasn’t great, with a perfumy taste to it which wasn’t pepper, cream or whisky.
Lizzie is notorious for always ordering steak wherever she goes, and her brother is following suit with burgers. Here the steak came as a 10oz rib-eye (£19.95) which turned out to be cooked perfectly rare and although the chips were a bit soggy, the carnivore was satisfied.
The burger was homemade, and topped with pulled pork (£11.50) which may seem an entirely unnecessary step to all but a teenage boy. Ours devoured it all, along with chips, onion rings and coleslaw. I suspect for less voracious diners, meat topped with meat might have proved overwhelming.
The other half and I shared two mains; the barbecued steak skewer with peppers and courgettes (£13.50) and here again the beef was tender and well cooked. The salad that accompanied all these dishes was of the standard radicchio-heavy mixed bag from a supermarket however.
The biggest disappointment was crab cakes with sautéed greens & tomato salsa (£9.95). The patties had a sludgy texture while the salsa was again nothing of the kind – with not a hint of chilli, citrus or herb. It tasted of tinned tomatoes and I used my hand-cut
skin-on chips to form a barrier between the sauce and the crab cakes to leave the latter palatable.
The menu states that the restaurant uses local ingredients and certainly the quality of the meat is good. There is also clearly someone who knows how to cook here, although the consistency just isn’t there.
Hopefully with the rise in visitor numbers at this time of year, Harry Haw’s will up its game and provide more quality alongside the quantity.
25 High Street, Isle of Bute
01700 505857, www.harryhaws.co.uk