The Silver Darling has undergone a bit of a transformation in recent years, from a posh fine-dining establishment that leaned heavily towards the French culinary tradition, to a more laid-back, modern eatery.
Five years ago, diners at the quayside restaurant would have been treated to starched tablecloths, decorative cutlery and waiters who spoke in hushed tones.
Back then, the menu – sprinkled liberally with words like “roulade”, “consomme” and “mignonette” – was undoubtedly accomplished, but it felt like the kind of place that was only worthy of your time on birthdays and anniversaries.
Silver Darling 2.0 is certainly a lot less formal, with a giant fish landings chart taking up a whole wall of the dining room and fabric furnishings ditched in favour of bare tables and paper napkins.
But one thing they couldn’t change is the location and, let’s be honest, that’s one of the biggest selling points of the restaurant.
The dining room is on the top floor of the old customs house building and the views are unrivalled by any restaurant in the city.
On one side, you have Fittie and the beachfront stretching off as far as the eye can see (well, to Balmedie) and on the other, you can observe the to-ing and fro-ing of boats in Aberdeen harbour. If you’re lucky, you may even get a wave from a crew member onboard one of the giant oil supply vessels that glide silently by the floor-to-ceiling window.
The view is as much of a reason to visit as the food, and if there’s a better place to eat seafood in the north-east, I’ve yet to find it.
One of these days, I’ll find a dining partner who’s willing to share The Silver Darling’s £60 full house seafood platter – oysters, langoustines, mussels, prawns and herring – but since that day never comes, we picked from the standard menu.
Not that it was a hardship.
There are two sections to choose from on the menu – “From the sea” and “From the land”. Personally, I can’t think why you’d come to The Silver Darling without wanting to indulge in all things fishy, but the latter menu features things like burgers, steaks and venison.
My crab tart starter put me in the mood for summer with its fresh Mediterranean flavours, such as sunblush tomatoes and dill and fennel salad.
All too often, the addition of saffron can overpower a dish with a nasty metallic tang, but the balance of the spice in the aioli was spot on and added to the Spanish sunshine vibe.
My wife’s starter was pure Scottish dreichness – and I mean that as a compliment. Her braised pig cheek and black pudding bon bons and crispy shallots were a great indicator that the kitchen team at The Silver Darling is as accomplished with meat as it is with fish.
All too often, the breadcrumb casing of bon bons is more like soggy cardboard, but these perfectly seasoned outer shells cracked open like eggs, and their dark peppery fillings positively begged to be dragged through the accompanying wholegrain mustard mayonnaise.
The addition of red sorrel added sharpness, which nicely cut through the pigginess of the bon bons.
Although we can now attest to The Silver Darling’s meat credentials, we were all at sea for the rest of the meal.
On the night we went, there was a special of pan-fried rock turbot with leek fondue and a Loch Fyne mussel and Arbroath Smokie chowder.
It all sounded divine – and I was intrigued by the fondue element, which I was relieved to discover had nothing to do with cheese.
The dish arrived with a skinless lump of turbot sitting on top of an island of meltingly soft shredded leeks surrounded by a sea of butter-yellow broth, flecked with smoked haddock and mussels. It looked – and tasted – like a Cullen Skink turned up to 11.
The addition of the Arbroath Smokie and mussels to the chowder ensured this dish wasn’t for the faint-hearted, so if you’re the type of person who says: “I like fish, just not fishy fish,” then keep clear.
Personally, I loved it, and my only criticism was the lack of a spoon and hunk of bread, which would have been perfect to devour every last morsel.
You could say my wife’s dish would be ideal for the “I don’t like fishy fish” type of diner.
The pan-seared halibut with seaweed crust, parmentier potatoes, charred baby leeks and oyster emulsion was a lot subtler than my plate, but no less delicious.
The seaweed crust didn’t add texture, as the word “crust” would suggest, but it turbo-charged the seafood flavour, without overpowering the meaty, expertly-cooked fish.
The parmentier potatoes – essentially roast potatoes cut into neat cubes – were well-cooked and the charred baby leeks added a smokiness that went well with the discs of oyster emulsion generously dotted around the plate.
Although, if I’m honest, my stomach didn’t need a dessert, I had a hankering for something as I remembered The Silver Darling’s previous owner was as much of an expert with sweet things as he was with seafood.
A warm dark chocolate brownie arrived looking the part, and by that I mean the cracked outside and gooey inside as though it had been dropped on the plate from a height. Perfect.
The ruby chocolate chips – a relatively new form of chocolate that’s supposed to be the fourth type behind white, milk, and dark – weren’t all that notable, but the whole thing tasted so wonderfully chocolatey (thanks to the chocolate popping soil and chocolate shard), I didn’t care. The orange and thyme ice cream was not something I’ve tried before, but it worked surprisingly well with the dish as a whole.
If you’ve ever been put off visiting The Silver Darling because of its stuffy reputation, it’s time to reassess – the new-look restaurant is anything but.
With friendly staff and food that’s excellent (whether you’re a fish lover or not), it’s the perfect spot to hunker down in for a leisurely meal as the weather begins to turn.
Price: £70 (with two beers)
Address: The Silver Darling, Pocra Quay, Aberdeen, AB11 5DQ