IT’S funny the things that go through your mind at the most inappropriate moments.
Linlithgow, West Lothian EH49 7LU (01506 834532, www.champany.com)
Main courses £31-£49
Stilton and oatcakes £7.95
Faced with the menu at Champany Inn, I couldn’t help wondering what my dad would think (and, god help us, say) were he sitting in my seat. Or even whether he’d stay sitting in my seat.
It’s fine for me, I’m eating on the company credit card, but the old man has always been the sort of parsimonious soul for whom extravagance is a mortal sin and for whom a bargain is like catnip. Holidays as a kid were often spent trudging around the back streets of some southern European town or city looking for what he would euphemistically call “the place where the locals eat”.
We’re all a product of our environment and as I stared at the menu while seated in the most immaculately manicured converted byre in West Lothian, with a row of austere Victorian uglies staring out from the circle of huge oil paintings that lined the walls of this circular building, I couldn’t stop my mind musing on the sour quip he’d lob in the direction of the waiter just before my mother kicked his shins under the table. The usual one would be something along the lines of: “These prices – are they pesetas or lira?”
It may seem churlish to start off a review of one of the country’s best restaurants – and, make no mistake, Champany Inn is one of our great culinary gems even if the fripperies aren’t to everyone’s taste – with a veiled rant about its prices, but then £49 for a porterhouse steak, especially when you can get the same steak next door at owners Anne and Clive Davidson’s more low-key Chop House for £20 less, tends to focus the mind. As does £31 for “deep fried organic cod with chips”.
The other reason for mentioning the price is to dispense with the downside early on because, in truth, the stratospheric prices were virtually the only blemish on a sparkling culinary experience. The last time I was at Champany Inn the place had a Michelin star, which it has subsequently lost, yet I don’t remember the food being anywhere near the same quality. Good, sure – just not this good. In all other respects, the place was the same: all buttoned up and timeless in a curious Grand Designs meets classic fine dining hybrid. The fabric of the place is so old that you arrive through what is still identifiably an old farmyard, while the plush bar area is a rambling barn-like affair on three levels which leads into a space which reminded me of a large stone crannog, complete with circular wooden ceiling, Welsh dresser and wall hangings. With its candles and sotto voce tones it is, however, undeniably posh, the sort of place you’d bring someone from whom you want a loan, their daughter’s hand, or both.
The only surprise was the absence of any amuse bouche, surely an oversight for a place with such an unmistakable sense of its own position in the gastronomic firmament. Some gloriously soft and fresh bread, studded with sun-dried tomatoes, largely atoned for that oversight, although its arrival coincided with our first sight of a menu which looked disappointingly old school and unadventurous. Sure, we had anticipated that our main courses would consist of steak, but the list of starters looked as long and expensive as it was limited, with bald descriptions of smoked salmon, scallops, oysters, liver parfait, prawn cocktail and langoustines hardly whetting our appetites.
Bea chose the oysters and was in raptures. At £18 for half a dozen, they needed to be good and these huge, fat, milky specimens from Loch Gruinart were as good as any she’s tasted. Despite misgivings, I plumped for the house starter of hot smoked salmon and was, if anything, even more blown away, presumably in part because I had no great expectations. Instead, what I got was an intensely smoked fillet of salmon served amid a sea of hollandaise that had a texture of velvet and a gorgeous kick of sherry. So simple and yet so perfect; I could almost feel Escoffier smiling down upon us.
Bea chose a main course of ribeye while I went for an entrecôte with a stilton and horseradish sauce. Clive Davidson constructed his own charcoal grill on which to cook steaks from carcasses that have been hung for three weeks and he must be some engineer because these doorstoppers were as near perfect as makes no difference. Even more impressive was the sauce that accompanied my entrecôte: rich, silky, with little flavour stashes of stilton exploding on my palate with every other mouthful. The only negative on this one was a side order of slightly gritty dauphinoise which had that horrible woolly texture you get with potatoes that have been pre-cooked and then reheated in the microwave.
Pudding followed the same format as the previous two courses, with boring-sounding options like Champany cheesecake and orange panna cotta being lifted by the slick production and the intensity of the accompaniments (raspberry sorbet with the former, pickled root ginger and Kahlua ice cream with the latter).
Despite the good service, impressive wine list and food that was at times extraordinarily good, the sting in the tail was always going to come at the end. Sure enough, a meal that included no aperitifs or coffee and a couple of glasses of house wine each weighed in at more than £200. And they added “optional” service, one of my pet hates. The old man would never stand for that, but it would be his loss.