SEVEN years ago, the Edinburgh institution known as Duck’s at Le Marché Noir began the process of decamping to the high street of the East Lothian village of Aberlady and morphing into Duck’s at Kilspindie House.
In 2009, the Edinburgh half of the equation closed its doors for the last time and the full focus was placed on Aberlady. We were always told the process of transforming itself from a Bib Gourmand-featured, French-inspired, New Town bistro to a rustic and classically Scottish restaurant would take time, and so it has proved.
Yet proprietor Malcolm Duck, the energetic former Royal Marine whose character was forged early in life when he was born in Pakistan to missionary parents rejoicing in the name of Doctor and Mrs Donald Duck, now believes his gastronomic emporium in Aberlady is the finished article.
I say ‘emporium’ because Duck’s, a large, white, Edwardian-looking house that sits on the main road to North Berwick, isn’t just a restaurant with rooms (don’t you hate that term – what’s the matter with hotel?). There’s also a coffee shop and Donald’s (named after Duck’s father), which is described as a bar-bistro (although, at a guess, that’s probably because the boss doesn’t like the phrase gastropub – which is exactly what Donald’s is).
Much as the chowder, fish and chips and steaks on offer in the bar were appealing (not to mention what looked like an enormous selection of malt whiskies), we were in East Lothian to look at they revamped Duck’s restaurant, the spiritual successor to Duck’s at Le Marché Noir. What we found was a country mile from its city slicker predecessor: a surprisingly small, low-ceilinged room with a roaring fire, heavy green wallpaper and crisp white linen tablecloths. It is, I suspect, the sort of traditional set-up that diners will either love or loathe: I liked its stolid sense of occasion and all-encompassing cosiness and comfort, though my dining partner didn’t take to the implied formality.
The real acid test, however, is obviously the food. East Lothian now boasts a sizeable number of good places to eat, but this is one of the richest corners of Scotland so there’s no shortage of funds if what’s on the plate impresses and is priced sensibly.
Chef Jonny Dunbar has produced a menu that is big on local provenance and sizeable enough to cover most of the country-house dining bases perfectly. To start, I opted for the East Lothian venison burger with fried quail’s egg, turnip remoulade with ginger and gooseberry relish, but was a little underwhelmed by a slightly dry burger. Good as all of the fripperies were, there was no way back from that and I finished regretting my decision to give the pigeon breast a miss.
The gloriously generous tian of crab and brown shrimp chosen by Lucinda raised no such misgivings, however. Served with dill soured cream and avocado purée, this was a fantastic starter that meshed Dunbar’s promise to source local ingredients with a clear understanding of how to prepare and present them.
My fillet of matured Buccleuch beef was by far the most expensive option on the menu at £32.50, but with a supporting cast of fondant potato, kale, celeriac purée, foraged chanterelles, a haggis fritter and peppercorn sauce, I couldn’t resist. The star of this production was the beef itself: a big, thick doorstopper of a fillet that was cooked perfectly and beautifully tender. By and large, the whole ensemble worked nicely, with the haggis fritter worthy of a mention in dispatches. The only downside was the fact that the sauce suffered from a surfeit of peppercorns: sometime less is more.
But there were no complaints about the risotto. Selected in order to see whether the enormous list of ingredients – which included flavours as diverse as chanterelles, butternut squash, celeriac, rocket, parmesan and pesto – could possibly co-exist happily in the same dish, it was much to Dunbar’s credit that the end result didn’t taste like a food fight in a bowl. Instead, this was a nicely balanced dish dominated by the chanterelles and butternut squash, but in which the acid tones of the celeriac were also unmistakeable.
We rounded off with a chocolate fondant, a virtually faultless specimen with a goey, molten chocolate inside and light, airy sponge on the outside. If the accompanying raspberry sorbet was a little underpowered, the same wasn’t true of a superbly tart iced lemon parfait with burnt orange syrup, which hit the spot perfectly at the end of a pretty heavy meal.
So, is Mr Duck right that what was a work in progress is now the finished article? Debates about décor aside, he’s probably right. This was an assured meal from a promising young chef, and although it wasn’t cheap, nor was it absurdly expensive (except for the cheese) for a restaurant that has the air of ‘special occasion’. It also has a very good wine list. If I had to award a black mark, it came at the end of the meal – when we had to go on walkabout to find someone to pay.
That, though, was a small if mildly annoying detail. The only question that really matters is whether we’d go back. And the answer is yes.
• Duck’s at Kilspindie House
Main Street, Aberlady, East Lothian (01875 870682, www.ducks.co.uk)
Starters £6-£12.50 Mains £13.50-£32.50 Puddings £5.50-£6.50 Cheese £10.95