WHEN Marco Pierre White gave up actually cooking back in 1999 and handed in his Michelin stars – yes, that’s right, he hasn’t slaved over a hot stove for 15 years – he was at the peak of his powers. The enfant terrible of British cooking, he had been the youngest chef ever to win three stars, had trained under Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc, and had launched the career of, among others, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. With his corkscrew hair and flamboyantly potty-mouthed tirades, he was a rock star in chef’s whites.
Marco Pierre White @ Wheeler’s of St James
Bankend Road, Dumfries DG1 4ZZ
Main courses £10.95-£18.95 (steaks £24.95)
Set menu Two courses, £18.50; three courses, £21.50
The enfant terrible of British cooking, he had been the youngest chef ever to win three stars, had trained under Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc, and had launched the career of, among others, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. With his corkscrew hair and flamboyantly potty-mouthed tirades, he was a rock star in chef’s whites.
And then came the post-stove years. He became a restaurateur and was pretty good at it, buying places such as London’s L’Escargot, and publishing the influential cookbook White Heat. Reality television programmes such as Hell’s Kitchen kept him in the public eye, as did commercial tie-ups with Knorr stock cubes, Bernard Matthews ready meals and P&O Cruises, nakedly commercial collaborations which may have kept his three ex-wives in Jimmy Choos, but did little to enhance his credibility.
There have been some notable glitches amid his frenetic entrepreneurial activity, such as his Birmingham restaurant recently receiving a zero rating for hygiene but, like some great cash vortex, White has ploughed on with his projects, increasing his visibility and his net worth with every passing month. It is a grand masterplan which has now brought him north of the Border, although there wasn’t exactly a media scrum when he opened his first Scottish restaurant in Dumfries earlier this year. I was there, however, in the grounds of the former mental institution and next to the hospital where his new restaurant, Wheeler’s of St James, is sited, and was told the rationale for the restaurant’s location by the great man himself: it turns out hospitals are almost always full and that the people who visit the afflicted are invariably peckish.
As a business model it left me more than a little cold, but on the recent Friday night we visited, it looked as if he may have a point. The dining room – a long Victorian affair with thick carpets and ornate cornicing – was doing a roaring trade. It’s been going for long enough for the locals to make up their minds and for the initial novelty to wear off, so to see it so full meant that they must be doing something right (although competition is horribly weak locally, with no gastropubs or mid-range bistros, and nothing upwardly mobile since The Linen Room met its demise several years ago).
Sitting looking out at the cavernous Crichton church as we studied the menu, at least one of the reasons for the popularity of White’s latest venture became clear in the price tag, with the majority of the à la carte mains coming in at £13 or £14, while the three-course set menu came in at just £21.50. The range and content looked spot-on too: eight starters that covered all the bistro bases, plus 14 main courses that included four fish dishes and a trio of veggie options.
I started with the potted duck with homemade chutney and toasted sourdough bread, and was extremely impressed with the rendering of this old classic. My only issue was an unnecessarily stingy portion of bread which was never likely to be enough to accompany what was a substantial kilner jar of potted meat. Ben and Bea were equally impressed with their hefty assiette of seafood off the table d’hôte menu, which included crab, mackerel, beetroot gravlax, crayfish tails and a Marie Rose sauce.
The only blot on our culinary landscape was Silvy’s Cullen skink, which was served with a poached egg and was a curious one: intensely flavoured yet gloopy, there was no sign of any potato or actual pieces of fish. I’m not quite sure what it was, but it was quite apparent that it definitely, positively was not Cullen skink.
My main course of roast rump of lamb à la dijonnaise with gratin dauphinoise featured possibly the most tender chunks of lamb that I have ever tasted. Soft, succulent, subtly flavoured and so yielding that it could be cut with a fork, it was something of a revelation and a dish I’d recommend without hesitation.
Ben ordered the fish of the day and his fillet of seabass was similarly flawlessly cooked, though it was a tad on the parsimonious side. Bea went for the classic bistro dish of smoked haddock served with colcannon mash, grain mustard beurre blanc, which was topped with a free-range poached egg with a vibrantly orange yolk. Silvy’s duck breast came with a jus grilottine, dauphinoise and green beans, and was, once again, a sensibly constructed and competently executed dish.
Indeed, at this stage, our only real beef with the place (apart from the fraudulent soup) was the schmaltzy, tinny soundtrack to our meal. I’ve never been a fan of elevator music, but this was something even worse, with the cheesy ballads of Heart & Soul Pt II pumping out at an intrusive volume. Our sparky waitress Hannah didn’t rate the muzak either, but it took the threat of the non-appearance of a tip to finally get it turned down, which only turned out to be a temporary cessation.
Pudding was the weakest of the three courses, with my mulled berry crumble with crème anglaise the most disappointing. As well as lukewarm custard and berries that weren’t mulled, the usual crumble topping was replaced with a thick layer of seeds. I didn’t enjoy it and as I’m not a budgie I wouldn’t order it again. Silvy had Eton Mess which was deconstructed and overly runny; she wasn’t impressed. Bea and Ben’s Cambridge burnt cream (aka crème brûlée) was a little rustic and short on the sort of silken texture that really sets a good example of the genus apart, but was otherwise decent.
As, indeed, was our whole meal. I had arrived in a mildly sceptical state of mind, ready to be disappointed, but left happy that Dumfries is at last home to a decent restaurant. White may not be the culinary colossus who dominated London gastronomy in the 1990s, but even with a much-reduced horizon, there’s still plenty of life in the old dog yet.
Marco Pierre White @ Wheeler’s of St James, Bankend Road, Dumfries DG1 4ZZ
(01387 272 410, www.wheelersdumfries.com)