YOU either love the fact that a place has been around for three decades, unchanging and constant, or it’s a grievous affront.
Me? As long as the place still ticks all the right boxes, I think that sort of longevity is a boon. If there are plenty of alternatives to keep standards high, it quite obviously strives for perfection and doesn’t trade on past glories, then a menu that greets you like a familiar old friend is something to be welcomed and embraced.
Almost 15 years ago, I worked around the corner from Café Gandolfi in a job that demanded absurdly long hours. Once a month for almost two years, I’d escape the straightjacket to pop around the corner to Café Gandolfi or Babbity Bowster and put in a proper old-school lunch that started soon after midday and would often not finish until three.
Even then, a decade and a half after founder Iain Mackenzie’s pioneering decision to set up the first restaurant in the shabby and deeply unfashionable Merchant City area of town and invest in Glasgow’s first cappuccino machine, the place felt so comfortable in its own skin that it was easy to lose track of time. And the food was good; very good, in fact.
Fast forward to now and little has changed. Just for the avoidance of all doubt, this is a very good thing. The ambience is still laid-back and studiously low-key; the interior retains the same dark, all-enveloping quality, thanks to the extensive use of big, chunky, rough-hewn pieces of wood – exemplified by the quirky wooden tables and chairs of legendary Borders furniture maker Tim Stead.
Mackenzie was a photographer (the place is named after the top-end cameras) with a keen aesthetic sense that is shared by current owner Seumas MacInnes, who has been at Café Gandolfi since 1983. MacInnes likes to say the place has a European sensibility, but my companion Duncan, who has spent a substantial chunk of his life living across the Atlantic, reckons it’s the nearest thing he has found to an authentic New York bistro in Scotland.
The unchanging nature of the whole place was confirmed when we first tried to sit down. Both Duncan and I are what my children call ‘big units', while the dearly departed Stead’s furniture was obviously made for hobbits – we both banged our knees trying to squeeze under the table and quickly asked to be moved to one of the two tables designed for more conventionally sized 21st-century living. Once there, we settled into studying the menu, which managed to contain a large number of café classics and comfort food options yet deftly sidestepped the usual culinary clichés.
Duncan started with the Serrano ham croquettes with pea gazpacho and rocket, and was blown away by a tapas staple that defied all his expectations. He was presented with two densely packed, flavour-rich bombas, made in the traditional way from a thick béchamel studded with ham and coated in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. This was absolutely glorious.
My fish Kiev, which consisted of a fillet of sole wrapped around brown shrimp and garlic butter and served with capers and beetroot, was equally impressive. Subtle and understated, it allowed the sole to take centre stage; a real trouper of a dish.
At this stage, it’s worth throwing in a quick wealth warning. Generally Café Gandolfi is excellent value (£7 for my fish was exceptionally reasonable) but beware the recommended but unpriced wines paired with each dish. Although Duncan’s excellent glass of desert-dry Valdivio sherry was well worth it at £3.60, both my (admittedly good) glasses of wine with starter and main came in at close on £9 each.
If our starters were top-notch, our main courses were possibly more impressive. My pan-fried fillet of salmon on wilted spinach with herb hollandaise and a crab puff pastry tartlet could scarcely have been better judged: many people might have thought the fish undercooked, but for me it was absolutely perfect, with its slick, moist texture as enjoyable as the classic combination of crab, puff pastry and a hollandaise sauce so good it momentarily seemed almost sacrilegious to eat it.
Duncan cooed over his roast breast of chicken with Amarone risotto, thyme-sautéed mushrooms, pancetta and truffle oil, not because the chicken was beautifully succulent but because the joyously dense confusion of flavours in the risotto made for a memorably incendiary mix of tastes. If the by-product of having the same dish on the menu every day is that it becomes as well-honed and faultless as this one, then we’ll happily settle for that.
Not that the meal was perfect. We had ordered a side of gratin dauphinoise and although the service was generally decent until we had to wait forever to get the bill at the end of our meal, we were surprised to find the bowl of dauphinoise arriving when we were more than halfway through our main courses.
I rounded off with a disappointing cherry and rhubarb bakewell tart that was too dry, while Duncan opted for a huge, creamy lemon posset that came with a honey-glazed fig. I like my lemon posset so tart it hurts, and found this on the bland side, though Duncan’s verdict was that it was nigh on perfect.
Indeed, with some notable caveats, ‘nigh on perfect’ just about describes this trip down memory lane. The Merchant City is now a buzzing hubbub of activity every evening, yet Café Gandolfi is a Glasgow institution that somehow still manages to simultaneously feel fresh while also standing proud as the grand old man of Glasgow café life.
Like Café Gandolfi’s founder, Mackenzie, whose family is from Lewis, his successor, MacInnes, comes from Barra people and shares that same keen sense of Hebridean hospitality. This is perfectly encapsulated in the Gaelic proverb displayed on the wall – “Deagh bhiadh, deagh bheannachd” or “well fed, well blessed”. Which was exactly how we felt after an evening spent at Café Gandolfi.
64 Albion Street, Glasgow (0141-552 6813, www.cafegandolfi.com)
Starters £6-£7 Main courses £7.50-£16 Puddings £3-£6 Cheese £7.50