A Martini on the Rocks at EE-USK in Oban

Of all the oyster bars in all the towns in all the world…

Oban is the seafood capital of Scotland. It is located in a gorgeously shaped west-facing harbour in Argyll. It is described as the Gateway to the Isles with regular ferry services to the Hebrides, some of which the town overlooks. It is also well known for its whisky.

This west-facing town is surrounded by bountiful food from both land and the ocean. Despite regular rain it is also repeatedly resplendent with beautiful sunsets, with the orange glow fading over the rugged horizon.

Unfortunately though, it is sorely in need of a good martini.

I took the ferry over from the Isle of Mull on a Friday evening. There is a late ferry which allows Mull residents to come over for a few hours at the end of the week for shopping, food, drink, the cinema and even the gym and martial arts classes. I wanted to have a change of scene for the evening and wondered if there might be a good venue for a classic Friday night martini.

Having searched online for potential venues, I came up short. Nothing seemed to give a strong indication of a good martini. So, I adopted my next line of attack, which was to find a venue that might not have martinis on the menu, but looked civilised enough to be able to mix one up for me.

I decided on EE-USK, a beautiful seafood restaurant located on Oban’s grand North Pier, a tribute to the town’s Victorian and Edwardian glory.

Established as one of the consistently best restaurants in town for many years, EE-USK is the phonetic spelling of ‘iasg‘ which is the Gaelic word for fish.

The menu is a seafood treat, with plentiful detail on species, as well as information on the many local suppliers of the fresh produce used in the restaurant.

It also has a wonderful view, jutting out into the bay so you almost feel part of the bustling harbour traffic. You are certainly in one of the best locations to watch the sunset.

And what better way to watch the sunset in Oban than with seafood and a good drink?

To my initial sorrow, martinis are not on the menu, and then I was told specifically that they were not available ‘off the books’ either.

Nonetheless, EE-USK has a respectable gin selection, and more notably it has an agreement with the most excellent Arbikie gin distillery, located near Arbroath on the east coast, which was the saving grace for the night.

I first enjoyed Arbikie in London at a pre-covid event showcasing Scottish produce. Arbikie had a stall and it was impossible to miss how passionate they were about the land and the produce. These are farming people who understand the journey from seed to distillate so it’s no wonder that they are good at what they do.

So in EE-USK I ordered the closest thing I could to a martini – the Arbikie gin ‘Nadar’ which means ‘nature’ in Gaelic.

It came on the rocks in a brandy glass. This is not my ideal at all, but it is still such a nice gin that it was more than lovely neat as it was.

Nonetheless, I appeal to EE-USK that with a few small changes you could very easily serve the best martini in the Lorne region because you have every other element required. Your setting, service, ambience, attention to detail and accompanying menu items are utterly perfect for a martini. You have already done all the hard work, you have everything in place.

I also ordered half a dozen oysters to accompany the drink. And my god – you can get good oysters in this part of the world. They were juicy and oh-so-creamy.

I was told they were raised “two lochs away” in Loch Creran, a nutrient-rich sea loch notable for its bivalve and crustacean abundance. They are a minimum of three-years in age and were grown specifically in an area of the loch by an estuary where the river lessens the salinity of the sea water. I am more than happy with a briny oyster but these were very smooth and easy to eat – an absolute delight if you want something less salty than standard oysters.

In general, you will never be short of a good oyster in Oban. It’s something the town is truly good at. But where is the surprise? There is evidence of humans eating oysters in Oban bay for thousands of years. No wonder they are so good here.

What a pity that we have gone through all this time and the town still hasn’t paired them with a classic martini. As you might have noticed, I am a big fan of the combination.

To any of my readers who come to Oban – you still MUST come to EE-USK! It’s one of my favourite restaurants in the world. Just look at it.

And while they might not do martinis they DO maintain a very honourable champagne cocktail list. This really does need mentioning because I respect that they have chosen one thing and they have decided to do it WELL. When I ordered a champagne cocktail I was asked which one. Mon dieu I am not a cocktail person. I am a martini person. So I asked for their standard as a baseline.

Guess who was not disappointed. It tasted like I was going to miss my ferry home. A champagne cocktail constitutes a sugar lump with angostura bitters, to which some brandy has been added. It is then topped up with champagne. You can see a reliable recipe on the Difford’s guide website.

As a side note, a champagne cocktail is ordered by Paul Henreid’s character Laszlo in the infinitely classic film Casablanca in one of my favourite scenes in Hollywood history:

There is so much about this scene that is collar-grabbingly iconic. The lighting, the chanteuse, the meaningful eye-contact. And in the middle of the tension Mr. Laszlo orders a champagne cocktail – a most unexpected and civilised aleviation. How delightful that EE-USK has selected this cocktail as their signature.

But returning to Oban, the Casablanca of the western Highlands, I watched a flock of oyster catchers fly past the pier and off into the sunset after I left EE-USK. As well as good seafood, this part of the world has an abundance of wildlife, especially if you decide to venture on into the Isles.

It’s a wonderful place, if somewhat difficult to reach, but it’s worth it. All that’s required next is a venerable establishment to serve a cold, classic martini. But until then, you can at least enjoy excellent seafood and a fantastic view in EE-USK if you are ever visiting.

Slàinte mhath!

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