Restaurant review: Feathers Bistro & Bar, Belhaven, East Lothian
AS regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of village pubs that mesh decent public bars with genuinely good-value food; such places can be the soul of our towns and villages, and should be assiduously nurtured.
Traditionally the most sluggish sector of Scotland’s culinary industry, in recent years there has been something of an explosion in the number of pubs offering good food.
Any number of boozers around the country are now offering really good grub, and it only takes a second’s reflection to think of a dozen in all corners of the country that work brilliantly, including such gems as the Bridge Inn at Ratho, the George in Inveraray, the Drovers Inn, Angus, the Cross Keys in Kippen, the Cock & Bull in Balmedie and The Anderson in Fortrose. That list could go on and on, with more pubs joining the fray each month, but it was particularly heartening to hear of a new venture run by two youngsters in Belhaven, within a couple of miles of Dunbar in East Lothian.
Rachel Kelso and her partner Elliot Kempsell have some inspirational gastropubs around them, not least the Sun Inn near Dalkeith and The Waterside in Haddington, but the impetus for their revamp of The Feathers came from Kelso’s parents, George and Michelle, who run The Linton in East Linton. Having been born into the business, she saw mileage in this whitewashed roadside East Lothian pub and in May the new Feathers Inn opened its doors.
If you turn right once you walk through the door you’ll soon see that it is, in every sense, still a proper spit-and-sawdust Victorian village pub. Turn left, though, and you’re in a very different world, a small ten-table, low-ceilinged bistro with nicely grizzled old furniture that would have been pretty inviting had it not been for the fact that the room was empty. Still, a table had been laid for us in the window and we were soon joined by a noisy group of eight who did much to lend the place some atmosphere.
The menu was a classic of its kind, with the starters featuring prawn cocktail, chicken liver pate and haggis, while the main courses offered fish and chips, and sausage and mash. As with all of these things, the devil is in the detail: if the raw ingredients are good and the cooking up to scratch, even the most hackneyed-sounding offering can be fantastic (after all, there’s a reason why these things have been popular for so long).
Using that logic, I decided to start with the pair of crispy haggis and black pudding filo rolls with Cumberland sauce while Lucinda went for the king prawn and crayfish cocktail. Her option did what it said on the tin: with salad in the bottom of a large glass, topped up with a good amount of smallish prawns and chunks of crayfish and covered with a marie rose sauce. It was a taste of the 1970s that transported me straight back to the days of The Sweeney and The Generation Game, and it tasted exactly as you’d expect.
If there was one remarkable thing about the prawn cocktail, it was its sheer size, which was replicated when it came to my two gargantuan haggis and black pudding spring rolls. Although the combination was a little stodgy, if I had a gripe it was that the Cumberland sauce was a little muted when what was needed was something with a bit more bite to enliven some pretty heavy-duty ingredients.
The same was true of my main course, a monster helping of pulled pork that came with a slab of slightly watery dauphinoise potatoes. This well-presented dish was pretty well conceived, but it missed the mark thanks to a taste deficit which could easily have been solved by the addition of a sauce of some description to take the edge off the ingredients’ inherent blandness.
By contrast, Lucinda’s pair of enormous smoked salmon fishcakes got this absolutely spot-on, with the addition of Mull cheddar and spring onion, not to mention a lake of creamy sauce addressing the potential issues of dryness and blandness. There was plenty of potato in the fishcakes but also an acceptable level of fish in a main course that was competently and thoughtfully done.
We rounded off with a predictably large slice of lime and ginger cheesecake which seemed to be completely devoid of lime or ginger, and a baked Alaska off the specials board in which the meringue was perfect but in which the ice-cream and sponge appeared to be of the budget, shop-bought variety.
We arrived at The Feathers in an upbeat state of mind, hoping to be able to give the place the thumbs-up, and there was indeed much to be positive about. The place itself is a fine old coaching inn, and they’ve renovated the dining room pretty tastefully. The service was conspicuously friendly and helpful, the portions enormous and the atmosphere enjoyably relaxed.
But the debit column is a pretty hefty one too. There needs to be a far greater emphasis on taste in the kitchen, and the pleasant service needs to be a lot quicker (the group who arrived 20 minutes after us got their starters before us, for instance, while the white wine we ordered arrived late and at room temperature because there was apparently a problem with the fridge, but it was annoying to have to ask for ice). Also, we were sat next to an outside door through which people kept coming and going, squeezing past us as they did so, which we eventually learned was the only way in and out to the restaurant office. If it was a little annoying in early September, by mid February it will be very cold and very annoying.
All in all, after being open for less than six months, the young team of Kelso and Kempsall are showing promise and The Feathers has the makings of a good gastropub in an area that could do with more places to go out and eat. However, a bit more attention to detail wouldn’t go amiss.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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