AS REGULAR readers will know, this column usually operates on a recommendation-only basis.
Chez Roux at Greywalls
Gullane, East Lothian EH31 2EG (01620 842144, www.greywalls.co.uk)
Main courses £15-£22.50
Puddings £6.50-£8 (cheeseboard £13.50)
Three-course set menu £29.50
This ensures we don’t have to endure too many howlers, and can generally bring you places worth visiting rather than places worth avoiding.
Recently, I’ve started asking prominent chefs where they eat as a way of unearthing gems. And although several have desperately tried to indulge in a tiresome mutual admiration society with other members of the culinerati, more often than not it’s been a fascinating process that has thrown up a few unexpected names. This was particularly true when I spoke to Paul Kitching, the maverick genius who is chef-patron at the capital’s endlessly innovative, Michelin-starred restaurant 21212.
Kitching’s suggestions were surprisingly low-key and largely centred around decent-value Edinburgh establishments which are, in his words, “keeping it real”. But one particularly eyebrow-raising choice was the only one outside Edinburgh and the only fine-dining restaurant: Chez Roux at Greywalls in Gullane, one of half a dozen of gastronomic superstar Albert Roux’s establishments spread throughout Scotland.
I didn’t have Kitching down as a chain guy, no matter how impressive the chain might be (and Chez Roux at Greywalls won Hotel Restaurant of the Year when it opened in 2011), but he was adamant, stressing his admiration for the ambition and energy of the dishes, while lauding the combination of unabashedly traditional French cooking techniques and ingredients.
It helps, it transpired, that Chez Roux benefits from the input of one of his former sous chefs, even if the recent departure of head chef Derek Johnstone meant that when we visited the restaurant, Lee Pattie – the long-time head chef at the seasonal, and therefore closed, Chez Roux at Inver Lodge in Sutherland – held the reins. Not only that, but several of the waiting staff were being trained up in readiness for the opening of the latest Chez Roux, at Andy Murray’s acquisition in Dunblane, Cromlix House, which is due to open next month.
It must be uniquely challenging being a chef in one of the Chez Roux establishments. By their very nature, head chefs tend to be an inventive lot who love experimenting and running their own ship, yet as soon as we saw the menu, the limitations of the role became apparent. The dishes on offer show that the octogenarian guv’nor exercises control from afar, because the à la carte options were exactly the same as those we encountered at the Rocpool Reserve in Inverness a couple of months ago.
While the setting was completely different – the previously dog-eared dining room at this lovely 1901 Lutyens-designed mansion has been completely and tastefully overhauled – it was disconcerting to find ourselves confronted with the same menu, although I suppose it may be a comfort, or even a draw, for those of a particularly unadventurous bent.
This time I gave the quenelles of pike a sideswerve and instead opted for the boss’s speciality, the twice-baked cheese soufflé, while Bea plumped for the boudin noir of hare and pig head with a rocket and sweet mustard dressing. Much as I’d loved the quenelles, the soufflé blew me away: this was classic French cuisine at its absolute finest. Light, frothy, with a perfectly judged coating of molten cheese, this was without doubt the most accomplished and memorable soufflé I’ve ever had the good fortune to eat.
Bea was also hugely impressed with her starter, if less rapturous than I was. The French version of black pudding had a less compact texture than the home-produced equivalent, was given extra body by being studded with chunks of hare and pig head, and was topped with a quail’s egg, a nice touch. It was, however, far from perfect: not only was one disc more than a little stingy given that it cost a tenner, but it also included a sharp shard of hare bone which could easily have cracked a tooth.
If our starters varied from good to exceptional, so did our main courses. Bea’s loin of venison with cranberries, vegetables and a dark, thick red wine pepper sauce was cooked perfectly, with the sour cranberries making a nice counterpoint to the rich, gamey venison. I was even more impressed with my roast saddle of French farmed rabbit, served with sautéed kidneys, mushrooms, a beautifully light carrot mousse and a rabbit jus heavily flavoured with the meat’s traditional accompaniment, tarragon.
If there was a dip in quality, it came with pudding. Bea’s passion fruit soufflé is the house speciality, but while it looked superb it was disappointingly bland, with the sweet notes of the passion fruit only occasionally breaking through the fog of egg whites. My chocolate and chestnut mousse cake with chestnut ice cream was also a little on the subtle side for me, although Bea pronounced it superb.
All in all, dinner at Greywalls continues to be a high-point of East Lothian gastronomy, with fellow Gullane restaurant La Poitinière its only serious rival. Roux may not always be present, but his influence is always there, whether in the updated décor, in fine touches such as the fantastic home-made bread, even in the uniform, heavily Gallic menu and punchy à la carte price tag. Yet Kitching was right – despite his advancing years, the master Roux has still lost none of his verve because, save for the stray fragment of bone in the boudin noir, this was a meal to savour.