Secure in his status as the only chef in Scotland to have been awarded two Michelin stars, and one of only 15 in Britain, Andrew Fairlie has a CV that’s so shiny and bright that sunglasses are not optional.
Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire PH3 1NF (01764 694267, www.andrewfairlie.co.uk)
Bill please: Degustation/taster menu £125 (matching wines £85 extra), à la carte £95, Menu du Marché (six courses) £95 (matching wines £65 extra).
Rating: 9 out of 10
At various stages he’s been the AA chef of the year for the UK, been ranked among the top ten hotel restaurants in the world by Hotels magazine, and cooked for the likes of the Queen, Tony Blair, George Bush, Vladimir Putin and, perhaps most relevantly considering his training in France and close relationship with the Roux family, the then French president Jacques Chirac.
The Gallic influence is key to much of what Fairlie does, right down to the fact that he is part of the French-run Relais & Chateaux association of restaurants and hotels. That Francophilia was subtle but unmistakable, as we found once we’d finished our pre-dinner drink in the bar and padded along the corridor towards his restaurant. It’s more like an updated version of a top-end Parisian salon, sort of Alain Ducasse meets Terence Conran, but as well as mixing the classical and the contemporary, the ambience is surprisingly relaxed for a place where you sometimes have to book months ahead to get a table at the busiest times.
As we were being seated, I couldn’t help but ruminate on what will happen next year when Gleneagles, a towering 1920s edifice whose genesis was as a railway-driven golfing destination and which is still best known as a top-end golf resort, plays home to the biennial Ryder Cup between Europe and the US. The recent Open Championship in East Lothian featured some eye-wateringly aggressive pastel shades and a sea of luridly tartan slacks, and the mental juxtaposition between the brashness of the golfers’ gear and the understated elegance of the diners at Fairlie’s restaurant was enough to bring a smile to this hack’s face.
So, too, was the idea of what would happen were next year’s golfing royalty given free rein on the menu front. The only place where this happens is at the Augusta National before each year’s Masters tournament where, ever since Ben Hogan instituted the tradition in 1952, all the previous winners get together to eat the previous tournament winner’s favourite meal. This ritual is recorded in forensic detail each year by the American media, with some of the more prosaic dishes selected in recent memory including barbecued ribs, fajitas, cheeseburgers, fish ’n’ chips and Wiener schnitzel. You suspect that only Mike Weir (elk, boar and arctic char) and Phil Mickelson (lobster ravioli) would be welcomed back with open arms were they to do the same at Fairlie’s, although as the chef is an outspoken supporter of independence, Sandy Lyle’s choice of haggis would presumably get an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
My ruminations on the collision between golf and posh grub didn’t last long though. One of the surefire signs of upper Michelin-star territory is the overkill when it comes to staff numbers, and although Fairlie is relatively (and joyously) parsimonious on this front, we were seamlessly whisked along into our meal by our knowledgeable waiter. As we’d both have needed to choose the same degustation menu, we decided that we’d ditch the taster menu in favour of what looked like a gorgeous à la carte selection (although there was barely a raised eyebrow when I asked if I could choose one of the puddings off a different set menu).
As a regular contributor of travel articles to the magazine of a well-known financial paper in London, my dining companion Minty does more than her fair share of eating at ritzy venues, most of them abroad. Almost inevitably she chose the sautéed foie gras with poached peach and duck egg custard, and was blown away by the near perfection not just of the combination but of the execution. Simply and cleanly presented, if you like foie gras this dish’s moistly velveteen texture and subtle but lingering effect on the palate was about as good as it gets.
If my veal sweetbread with tomato fondue and Parmesan cream was as crisply presented as Minty’s starter, it somehow didn’t make quite the same impact on me as her foie gras, although that may have been an impossible task. This was nevertheless flawlessly produced, with the roasting process preserving the delicate flavours and silky texture, while the intensity of the tomato fondue and Parmesan made the perfect counterpoint to the tender, understated sweetbread. It’s hardly Fairlie’s fault if I prefer sweetbread fried or sautéed.
Where Minty’s starter was faultless, so was her main course of roast fillet of turbot with a clam velouté. Again, it was a very simply served and presented dish which placed the perfectly cooked fish centre stage, where it happily hogged the limelight. The idea was exactly the same with my main course of roast loin of roe deer, served with beautifully fresh petit pois à la française, which consisted primarily of two chunky orbs of crimson-red venison. Whenever I see roe venison my immediate reaction is to order it, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had some outstanding examples; this, however, while good, wouldn’t be among the very best.
The same wasn’t the case with a wonderful cheeseboard of Bonnet, Wigmore, Beaufort Alpage, Tomme de Savoie, Isle of Mull cheddar, Tunworth, Munster D’Alsace and Fourme d’Ambert. Nor, it has to be said, with my pudding of cherry clafoutis and crème fraîche ice cream, which was as close to perfect as makes no difference. The same was true of the elderflower and peach soufflé that was being dispatched across the table, which Minty rated as probably the best she’d ever had, even if the perfectionist in her thought that the accompanying apricot sorbet could have done with being a little more punchy.
That, though, is the most minor of whinges. From the environment and waiting staff (who at one stage blanched at a glass of wine I ordered, and turned out to have a point) to the end product on the plate, this was an excellent meal, even judged through the prism of our inevitably ramped-up expectations of a two-star restaurant. Let’s just hope the Ryder Cup competitors appreciate the break from the fajitas and ribs. n