About 10 years ago, a group of people from Helensburgh, on the west coast of Scotland, decided it was time to put their town on the map. They did so by making an unusual claim. Helensburgh, they announced to the media, was Britain’s most talented town.
In support, they published a list of 75 ‘Helensburgh Heroes’: public figures who had either been born there, or lived there in later life. No town of comparable size, they boasted (Helensburgh’s population is 13,000), could match their roll call of greatness. It featured a prime minister (Andrew Bonar Law, PM for seven months in the early 1920s); a Hollywood actress (Deborah Kerr, star of The King and I); a poet (WH Auden, who for two years taught at the local boarding school); and the engineer who launched the first commercial paddle steamer (Henry Bell). A little cheekily, it also listed Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who in fact never lived in Helensburgh, but did design Hill House, which stands on the town’s outskirts.
The most impressive name on the list, however, was John Logie Baird. The great man – son of a local Church of Scotland minister – is honoured by a stern-looking bust on the seafront. Like so many British inventors, Baird had a streak of glorious eccentricity. He once attempted to create diamonds by heating graphite – and in doing so, managed to bring down Glasgow’s entire electricity supply. When constructing the world’s first working TV set, meanwhile, he used the following components: an old tea chest, a hatbox, a knitting needle, a pair of scissors, some bike lights, and a pot of glue.
I really love that. One of the most revolutionary inventions in history, cobbled together from pretty much the same household oddments as a Blue Peter model of Tracy Island. It’s like finding out that Tim Berners-Lee built the internet out of a couple of loo rolls and some sticky-back plastic.
Personally, I think Helensburgh is well worth visiting, but not because of its motley assemblage of luminaries. I think it’s worth visiting first for the dark romance of the Scottish skies, the blisteringly fresh sea air, the view of distant hills huddling in the mist. And second, for its outstanding new restaurant.
Sugar Boat was opened this summer by an Englishman called Will Smith. After co-founding a number of successful restaurants in London, including Arbutus and Wild Honey – both of which earned Michelin stars – he decided he’d had enough of city life. So he and his Scottish wife moved to Helensburgh – where, two decades earlier, they’d first met when Smith was manager of a local restaurant.
His new place is a pretty little bistro, bar and wine shop, with, rather optimistically, a lot of outdoor seating. I went for dinner with my wife. Naturally we chose to sit indoors. Within minutes of our arrival, the inevitable deluge began. Why a restaurant in the west of Scotland would have seats outdoors, I don’t know. Maybe to give the seagulls something to shelter under.
I started with the chilled tomato gazpacho: a mound of white crab meat, and then the soup poured over the top from a jug. My wife had the burrata (like mozzarella but creamier and softer) with red cabbage and beetroot chutney. Both dishes were bright, light and zippily refreshing.
My main was an excellent bouillabaisse, with velvet-smooth cod and hulking, bulky spuds, defiantly still wearing their skins, like moody teenage lads keeping their coats on indoors. Even better, though, were the vegetables. Seriously. Amazing vegetables.
No, your newsagent hasn’t lumbered you with a copy of the Guardian Weekend magazine by mistake. I honestly do mean it. The juiciest florets of broccoli, shimmering in garlic oil. Skinny green beans, dipped in hummus, swooningly soft, and sighing helplessly into the mouth. What magic the chef had sprinkled on them, I don’t know, because when I cook green beans at home, they’re downright miserable, so dour and dull. I sit there, chewing stoically, telling myself it’s for my own good and I just have to get through it. It’s like a culinary version of maths homework. Yet these green beans at Sugar Boat were delicious. Inexplicably delicious.
I only wish we’d brought our three-year-old son, because these vegetables tasted so nice even he might have eaten them. And believe me, there is no higher accolade than that.
For pudding I had a beautifully flaky strawberry millefeuille, while my wife went mad for the warm chocolate mousse with honeycomb and sweet pecans. It was, she said, the best pudding she’d ever had in a restaurant, and would be ‘worth getting fat for’. (We live 450 miles from Helensburgh, so I’m afraid it’s unlikely she’ll be putting that claim to the test.)
What a lovely place Sugar Boat is. And, the night we went, completely packed, too. It looks so small and unassuming, but it really does serve very good food, at a very reasonable price. Afterwards, the rain finally over, we strolled down to the darkening waters, and just stood, drinking the air, our hair whipped by the pitiless wind.
Time for those campaigners to add to their list.