ABERFELDY is one of those great little towns that gladdens the heart. There’s so much to like about it, from the Watermill Gallery and bookshop to the Highland Chocolatier and local distillery tours.
Then there’s some of the best walking in Scotland around the Birks of Aberfeldy, particularly at this time of year when Highland Perthshire is a riot of vibrant orange and russet autumnal shades.
All around Scotland, towns of similar size wither on the vine, invaded by supermarkets and in danger of becoming dormitory commuter towns, yet Aberfeldy is thriving. Part of that success is down to the happy fact that it is too far for all but the most assiduous cost-cutters to pop into Perth for some supermarket action, which means a decent number of small, specialist shops remain. There’s also a growing number of tourists, with many coming for outdoor activities such as canoeing, canyoning and mountain biking.
The upshot is that Aberfeldy can support several restaurants, prominent among which is recent newcomer Cafe D’Amour on the high street. Run by husband and wife pair Lee Patrick and Clare Ramsay, this little restaurant certainly looks the part. The outside peers on to the street through former shop windows, but inside, it’s bijou and impressive. Muted colours, hefty chairs painted in a distressed white, half-disguised chandeliers and Pop Art (presumably from Ramsay’s former career running an art shop in the town) make for a classy and inviting interior.
Patrick is a Londoner who worked at The Inn on the Tay hotel in nearby Grandtully before making the move along the road to open up Cafe D’Amour last year. Since doing so, his restaurant has established itself as the town’s fine dining option, garnering some rave reviews. As for the food, despite the overtly French name there are relatively few Gallic flourishes on the menu save for the presence of coq au vin and a cassoulet. Instead, it’s a mix of bistro favourites, fused with some contemporary Scottish staples.
Bea started with one of these, choosing the pan-seared scallops on wilted spinach despite the hefty £9 charge, while Ailsa and I went for the tomato and red pepper soup, and Lochie chose the king prawns in garlic and chilli. Of the three, the soup was undoubtedly the best, but the reaction to the scallops and prawns was pretty negative. Bea described the former as tough and unpleasantly spongey, while there were only two big king prawns and one very small one in an overly seasoned sauce, hardly a steal at £7.
We’d all chosen different options for our main course: Bea, the confit of duck leg with a three bean cassoulet; Ailsa, the pheasant tikka masala; Lochie, the venison burger; while I went for coq au vin. Once again, my dish was the star turn, with beautifully succulent chicken and an interesting onion-heavy and slightly sweet take on what is usually a highly traditional sauce.
Bea’s confit duck leg was perfectly done, and she nodded sagely as she tried the cassoulet, a dish she loves. My son Lochie’s venison burger was huge, so big that when he tried to fit it in his mouth his jaw cracked disconcertingly. If the burger had a nice, faintly gamey flavour it was also hard-packed, which made it a fearsomely dense meal. Less may just have been more in this case.
As for Ailsa’s pheasant tikka masala, this is one meat I never order because it’s invariably dry and stringy, but my chicken-obsessed, chilli-guzzling, über-fussy daughter loved it, even if the portion was on the small side and the popadoms were sent back for more cooking.
If Ailsa loved her supremely rich chocolate and pear tart but was unable to finish it, and Lochie was equally taken with a warm chocolate fudge cake and ice-cream that was basically an enormous slab of heavy chocolate sponge, my tarte tatin with crème anglaise was a huge disappointment. No pudding works when served lukewarm and this one was no different.
We left with a sense of genuine confusion. We had arrived buoyed by a couple of enthusiastic recommendations from locals, and could see the germ of a really good restaurant here. After all, the place looks lovely, and the tables on either side of us weren’t gushing about the food only to the exuberantly friendly Ramsay as she did her rounds, but to each other too.
Yet for us, there were just a few too many missed targets. It started with grumpy comments from the chef about us not being on time (we were apparently either seven minutes late or 23 minutes early), and encompassed a meal at city centre prices but which at times betrayed a clear lack of attention to detail.
I’d love to be able to pen a glowing critique, but I’ll need to come back another time to see whether Cafe D’Amour flatters to deceive or whether this was just an off night.
Cafe D’Amour 25a Dunkeld Street, Aberfeldy, Perthshire (01887 820333, www.cafedamourbistro.co.uk) Bill please
Main courses £12.95-£16.95
Puddings £5.95 Rating