The elaborate hand painted wall panels depict pretty birds perched on entwined branches with delicate Oriental blossoms. The carpet is sumptuously soft, the view from the window among the most stunning Edinburgh has to offer.
It’s here, where crystal glasses and silvery cutlery sparkle, under a glittering deep pink chandelier in a room that oozes boudoir chic and feminine charm, that Craig Sandle is discussing how to go about shoving a plump raw chicken into, of all things, a pig’s bladder.
The pig’s bladder, he explains enthusiastically, is actually a beautiful thing. Big and, obviously, watertight, pop in the best chicken he’s ever found, herbs and a slug of Armagnac and watch it simmer and inflate. Once it’s puffed up like a balloon ready to go “pop”, a smart young waiter will carry it high on a silver salver, lay it with due reverence on the pristine white linen tablecloth, and watch as the words “pig” and “bladder” melt away like a knob of creamy butter smoothed over steaming hot baby potatoes.
The theatrical display of punching it open to release its steaming, aromatic contents is often enough to spark a scramble among diners. Pig’s bladder at The Pompadour by Galvin, it seems, is going down a treat.
“We’ve done five or six in one night,” nods Edinburgh-born Craig, executive head chef at the newly refurbished, as strikingly pretty as ever restaurant on the first floor of the Caledonian Hotel. “Diners like it. Usually when one table orders it and the others see it, then they want to try it too.”
Unusual perhaps, but those pigs’ bladders – actually the dish is called poulet en vessie – along with award winning chef Craig, the backing of two superstar restaurateur brothers, the Galvins, and a £24-million plus investment are combining to restore this grand old lady of Princes Street to former glories.
Not before time too. For years she was left to slowly decay as her flamboyant “sister” at the other end of the strip slapped on the style and lured the cream of city guests through her constantly revolving door.
Both railway hotels, both built in lavish style for Victorian travellers, The North British, as it was before becoming the Balmoral, provided rest for tired travellers at Waverley, while the red sandstone edifice of the Caley gave sanctuary for steam train passengers stepping off the platforms at the Princes Street railway station below. Like wally dugs on the mantelpiece, they’ve stood sentinel over tramworks, buses, cars and weary shoppers for over 100 years.
Competition over which could claim bragging rights as the best swung back and forth, east versus west, North British or the Caley. In recent years, however, there was an outright winner and it definitely wasn’t the faded and dishevelled Caley.
Now with the Waldorf Astoria brand behind her, the Caley has fixed her smudged make up, put on her best frock and is clawing her way back. And it’s entirely possible that some time soon The Balmoral will have some Michelin star competition from her old chum at the West End.
The Caley’s not so secret weapon is sitting on a velvety soft, pale green and dusky pink chair beside huge windows in the rococo dining room, the view on one side is of the castle towering above, on the other, Princes Street and her bitter rival.
Craig Sandle only had to stroll along that street to take up his new executive chef title here – he used to be head chef at the Balmoral’s fine dining restaurant, Number One, working under the hotel’s executive chef Jeff Bland and a key figure in helping it achieve and retain its Michelin star for an impressive nine years.
He was lured along the road by the Michelin star Galvin brothers Chris and Jeff, who sealed the deal to bring the Caley’s Pompadour and Brasserie dining rooms into their stable of London based French inspired restaurants. While Craig is not going to confirm he’s setting his sights on a precious star for the newly revived Pompadour, there’s clearly everything to play for.
“It’s not something I think about,” he shrugs. “It was the same at Number One, once you get a star, you don’t spend all your time then thinking that you must do this or that to keep it, you just get on with what you do because you have 50 covers booked that night and you want to make sure it’s nice and you’re doing the best you can.
“If we achieve a standard here that Michelin think is worthy of a star, then fantastic. But the real reason I do this is because I like cooking, I like it that people come and enjoy themselves and have a nice time.”
Taking on the role at the Caley is only natural for Craig, born and raised in Edinburgh until he was six, he recalls returning on summer visits to play in Princes St Gardens, beside the fountain and to climb the rocky path up to the Castle.
While he can’t specifically remember looking towards the Caley and thinking “yes, one day I’ll be chef there”, there’s no doubt the grand lady must have been in his line of vision.
“Mum’s Scottish, dad’s English,” he explains. “We moved to Derby when I was still quite young but we’d come back here in summer. I reckon I’d have been ten or 11, I remember walking around the Gardens, the Castle, seeing the sights.”
He learned to cook the basics at his mum’s side: “Just good home cooked stuff,” he recalls, no pig’s bladders that he can remember. The need for pocket money drove him to working as a kitchen assistant in his spare time and by the time he was 16, it seemed natural to just keep on going, learning on the job and working hard enough to keep on impressing his superiors.
He returned to Edinburgh aged 17 even though the city then was hardly a gastronomic centre of excellence with just a handful of decent restaurants and most “fine dining” opportunities limited to a few hotels.
So he worked his way through the three-star Ellersly House Hotel at Murrayfield, moved up to four stars at Norton House Hotel and then hit five stars at the Balmoral when the old Grill was evolving into what would become the Michelin star restaurant Number One. En route there have been too many awards and honours to list, certainly enough to suggest Sandle, a father of two young daughters, could easily break out of hotels and put his own name above a restaurant door.
Instead he seems content to set sights on ensuring The Pompadour can return to its former glory as one of the places to dine in Edinburgh. And to persuade old diners to return – and lure new ones in – The Pompadour and the Galvin Brasserie de Luxe are setting out their stalls this week, in a week-long Galvin Festival of Food and Drink which is running at all of the brothers’ six outlets. The highlight of the event here is an exclusive masterclass led by Craig at The Pompadour on Sunday, already sold out.
“For years the Caley wasn’t in the running,” admits Craig, 37. “It wasn’t competing with the Balmoral, it was shabby and run-down and a complete mess. Everything needed work, the kitchens were a shell, it all had to be started from scratch.
“What is great about here is that Chris and Jeff Galvin didn’t want to create a hotel restaurant. They wanted this to be a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel.”
“I think we’re giving people a good reason to come to the Caledonian again.”
• The Galvin Festival of Food and Drink includes a special menu at Galvin Brasserie de Luxe at The Caledonian Hotel and masterclass by executive chef Craig Sandle. For details, go to www.galvinrestaurants.com
Hand-painted panels lovingly restored
THE Caledonian Hotel has undergone a major £24m refurbishment to restore it to its former glory.
At its heart is The Pompadour by Galvin restaurant on the first floor. Its listed interior décor is designed to reflect the sumptuousness of the Palace at Versailles, with elaborate cornice work, large windows and delicate Chinese style painted panels.
Smoke, food damage and wear and tear had left the hand-painted panels, created by Paris-based De Gourney and hung in the dining room in the mid-70s, in dire need of restoration.
Faced with ripping them out or attempting to replace them – re-papering an average sized dining room with the paper would cost around £15,000 – the hotel opted to have them restored.
Incredibly, having searched UK-wide for over a year for an expert to restore the panels, a chance discussion with one of the interior designers working on the refurbishment led the hotel to Leith-based artist Rachel Bell.
The 51-year-old, who has worked on interiors for The Honours, Prestonfield House and The Witchery, had already worked on panels in the hotel’s Castle Suite two decades earlier. And as a little girl, she remembers being taken to The Pompadour for tea and marvelling at the pretty panels. She has since completed several panels.