WE WERE late for dinner and, knowing the kitchen was supposed to close at 9pm, I expected a frosty reception when I rang ahead.
The Castle Inn
Manse Road, Dirleton East Lothian
(01620 850221, www.castleinndirleton.com)
Starters £3.95-£6.95 Main courses £10.95-£20.95 Puddings £4.95 (cheeseboard £6.50) Children’s menu £6.50 Rating
I needn’t have worried. “Just get here as soon as you can and it’ll all be fine,” came the cheery reply. Such sang froid was all the more remarkable when we pitched up at 9:15pm on a Wednesday evening to find there was no-one else in the pub except a noisy bunch of visiting golfers who had been playing Gullane Number One all day and were now working their way through the whole gamut of Scottish-brewed beers.
I’ve been past the Castle Inn countless times and have always thought it would make the perfect venue for a long, lazy Sunday lunch. Occupying one side of the pristine village green in the centre of Dirleton, this is as near as you’ll ever get to one of those quintessentially English pubs that exist cheek by jowl with the village cricket green. It all makes for a calmingly bucolic scene.
In the summer, the beer garden is heaving with visiting families and villagers, but during the winter things are a little more quiet. Yet friends who live in the village and who often use it as somewhere to grab a quick meal when they can’t be bothered to cook were still surprised to hear that the place was so sparsely attended. Perhaps it was just that we were so late, everyone else had eaten earlier and gone home.
The Castle Inn is a 19th-century coaching inn that boasts a quaint little restaurant which is open on a Friday and Saturday evening, plus a bistro that operates all week and which is also run by head chef Dave Wigginton.
It was in the latter that we decided to eat, but then the options for easy dining in this part of the world are fairly spartan, with the Old Clubhouse in Gullane, Nether Abbey in North Berwick and Duck’s in Aberlady providing the main alternatives, plus of course Dirleton’s other pub, the Open Arms Hotel.
The inside of the pub is pretty comfortable and welcoming without being twee, but alarm bells started ringing when the menu arrived.
With a dozen starters and 20 main course options (albeit broken down into sections ) there is always the chance the microwave is being used too extensively, but we ordered regardless, Bea choosing to start with the Stornoway black pudding salad while I went for the classic chicken Caesar salad.
If both sounded pretty mundane, Bea’s starter was actually very decent, and it was certainly pretty ample; there was no microwave input here. As well as big chunks of black pudding and lettuce, it came loaded with crispy lardons of pancetta, a lusty wholegrain mustard sauce and a big, vibrantly orange-yolked poached egg. It was classic gastropub fare and got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Scotland’s foremost salad muncher.
As one of Scotland’s least enthusiastic salad munchers I was quietly impressed with my chicken Caesar salad, mainly because it contained remarkably little salad. Sure, there was a bed of crisp baby cos lettuce, which had a good layer of Caesar dressing, but mostly it was a mélange of bacon lardons, croutons, olives, roast red peppers and parmesan.
That said, some compulsory ingredients were conspicuously missing, not least egg, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and garlic, not to mention the anchovies that are so often added these days. Still, it was fine, without ever causing me to reach for any hyperboles.
Much the same was true of our main courses. That said, a friend who lives in the village popped in to join us for the main course and had a 10oz Aberdeen Angus rib-eye steak from Tranent’s John Gilmour and raved about its quality – succulent, beautifully marbled and perfectly cooked, it was a very pleasant surprise.
My smoked haddock mornay topped with a poached egg also passed muster, with competently cooked fish, loads of sauce (but also commendably light on the cheddar) and nicely creamed mash potato. This was the sort of solid, hearty grub you hope to find at a country pub.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Bea’s rump of Border lamb. It was described on the menu as pan-roasted and succulent: the first was undoubtedly true, the second was completely wide of the mark, but at least the chewy strips of lamb gave Bea’s masticatory muscles a world-class workout. The poor girl could barely talk for hours afterwards.
We rounded off with a “heavenly summer fruit jelly”, which included summer fruits set in a jelly that had been made with the sweet white Veronese wine Aldegheri Passito, and which came with a blueberry coulis and crème fraîche sorbet. Extraordinarily, it tasted every bit as good as it sounded.
Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of my glazed lemon tart, which was fine but a little bland, although it did come with a big dollop of Luca’s superb vanilla ice-cream – a drop of Musselburgh’s finest never goes amiss.
We had heard some mixed reports about the variable quality of the food at the Castle Inn, but nothing about the quality of the service. After accommodating us at a pinch when it was clearly inconvenient, the mix of old and young staff were unfailingly polite and efficient; we were never rushed and never felt like we were outstaying our welcome.
Bert D’Agostino, the man who gave the civilised world the wonderful and eponymous old man’s boozer Bert’s Bar in Edinburgh’s William Street, owns the Castle Inn and some of his easy charm has clearly rubbed off on the place.
As for the food, it wasn’t basement prices, but was generally all of those things you’d like to see in pub grub: hearty, sizeable and mainly very enjoyable.