WE OWE much to the generation of chefs and foodies who opened up rural Scotland to good food in the 1980s and 1990s.
25 Bonnygate, Cupar, Fife (01334 655 574, www.ostlersclose.co.uk)
These pioneers – Hilary and David Brown at La Potiniere in Gullane, Shirley Spear at the Three Chimneys on Skye, David Wilson at The Peat Inn in Fife and the much-missed Peter Jukes at The Cellar in Anstruther – changed the culinary landscape of small-town Scotland for ever.
Chef Jimmy Graham and his front-of-house wife Amanda, who have run the tiny Ostlers Close restaurant in Cupar since 1981, were also standard bearers for contemporary Scottish gastronomy and locally sourced ingredients at a time when it was neither fashionable nor expected. Indeed, Graham’s determination to source the freshest and most local food possible extends to a poly tunnel to produce fruit, vegetables and herbs, while golfers across Fife have long been used to seeing the chef foraging for wild mushrooms alongside the fairways.
In recent years, the number of good restaurants in Fife has increased steadily. As well as the two Michelin stars of Sangster’s in Elie and Geoff Smeddle just down the road at The Peat Inn, there are several options in St Andrews, plus Craig Millar in St Monans, Balbirnie House in Markinch and The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry, while Craigsanquhar outside Cupar is also well worth exploring.
Yet Ostlers Close – reached via a narrow alley off the main street – has withstood all the competition and is still going strong more than 30 years after first opening its doors. Much of the reason for that, said Jamie, a foodie friend who lives five miles down the road and has eaten there regularly down the years, is simply that many people in the area who value good food have grown up with Graham’s unfussy style, while the family’s obvious passion for their trade has always been quietly impressive.
Those are qualities that have ensured Ostlers Close has a devoted band of local followers who form the bedrock of the business, while newer rivals have tended to rely on tourists, golfers and university-related trade from St Andrews.
The building itself is also commendably quirky. It’s the basement of what was once a temperance hotel and, with its tiny windows opening on to a close and its dark red walls, it feels almost subterranean. At this time of year, that’s a blessing rather than a drawback.
Less welcome are the prices, which are enough to bring even the most spendthrift of diners up with a start. With starters ranging up to £12, all four main course options comfortably over £20 and puddings costing £8, a meal here can set you back by more than a visit to either Sangster’s or The Peat Inn, so I set my standards accordingly.
The presentation of the menu wasn’t a good start: scrawled in felt tip then photocopied, it was a homespun touch at odds with the stellar prices at the end of each line. That said, a restaurant with the longevity of Ostlers Close demands to be judged by its food, so that’s what we did.
First up was a perfectly acceptable amuse bouche which contained a chunk of smoked haddock in a potato chowder, in which the intensity of the flavours was offset by a slightly oily, oleaginous texture to the liquid. What wasn’t acceptable was white bread rolls, which were sufficiently hard to qualify as borderline stale.
If the jury wasn’t altogether convinced by the opening salvo, Jamie’s starter of roast pheasant breast with black pudding, mash potato and beetroot sauce went a long way to redressing the balance. I’ve never been a fan of pheasant, but this was comfortably the most succulent and moist specimen I’ve ever tasted, and it meshed perfectly with some nice strong black pudding and a beetroot sauce which brought a perfect hint of sweetness to proceedings.
My starter of fillet of monkfish with seared hand-dived Mull scallop and Pittenweem langoustines with a bouillabaisse risotto cost a remarkable £11.95, and was consequently always going to be minutely observed to gauge value for money. Beautifully presented, it certainly looked the part, and there was the same intensity of flavour that marked out the amuse bouche. However, the flaws were also inescapable, from the overdone single scallop to risotto rice that was so al dente it retained an unpleasantly gritty texture.
My main course of roast saddle of Balhelvie lamb with lamb shoulder confit and roast root vegetables didn’t provide much respite either. Again, it looked a treat, but I’d had lamb the previous day in a small and inexpensive French restaurant and, invidious though comparisons can be, the contrast in the flavour and succulence was unavoidable.
Jamie was far more pleased with his selection of seafood with winter greens, boulangere potatoes and saffron sauce, and with some justification. The selection of scallop, langoustine, gurnard etc was perfectly cooked and the saffron sauce was neatly judged; strong enough to register, yet not powerful enough to overwhelm the subtle flavours of the seafood.
The highlight of the meal was undoubtedly pudding, my steamed apricot syrup sponge, tiny dollop of raspberry ripple ice-cream and a tsunami of custard proving the perfect antidote to a freezing Fife evening.
Jamie’s gorgeously silky vanilla pannacotta came with a compote of fruit in damson gin and rhubarb sorbet, which sounded like it would be a curious amalgam but which worked surprisingly well, with the alcoholic edge of the gin and the acidity of the rhubarb combining to good effect with the pannacotta.
Talking to friends in the area who go to Ostlers Close regularly, it seems there’s a definite ebb and flow to standards and I was just plain unlucky to arrive when the kitchen was missing rather than hitting.
Which is all very well, but when a meal for two with a bottle of house wine and service on a Tuesday night comes to £140, then there’s no excuse for not finding the mark every time.
Starter £7.75-£11.95. Main course £20.50-£23.95. Pudding £7.95 (cheeseboard £9.25)