‘This was a clashing cacophony of tastes and a work of art to boot’, writes Richard Bath
A DOZEN years and more than 600 reviews ago, when I was starting out on this gig, I caught the train out to Linlithgow, wandered along the main street and turned down a wynd into a courtyard. It was snowing that evening, but that’s not what sticks in my mind.
Instead, what stays with me still is the contrast between the low-key environment and the stunning quality of the food at the eponymous restaurant run by the husband-and-wife team of Ronald and Christine Livingston, ably assisted by their son Derek, who headed up the kitchen in the early days. Back then the surroundings were those of a successful, comfortable, provincial bistro, yet the food was of another order altogether: accomplished, ambitious and aimed at the fine-dining market. It came as such a surprise that the memory has stayed with me long after most meals have faded.
Recently we thought we would introduce our foodie friends from Stockbridge, Johnny and Sheila, to the delights of Livingston’s and watched them with interest as we arrived. Walking past the open door to the kitchen didn’t help, and as we sat in the conservatory extension to the restaurant, looking out over what appeared to be a small, suburban back garden, the city slickers exchanged quizzical glances. They clearly thought that an evening of chicken in the basket and Black Forest gâteau awaited.
Yet just as my expectations were confounded over a decade earlier, so were theirs. The first sense that all may not be as it appeared came with a surprisingly robust, earthy amuse-bouche of tomato and red pepper soup, its rich flavours immediately bringing a stab of warmth to our cheeks. Accompanied by an exquisitely delicate Parmesan and poppy seed wafer, it was a stunningly assured beginning, a snapshot of quality that Johnny happily admitted had blindsided him.
If that challenged his preconceptions, his starter blew him away. As soon as it was plonked down on the table, from the wafts of deep, pungent fumes that were coming off his bowl it was apparent that his bouillabaisse was something special. Dark, thick and rich, it looked almost like oxtail soup, but was so intense that Johnny insisted more spoons were brought so that we could all share the experience.
Elsewhere, eyebrows were being raised in tribute as our starters calmed the chatter and fixed our attention firmly on the food. Sheila’s deconstructed blue cheese salad looked like it was straight out of a Michelin-starred salon, with a pickled wax tip pear here, candied walnuts there, and seeping squares of Blue Murder cheese dotted strategically around the slate. This was a clashing cacophony of tastes, and a work of art to boot: sure, there wasn’t enough to satisfy most man-sized appetites, but the saintly Sheila declared it to be perfect.
Bea was equally impressed with her gorgeously succulent braised cheek of Ibérico pig, which came with a dark brown and intensely flavoured spiced belly, all accompanied by blackened peppers served with chorizo oil. By now we were seriously impressed.
My rabbit ballotine was the most intricate and technically challenging of our four starters, and although competently cooked, the combination of overly compacted rabbit and langoustine jarred, even if the hazelnuts, carrot and anise and vegetables à la Grecque were spot on. These are tiny margins, however, and it said much about our meal that I was already judging it by unflinchingly rigorous standards.
Our main courses were, by and large, on a par with our starters, although some of the attention to detail that had characterised those first dishes was noticeably absent. Johnny’s beautifully marbled door stopper of aged fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, for example, was so soft that he could have cut it with a spoon, yet the accompanying walnut and oxtail tortellini was watery and lukewarm. My T-bone of turbot was perfectly cooked, but sat atop a mound of wild leek risotto so savagely overcooked that I could have used it for regrouting my kitchen tiles. The best of the bunch was Bea and Sheila’s stuffed lamb loin with spiced lamb fillet, but even that was accompanied by a disconcertingly phallic-shaped courgette with a tempura-coated bulb packed full of reduced ratatouille and drizzled with lemon and capsicum jus.
After a well-timed pre-dessert palate-cleanser of clementine mousse and sorbet, we hit the weakest course: the pudding. This time I had the pick of the bunch, with my blood orange cannelloni – a tube of gelatin-addled blood orange jelly wrapped around more subtly flavoured curd – being augmented by granola crumble and the most marvellously creamy heather honey ice-cream I’ve ever tasted.
If Johnny was mildly nonplussed by a supremely ordinary lemon tart that was several notches below the other dishes in difficulty and execution (and, bizarrely, accompanied by small dollops of what tasted like parsnip puree), Sheila’s Valrhona chocolate cheesecake and sorbet was definitely the meal’s low point. Bland, rubbery (“It tastes like a chocolate condom,” she said in disgust), it was sampled by all four of us and left largely uneaten.
Bea’s cheeseboard, however, which came with proper honey and stewed apple, was more than okay. Purists may not appreciate superb yet sweetened oatcakes, but there was no arguing with the selection of Scottish cheeses – Dunsyre Blue, applewood smoked, Isle of Mull cheddar and Morangie brie – nor their ripeness.
There was, however, much that could be improved about the presentation. Our waitress had to be recalled and asked what the cheeses were, which was part of a pattern of really cheery but undeniably substandard service. As well as dropped cutlery, this included serving a different wine to the one we’d ordered, serving bottled water when we’d asked for tap water, pouring wine for the men before the women, and having no first-hand knowledge of the dishes to inform recommendations. The responsibility for this lies with the management rather than their rookie waitress; when you’re charging top dollar, slick service should be a given.
It would, however, be churlish to end on a whinge because, with its cracking wine list and occasionally sublime moments, this was in most respects a very good meal which fully justified Livingston’s two-rosette status. More importantly, as with my first visit all those years ago, it was a very pleasant surprise, an all-too-rare treat which is – like Livingston’s in its 20th year – to be treasured.
52 High Street, Linlithgow EH49 7AE (01506 846 565, www.livingstons-restaurant.co.uk)
Two courses £35.75
Three courses £41.75 (£5 supplement for beef fillet; £4 supplement for cheese)