IF ANYONE is in any doubt that stardust sells, they should have been in Glasgow’s George Square for the opening of the first Jamie Oliver’s Italian and witnessed the queues that wound around the corner for weeks afterwards.
1155 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8TB (0141-204 2081, www.thegannetgla.com)
Main courses: £12-18
Puddings: £5-£7 (cheeseboard £9)
It didn’t stop there, either: Jamie’s Italian is still stowed out. So it was little surprise that the unfeasibly long-trailed opening of The Gannet, which is co-owned by former banker and civil servant turned chef Ivan Stein, whose other life is as Mr Daniella Nardini, had raised more than a ripple of anticipation in Glasgow’s West End.
The opening at the end of September more than fulfilled expectations. The initial reviews were wildly positive, while the early punters took to the usual social media sites to laud Stein and his partner and fellow chef and co-owner Peter McKenna, who met while working at Michael Caines’ upmarket Abode on Bath Street. The West End, by common consent, has a bright new star.
The Gannet certainly fits in with the local scene. Inside, with its narrow entrance, big bar and darkened atmosphere, it’s like a cross between the Left Bank and Crabshakk, all untreated wood, brutalist metal stairs and exposed ventilation pipes; a slice of noisy and self-consciously industrial bohemia.
But it’s not the environment or even its ownership which has been attracting an unusual amount of attention. For all that Glasgow’s foodies have always enjoyed the reflected glory of rubbing shoulders with the great and the glitzy (which was, after all, partly what made the Grand Central Hotel and Rogano such institutions), such places only endure if the food is up to scratch and the reports that have been filtering in from Argyle Street have been uniformly flattering to the new arrival.
That said, the first thing we noticed when we picked up the menus wasn’t the words but the numbers. With a scallops starter coming in at £9.50, the main courses weighing in at £18 and cheese tipping the scales at £9, these are hefty figures for a place that looks for the whole world as if it’s been aimed at a relatively young and trendy crowd.
Still, on the Friday night when we visited, the place was almost full and was certainly pretty raucous, and from the general laughter and chat there was no sense of a restaurant which wasn’t enjoying the food. Once we started eating, we quickly realised why there was such a general air of bonhomie: Stein and McKenna clearly learned a great deal from their apprenticeship under Caines (Stein also worked with Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart) because this was food worth travelling for, and which will ultimately keep diners coming back for more.
Another thing that struck us was the disconnect between the fairly bland and reticent descriptions on the menu and the beautifully nuanced dishes that appeared. My starter was a case in point: described as roast pumpkin soup with tortellini and seeds, it was a gloriously intense stock-heavy dish enlivened by roasted pine nuts and a soft tortellini which contained a heavy, viscous sauce that in turn provided a wonderful counterpoint to the soup.
Bea was equally taken with her starter, a well-judged mix of delicately home-smoked salmon with fennel and horseradish cream and a soft quail egg. Light, and with beautifully complementary flavours, this was a disarmingly simple dish that was far more than the sum of its parts.
That was pretty much the whole tenor of this meal. Stein and McKenna wear their learning lightly and produce unfussy, unshowy food that nevertheless forces you to stop and give it your undivided attention. Both of our main courses were a case in point, especially Bea’s Borders lamb, which came with parsley potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and an olive sauce but which also featured what I can only describe as a tempura parsnip which melted in the mouth and was one of the most remarkable things either of us has ever eaten (in a wholly positive way). That, combined with succulent slices of lamb, made for a dish that will remain in the memory for months to come.
I opted for the fish dish of the day, a huge fillet of plaice on the bone that came with a rather cloying serving of herby mashed potatoes and insipid sliced mushrooms that would have been far more effective had they been simply fried in butter. Still, it’s difficult to be too picky because the object of the exercise was clearly to showcase the fish, which was an effort worth making because the moist plaice was perfectly cooked, literally falling off the bone at the slightest touch.
I rounded off with the finest chocolate fondant I’ve ever experienced, a beguilingly ordinary dome of sponge which then gushed with dark, molten chocolate at the merest touch. The accompanying hazelnut ice cream would have been a joy on its own, but was somehow swamped by the fondant, although this is no way detracted from what was a superb pudding. Bea was similarly enthusiastic about her cheeseboard, which featured four superb cheeses, although she was a little surprised to find that none was a Scottish cheese.
That, though, is a minor quibble, as was the occasionally over-enthusiastic service and the chunky bill. The bottom line is that this understated little Finnieston newcomer is that rarest of things: a new venture which not only lives up to the hype, but which raises the bar for its opposition.