REGULAR readers will know all about this column’s love for things that are both edible and French. When friends from out of town come to Edinburgh, about a third of the list of places that I recommend they try are French.
Galvin Brasserie De Luxe
The Caledonian, Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB (0131-222 8888; www.galvinbrasseriedeluxe.com)
Main courses £15-£28.50
Set menu (available until 7) two courses £16.50; three courses £19.50
Of that dozen or so beloved venues, some are top end, most are in the middle; some specialise in southern peasant cuisine and others in haute cuisine; but all are superb.
Somehow French food never becomes clichéd in the same way as the cuisine of other nationalities, and in particular ubiquitous Italian food, so often does. The sheer variety of dishes in Gallic gastronomy ensures that the experience stays fresh, and even when you’re talking about bog-standard day-to-day dishes from across the Channel – say, coq au vin, cassoulet or boeuf bourguignon – the experience rarely palls. French chefs often have a self-assurance that borders on arrogance, but at least they have a lot to be arrogant about.
An amalgam of all those thoughts whizzed through my head as we arrived at the Galvin Brasserie De Luxe at the rejuvenated Caledonian Hotel. This is multi-Michelin starred chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin’s everyday eatery, a determinedly utilitarian space that stands in stark contrast to the Pompadour, the flounced-up fine dining emporium on the hotel’s first floor.
Downstairs in the rambling brasserie, which serves as the hotel’s main eating venue, the atmosphere is less rarefied, but equally French. On the midweek evening when we visited it was pretty quiet, with barely half a dozen of the 50 or so tables occupied, and even though the place has low ceilings and is designed so that it can be sparsely populated and you wouldn’t notice, it still felt a little like we were eating in a half-empty warehouse.
The London-based brothers have often spoken of their love affair with French food, and when I interviewed Jeff as he launched the Pompadour, he chatted about holidays in France as a kid when his dad would leave the autoroute and the family from Romford would feast on the unimaginably exotic blanquette de veau at roadside Les Routiers restaurants. It fired his imagination, and when he bought a copy of the cookbook Cuisine Gourmande by French chef Michel Guérard, he never looked back.
Although the brothers are busy down south running their restaurant empire, all of that Francophile passion and expertise is apparent in a brasserie menu which almost transported us straight to the Champs-Élysées. It was all there: starters of charcuterie, foie gras, escargots and onion velouté; main courses of cassoulet of duck confit and Toulouse garlic sausage, choucroute garni, coq au vin, and bouillabaisse Marseillaise; followed by puddings of tarte tatin and oeufs a la neige.
I started with a lasagne of Berwick crab and beurre nantais, while Bea went for half a dozen escargots de Bourgogne. It would be difficult to imagine two more different dishes.
My lasagne was a prissy wee thing, a perfect cube of innovation in which layers of finely chopped crab were interspersed with perfectly prepared lasagne – almost al dente but then suddenly yielding – all of which was surrounded by a silky rendition of this coarse variation of beurre blanc in which a faint hint of lemon meshed beautifully with the crab.
Bea’s snails in the shells could hardly have been more of a contrast. Fields of garlic had been sacrificed in the making of this dish, not to mention enough molten butter to float a canal barge. After she’d emancipated the half-dozen succulent gobbets of dark flesh from the shells, we both spent ages mopping up the butter and garlic detritus with what seemed like half a loaf of still-warm rustic bread. It wasn’t pretty, it was messy, but it was definitely worth the oily splashback and dry-cleaning bill.
Like the starters, our main courses were faultless. Bea’s confit duck leg with black pudding and salad Lyonnaise was spot on, with the meat so tender that it fell away as soon as it was touched by her knife. My two big chunks of daube of ox cheek bourguignon were even more satisfying: dark, rich and served with a thick jus and a helping of creamy pommes mousseline, the only possible downside was that it was so filling I struggled to finish what was in front of me while we barely touched the side order of pommes dauphinoise.
Bea rounded off with a decent passion fruit soufflé with coconut ice cream, while I had a throwback rum baba, which was again flawless: the firm sponge was saturated with rum, studded with sultanas marinated in rum, and served with a will-o-the-wisp Chantilly cream. It was like a booze-soaked school pudding on steroids; fantastic.
The food wasn’t the only virtually faultless thing about the experience, with the service being notably slick and the attention to detail beyond reproach (although I definitely detected a slight froideur when I ordered the – very decent – house wine). That’s not to say that the experience was perfect. The place, as already mentioned, may be a buzzing hubbub in the middle of the Festival, but there are morgues with more life at this time of year. The prices are also pretty corporate, with my daube of ox cheek weighing in at an expense-account busting £22.50 and my lasagne starter coming in at £12.50. Most irritatingly of all, though, was my pet hate, the addition of a service fee to the bill. It’s wrong and it’s rude.
That said, when it came to the main event, there’s no denying that the grub was a gorgeous Gallic banquet. Mon Dieu, but it was good!