THE DEPARTURE of Patrick and Vivienne Bardoulet from the Horseshoe Inn should have been a traumatic moment for the little coaching inn just outside Peebles.
They had, after all, turned it from a run-of-the-mill provincial pub into a highly respected enclave of haute cuisine that was sufficiently impressive to be named the AA’s Scottish Restaurant of the Year for 2007-8.
Sadly, awards don’t pay bills; that honour is reserved for the ability to put bums on seats, and even in this least couthie corner of the Borders, the Horseshoe’s self-consciously aspirational approach – take the mildly disconcerting use of white gloves by the extravagantly Gallic waiters – failed to find sufficient takers.
After all, there may be a lot of money in Peebles, but there are any number of decent restaurants locally. And with Edinburgh little more than half an hour up the road, there’s no shortage of competition.
Yet to judge from our recent visit, the belief that there is a niche for a truly top-notch fine-dining restaurant in this part of the world remains as strong as ever, and the inn clearly has its eye on that slot. Tony Borthwick, chef-patron of the formerly Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Leith, which is part-funded by the owners of the Horseshoe Inn, oversees the menu, head chef Riad Peerbux does the hard yards in the kitchen and shiny new manager Mark Slaney, formerly of the Isle of Eriska hotel, oversees the front of house.
If the personnel has changed, the décor remains pretty much as sumptuously baroque as ever, staying just on the right side of kitsch and making the upwardly mobile intentions of the place as obvious as possible.
Some of the starchy edges have been knocked off though, and if you turn left as you come through the front door there’s a homely bistro serving what looks like high-quality gastropub dishes, many of them for less than a tenner; if you turn right you’re into French-influenced classic gastronomy.
The evening started in superb fashion with three canapés that were bursting with strikingly intense flavours. The salmon rillette with caviar hit my tastebuds like a truck, immediately bringing that unmistakeable tingle to my cheekbones, while a haggis bonbon with a falafel-like texture and a cloyingly good dip made of gloriously strong blue cheese was also hugely memorable.
We already suspected we were in for a good meal, and that sense was confirmed by the arrival of two bowls of cauliflower velouté almost as soon as we sat down. Although enjoyable, it wasn’t sufficiently velveteen and lacked the intensity of the canapés, although it did come complete with an intriguing green slick of basil oil plus cubes of a dark, deeply flavoured meat that, much to Victoria’s shock, I rightly worked out to be braised ox tongue. From there the meal meandered along nicely.
I started with a cuttlefish stifado with sweet spices and squid ink, cauliflower purée, broad beans and sea beets, while Victoria chose the scallops with sweet corn purée, chorizo, spring onion étuvée and pine nuts. There were good things about both, but as many questions.
The scallops were pretty good but not succulent enough to be right out of the top draw. The purée was, however, excellent, with an deep, resonant tang that really brought out the flavour of the scallops.
The cuttlefish came served on its own with the accompaniment of the cauliflower purée and beautifully fresh broad beans. Cuttlefish, it turns out, has a subtle flavour and a texture that is far closer to tofu than squid, which was the sort of feel I was expecting.
Our main courses were a step up, with my roasted lamb loin, crispy breast and sautéed kidneys with carrot purée and pea casserole hitting the spot. Victoria’s pan-fried bass with crushed roseval potatoes, Devon crab, confit tomatoes, marinated fennel and nettle pesto was, to that point, the star of the evening. With the fish perfectly cooked and nicely complemented by the peppery anise-like flavours of the fennel, which in turn meshed perfectly with the nettle pesto, the whole dish was bound together perfectly.
Pudding was, without a doubt, the most polished aspect of our meal. My date and walnut parfait with carrot sorbet was a clever fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar, while Victoria’s sublimely silky blackberry soufflé with an almond-heavy financier ice-cream was faultless.
It’s also worth mentioning the wine, which in our case was a Producteurs Plaimont from Gascony. At just £16, this exceptionally crisp and easy-drinking white was one of the best-value house wines I’ve had for ages. And while we’re on the subject of the fripperies, the service was very good too.
But would I go back? On balance, yes. Our meal just about matched the quality of the surroundings, which remain impressive. As for price, if the à la carte or the tasting menus are too pricey, there’s always the specials, which come in at around £20 for a starter and main course. All in all, it’s a package that does enough to give the Horseshoe Inn a fighting chance.
The Horseshoe Inn Eddleston, by Peebles 01721 730225,
www.horseshueinn.co.uk Bill please
A la carte £40 Tasting menu £50
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