It’s a Tuesday night in May in Glasgow’s West End, and although business is relatively slow Jason Harvie can still look out over a pretty impressive number of diners.
Two years after opening the Pelican Café, Harvie’s impressive bistro, opposite Kelvingrove Museum, has become a staple for Glasgow foodies, as central to a gastronomic night in the West End as Café Gandolfi is to the centre of the city.
The reasons for the place’s manifest popularity are many. Some of his diners like the policy of ethical sourcing, which sees the 28-day-aged beef come from MacDuff, veal from Drumachloy farm, on the Isle of Bute, chickens from the Rolls-Royce of poultry producers at St Brides, in Strathaven, and fish and seafood straight from the inestimable Robbie Galbraith.
Still more of its customers are attracted by the pricing. The Pelican Café isn’t now quite as stunningly good value as it was when it started out, but if you choose sensibly it is still keenly priced, with a seafood platter coming in at £15 and croque monsieur with skinny fries at £6. Equally importantly, the monster wine list (there are more than 200 wines, with 40-odd available by the glass) is stunningly good value thanks to Harvie’s policy of adding just £5 to the retail price of each bottle, which is a world away from the usual 200 per cent mark-up.
Another factor that made The Pelican Café an instant hit is its ambience. The view, looking out over Glasgow’s most recognisable gothic sandstone building, is great, but it’s what’s inside that makes all the difference. Quirky and eclectic, it is woody and welcoming without being overly cosy, and since it’s generally full, there’s a constant hum of background chatter. If you can get one, the booth tables also provide the perfect place to sit and blether in conspiratorial sotto voce tones (although, after a while, the plastic banquettes make you feel like you’re sitting on one of those car seat-heaters you can’t turn off).
But mostly it’s about the food. The lengthy and extraordinarily varied bistro-style menu promises locally sourced ingredients, innovative twists and good value, and by and large it delivers. There are a few big set-piece main courses – such as the roast pork belly, the seafood platter and the veal – but mostly it’s comfort food options such as crab macaroni gratin, venison burgers or coley and chips with sea bass and king prawns in batter.
I decided to kick off with something off the beaten track and went for the vegetarian tartine – an inspired choice. This coomprised a large chunk of sourdough bread covered in small shards of roasted mushroom and buttered spinach, topped with a poached egg that was so free-range its yolk was a vivid orange. All this was glazed with a hollandaise sauce that had the distinctive buttery tang that says it was made just moments earlier.This was very like a fantastic dish served in the French alpine area that uses a pepper sauce and a thin layer of gruyère cheese on the bread. It boasts simplicity and cheapness and is about as healthy as you can get when using eggs and butter. The healthiness was reinforced with a great rocket and cherry tomato salad drizzled in vinaigrette. All in all, a wonderful start to any meal.
Norman was also satisfied with the half-dozen Loch Fyne oysters he ordered. An inveterate consumer of oysters, he pronounced himself more than happy, although he did skip the surprisingly harsh shallot vinaigrette.
An Ayrshire farmer who knows good beef when he sees it, Norman was also taken with his nicely marbled 10oz rib-eye steak, which arrived with a squadron of unfeasibly chunky chips. Back in the day, Harvie served the fabled Orkney Gold Aberdeen Angus steaks, but they are ferociously expensive these days so his decision to transfer to MacDuff, a cooperative of 13 traditional beef farms centred around Biggar, seems a sensible one. Beautifully tender and cooked perfectly, with a ragged ribbon of crimson running through the middle of the steak, it got a grudging “nae bad” from Norman – high praise indeed.
I wasn’t, however, quite so enamoured of my Toulouse sausage with a classic mixed bean cassoulet, overly crispy fried onion and smooth mash. Apart from the whole lot being so overspiced that I was immediately gasping and frantically signalling for a jug of water, the two sausages were anaemic-looking articles when compared to those I had experienced in Toulouse.
My choice of pudding didn’t do me many favours either, the huge slab of bread and butter pudding lying like a ton of ballast after the meal was finished, while the marmalade dressing lent a curiously and unpleasantly sickly edge to the dish. Norman had chosen excellently, his lemon crème brûlée getting more raised eyebrows followed by a lengthy stream of compliments.
Many of his words could also be applied to the Pelican Café. It’s easy to see why it has become a fixture of the Glasgow dining scene. The service was unobtrusive and knowledgeable, there’s a relaxed ambience (dogs are welcome and you can bring your own wine for a small corkage charge) and the sensibly priced food is of a consistently high quality. No wonder it’s a hit.
The Pelican Café 1,377 Argyll Street, Glasgow (0844 573 0670, www.thepelicancafe.co.uk)
Starters £4.50-£7. Main courses £9-£26. Puddings and cheese £6 Rating
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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