Restaurant Andrew Fairlie
Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perth & Kinross PH3 1NF
01764 694267 www.andrewfairlie.co.uk
The Bill (2015 Prices)
3 courses £95.00
Dégustation Menu (7 courses)
Cooking 10/10 | Service 4/5 | Flavour 5/5 | Value 5/5
The good news for all of us, not least for the beleaguered restaurant trade, is that this column will be able to produce something which isn't technically a breach of the Trades Descriptions legislation. You think you've had it bad? Tom Eats! has always been the most popular of the three offerings. You should see my readership stats right now. But you seem to have enjoyed the occasional golden oldy. Here is one of the best of them from 2015. Andrew Fairlie died two years ago, at the horribly young age of 56. His restaurant lives on, with the same head chef. Here is our experience.
Gleneagles Hotel was always intended for the well to do. One of the latest in a distinguished line of railway hotels, it was planned before the Great War, then opened in the roaring 20s to serve those in search of the pleasures of North Britain. It may come as a shock to those younger than me to realise that the term “railway food” used to have connotations of luxury, and that one of the best lunches (and wine lists) to be had was to be found in the dining car of a long distance British Rail train. Gleneagles, along with the other railway hotels (which included the North British and Caledonian in Edinburgh, and the Central in Glasgow), was sold off in the 60s and, like the railways, they all enjoyed mixed fortunes for the next couple of decades.
Gleneagles has for some time now enjoyed a steady return to glory and subsequent incremental rise in fame. Host in recent years to events as diverse as the G8 summit which agreed significant debt relief for parts of Africa, and the Ryder Cup which secured significant embarrassment for American captain Tom Watson, it is an internationally known name. It was one of the earliest of the 5 star hotels to sublet its prime fine dining space to a star chef, though for the life of me I cannot recall who was Andrew Fairlie’s predecessor in the room which currently bears his name.
One could spend the full length of this column listing Fairlie’s achievements and awards. Winner of the first ever Roux scholarship aged just 20, a Michelin star at 1 Devonshire Gardens nearly twenty years ago, and owner of the only 2 Michelin star restaurant in Scotland (one of only 15 in the UK). There is lots more, but you get the picture. All of which simply increases the pressure every time, as diners expect perfection. I know I did. Reading up on the development of the restaurant over the 15 years since it opened, it is interesting to study its journey. Ten years ago, a reviewer slated the obsessive detail which serving staff were expected to pass on. That has gone (although my heart did sink when our waiter offered to “explain” the menu to us. No thanks, I can read.) Fairlie then went through a phase of trying to emulate the molecular gastronomy of Ferren Adrià, but then wisely listened to his customers who had come to sample the very best of Scottish produce, and therefore some of the finest in the world. He now has his own walled garden from which vegetables and herbs arrive daily.
Some of his interviews will suggest that he has tried to create an informal space. If that is truly the aim he has failed, but I suspect he means a step or two down from the formal starched way of some of the French establishments where he learned his trade. One of these was at the stoves of Michel Guérard, pioneer of cuisine minceur, a revolt against the huge amounts of butter, flour and cream used in classical French cuisine. We went for the dégustation menu, minus any cream for L. It was interesting to note how few adjustments had to be made.
The dining room is quirky and designer, but still unmistakably grand hotel. Our table for two had two seats at the end of a banquette at ninety degrees, ensuring each had a view, but there were one or two offering only a view of a blank wall. No fewer than four sets of amuse-bouche arrived before the main event started. The range of techniques dazzled early on, from a mini choux bun to salmon mousse in a doll’s house sized ice cream cone to something remarkable with a parsnip cream, a horseradish ice cream and something beetrooty. I also enjoyed the playful homage to Scotland’s less haute cuisine, a venison sausage roll with brown sauce. Both homemade, we were assured. Probably the only quibble I have about the whole night was the first contact from most of the staff. They seemed initially nervous, as though we were famous or frightening. Once they loosened up they were, without exception, lovely, but it was odd that we were the ones trying to put them at ease and not vice versa.
To the food. Put very simply this is the finest dining to be had in Scotland. The attention to detail was breathtaking. Dishes were not on the face of it over fussy, yet the multi layers of flavour, colour and texture, belied the clean lines. Were I to attempt a detailed analysis of everything we ate I should be surprised if I got 80% of it. Accompanying a ballontine of foie gras was a deep fried bonbon with a liquid centre, which burst like a firework onto the taste buds. And that was just the beginning. The crab and butternut squash accompaniments to a roast scallop (which the staff pronounce correctly, praise the Lord - the third letter is a not o) included a band of squash no wider than a typewriter ribbon, and circle of brown crab jelly no larger than a 1p coin. A combination of wild mushroom ravioli and truffle might be too earthy but both were lifted by the sweetness and smoothness of a pumpkin velouté. There was of course the signature dish of smoked lobster with herb and lime butter. Surprisingly this was probably our least favourite, slightly masked by a sweeter flavour (vanilla?) which detracted somewhat. Roast lamb came with kale and celeriac, the former hiding a surprise package of the most delectable braised lamb shoulder imaginable. The main pudding event was a hazel and muscovado cake with poached pear. Surprisingly light and not overly sweet. We declined coffee and petits fours as we felt it would be rude to burst in public.
It must be great to be front of house here. If you get any complaints, the customer is criminally insane and should be put away. There is not a high staff turnover. Head chef Stephen McLaughlin has been with Fairlie for 20 years. There are always spots for short term chef secondment (as Fairlie himself enjoyed) but otherwise any potential new recruits have to put in a couple of shifts and win the team’s approval before they are recruited permanently. It sounds like a recipe for harmony on a par with that served up in the restaurant. For this quality and quantity the hefty price is irrelevant. Everyone who loves food should come here once for perfection on quite a lot of plates.