Food and Drink: 'The self-conciously rustic food evokes languid rhyhtms of languedoc
La Garrigue 14 Eyre Place, Edinburgh (0131-558 1608, www.lagarrigue.co.uk) Two courses £26.50; Three courses £30. Rating ****
Like many who regularly dine out in Edinburgh, I have a very soft spot for Jean-Michel Gauffre, the unassuming and personable patron-chef of Languedoc-inspired restaurant La Garrigue.
My respect was only intensified by his televised grilling at the hands of Gordon Ramsay. However, I can't pretend the demise of his vegetarian restaurant L'Artichaut will cause lost sleep in my neck of the woods, especially as his veggie venture has been replaced by a sequel to his original and much-loved restaurant.
The herbivores' loss is definitely the carnivores' gain, especially as, over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to gain easy access to the Jeffrey Street branch. Gauffre is something of a culinary and cultural puritan, a man whose self-consciously rustic food evokes the languid rhythms of his native Languedoc. But where his peasant food –a term of endearment, not damnation – has an easy informality, La Garrigue in Jeffrey Street is so beloved of a cadre of ladies who lunch (not to mention the good executives from the cooncil's luxurious Lubyanka around the corner in East Market Street) that getting a table often involves planning ahead, which somehow undermines the experience.
All of which explains why his recent decision to open La Garrigue II on the site of the withered L'Artichaut came as a very pleasant surprise. Nor was there much needed doing to the Eyre Place restaurant; the place has been given a coat of paint and is far less stark than the mothership, but the Tim Stead chunky wooden furniture that lent a homespun edge is still in place. So, too, is the L'Artichaut team, Catriona Spence in front-of-house and her partner and chef Mark Ishaq, formerly of Iggs, with Gauffre working as executive chef.
That's no courtesy title either: for the first 15 minutes after we arrived, Gauffre was popping in and out of the kitchen, chatting to Spence, ensuring that Ishaq sticks to the script and generally being as hyperactively apparent as he is back at base. With the creation of a second La Garrigue, Gauffre is clearly sticking as close to the original formula as possible.
The good news is that, with a couple of caveats, this mini-me has been pretty successful. Indeed, in some respects the Eyre Place version is almost more comfortable than the slightly bare surroundings of Jeffrey Street. To mark the occasion, we started with an aperitif each – Graham had a glass of Gauffre's beloved Carthagene, a drink from the Languedoc in which grape spirit is mixed with grape juice to give a smooth, sherry-style drink, while I chose a glass of the gloriously unctuous sweet walnut wine, Noix de la St Jean.
That Carthagene is on the menu epitomises La Garrigue because it is quintessentially Languedoc and virtually impossible to find outside that region of southern France where it is made and consumed by vineyard owners and farmers. To honour Gauffre's determination to stay true to his roots, we did our best to order dishes that were as authentic as possible, Graham starting with a twice-baked Roquefort souffl with crushed walnuts and pear salad, while I opted for the potted rabbit with what was described as a chicory and pomegranate salad.
Fortunately, the French have the same attitude to salad as I do, and the crushed walnut and pear salad turned out to be essentially a garnish for the souffl. Graham would never have ordered any of the dish's individual components on their own, but was curious to see how the combination worked, and the answer was perfectly. The souffl was flawless, while the "salad's" mix of nutty sweetness was the perfect antidote to the tang of the cheese. My potted rabbit was less exotic, but competently done.
For our main courses, we both chose dishes with a strong Languedoc influence, Graham going for the braised leg of veal with cassoulet beans while I chose the pan-fried halibut with Camargue rice, squid sausage and fennel stew. The two chunks of veal were tender and the perfect answer to the Edinburgh chill, although serving them packed into a small bowl alongside the beans seemed a strange decision, albeit one that didn't overly detract from what was a very solid dish.
My halibut was slightly over-cooked, but even that couldn't disguise Gauffre's rare talent for mixing flavours, with the marvellous squid sausage fitting perfectly with the rich, nutty flavours of the chewy short-grained brown risotto-style Camargue rice, augmented by the aniseed twang of the fennel and the pungent flavour gifted by dots of what tasted like the classic basil-based pistou sauce popular in Provence. Fish is the primary speciality in large parts of the Languedoc, and this dish was close to perfection.
Unusually, the same could be said for our puddings, with Graham's crme brulee mysteriously missing the promised lavender twinge but otherwise faultless, while my supremely sharp piece of tangy lemon tart was absolutely immaculate.
There were minor quibbles – I'm not a fan of service being added to the bill as a fait accompli, for instance – but with fantastic service, memorably authentic food, huge portions and a relaxed ambience, there's no reason why this sequel can't be the same runaway success as the original.
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 13 February, 2011
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