Half a century ago, if you wanted the most upmarket meal Edinburgh could offer, you ate at the Pompadour, in the Caledonian Hotel.
The people I’ve met who are old enough to have eaten at this legendary dining room in the years after the war remember it as eye-wateringly expensive; so much so, in fact, that one septuagenarian lady says that back then, if a man offered to take an unmarried girl to the Pompadour, she knew he was going to ask for one of two things: her body or her hand.
Situated on the first floor of the hotel, with its views over Princes Street and the castle, the Pompadour, which first opened its doors in 1925, still has some of the best sightlines in the capital. Inside, the setting is equally memorable: with its gorgeously ornate cornicing, fin de siècle stucco detailing and tapestry panels, it is arguably the grandest restaurant dining room in Scotland – which is why it (along with much of the rest of the hotel) is category A listed.
The Pompadour’s faded grandeur over the past couple of decades has been a crying shame (the last time I ate here, we were the only people doing so), which is why the Hilton group’s £24 million refurbishment, which finished recently and included the 55-cover Pompadour and a 140-cover ground-floor brasserie, has been so heartening. Not that the grand old lady of Auld Reekie gastronomy could ever be given anything other than the most superficial of makeovers: the restrictions on structurally altering the room housing the Pompadour meant little could be done other than to put in new tables, curtains and carpets, then give the place a new lick of paint and a good spring clean.
If those changes have made it marginally more contemporary and a good deal more welcoming, the real change (apart from a new bar next door, a place to sip pre-dinner drinks and eat the amuses bouche) has not been to the appearance of the Pompadour but to the real guts of the operation: the food. As its new Sunday name might suggest, the running of the Pompadour by Galvin has been taken over by brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin, two Michelin-starred chefs who cut their teeth in London and New York under luminaries such as Antony Worrall Thompson, Sir Terence Conran, Anton Edelmann and Marco Pierre White, with Chris opening the Wolseley, one of Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World for two years in succession.
Now with five restaurants in London – all serve French cuisine, with two boasting Michelin stars and one a Bib Gourmand – the link between the brothers and the Hilton Group was established by Galvin at Windows, their hugely successful Michelin-starred restaurant on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane.
Only time will tell whether or not the brothers can work the same magic at the Caledonian Hotel at Waldorf Astoria (despite the horribly clunky rebranding, it remains part of the Hilton Group) and challenge their most obvious competitor, the Balmoral, and its Michelin-starred restaurant, Number One. But with beautiful surroundings and a 241-bedroomed hotel to draw from, they must have a fighting chance.
That Number One is subconsciously or consciously the model for the Galvins is apparent from the sheer number of its staff who have previously worked under Jeff Bland at the opposite end of Princes Street. Chief among them is Craig Sandle, who was Bland’s head chef at Number One but who is now executive chef of both Brasserie Galvin De Luxe and the Pompadour.
Despite the tasting menu costing £68 (£120 with paired wines), £10 more than the £58 à la carte, we decided the seven-course extravaganza was the best way to experience the full breadth of what Sandle and the Galvins have to offer. After a trio of amuses bouche in the bar area, we started with a tiny square lasagne of crab, scallops and beurre nantais. It was an exquisite opener that showcased the chef’s presentational skills at the expense of the taste of the crab and scallops, which got completely lost along the way.
The next dish was a minuscule and fairly run-of-the-mill terrine of foie gras that came with a chutney of Provence peach. This was followed by an ambitious but perfectly executed ravioli of rabbit with ricotta, sarriette and artichokes barigoule. From there, we were into the substance of the meal, a poached supreme of turbot with squash gnocchi and reisling nage, which lent a curious but enjoyable oleaginous sheen to this wonderful fish.
Top marks, too, to the beautifully succulent seared and slow-cooked fillet of Angus beef, which came with potato galette and creamed spinach. If ever proof were needed that the best raw ingredients and a confident chef are the combination most likely to ensure satisfied diners, this was it.
We rounded off with a forgettable helping of the rather dull French goat’s cheese St Maure, a surprisingly bland quince palate-cleanser and then a joyously traditional and sizeable helping of flawless tarte tatin with a beautifully judged cinnamon and honey ice-cream, which was as near to perfection as you can get.
It was a meal full of shade and variation, with a dizzying range of textures. While it may not have had the sheer intensity and rough richness of, say, a Martin Wishart meal, it was slickly done, exactly as you would expect from a top hotel restaurant. The Galvins have pitched the Pompadour at Michelin level. And while that star certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all, having so conspicuously thrown the kitchen sink at the project it would be a surprise if they don’t at some stage make that breakthrough.
After all, although I have misgivings about the overhaul of the hotel in general, with its garish carpets and futuristic chandeliers, the Pompadour has undoubtedly been restored to its former pomp – with classic French-inspired cuisine, a dining room that inspires, peerless views and in Peter Adshead a sommelier of great charm and knowledge who has compiled a masterly wine list. It has even become eye-wateringly expensive once more, a sure sign that the Galvins believe they’re on to a winner. And they may just be right.
The Pompadour By Galvin Caledonian Hotel at Waldorf Astoria, Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131-222 8975, www.thecaledonian.waldorfastoria.com)
Taster menu £68 (with paired wines £120) Three-course à la carte dinner £58 Starters £18-£22 Main courses £28-£38 Puddings £12
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