WHEN the Left Bank opened in the summer of 2006, it was the epitome of Glaswegian cool. If the West End seemed to be gradually losing the bohemian mojo that had made it such a famously vibrant place to be in the 1970s and 1980s, the Left Bank appeared to be kicking back with a vengeance.
Barely a stone’s throw from Glasgow University, Kelvingrove and Byres Road, it seemed to be proof that just because you wore a suit and had somehow acquired a crippling mortgage, it didn’t mean you had to conform in your spare time as well.
Fast forward seven years, and outwardly little has changed. It looks the same, with its quirky, labyrinthine split-level structure, and it still has that understated yet winning mix of exposed brick, loads of glass and wood, plus memorable touches such as the unique concrete bar by sculptor Chris Bannerman. The place still reeks of easy relaxation and studied informality, while the trendy waiting staff remain self-consciously semi-detached.
Large chunks of the menu, a more eclectic distant cousin to that found across town at Cafe Gandolfi, have thankfully hardly evolved either, with its breakfasts and weekend brunches (featuring the memorable devilled eggs mornay with mushrooms and truffle oil) remaining as prominent and popular as ever, while its substantial roster of vegetarian offerings ensures a particularly loyal following. That’s hardly surprising because there was virtually nothing on the menu that I didn’t like the sound of.
From the outside, then, little has changed since the Left Bank’s bright beginnings. The place may not be as consistently full as it once was, but then cash is tight and there are now far more direct competitors than there were back in the day.
That said, one of the reasons for our visit is to investigate because two different sets of friends who live nearby and are long-time lovers of the place have had a collective grump about the Left Bank; the food, they say, has gone downhill, and the service has followed the same trajectory. Can it really be true? Has the Left Bank gone south?
Time flies and as we sat down I real-ised that it’s almost three years since my last visit. As we sat on the mezzanine level, it felt as if it was business as usual while Bea, who was visiting for the first time, soaked up her surroundings and liked what she saw, even if the place was mostly empty, the silence broken only by the stereo and the sound of a screaming baby around the corner.
The menu met with her approval too, and we quickly ordered, Bea going for the coriander chickpea fritters while I went for the wild mushroom with thyme and garlic crostini. And then we waited. After that we waited some more, then waited yet longer and, just as we were getting really bored with waiting, we finally got to eat.
If Bea was pretty unhappy with the extended wait, she was at least left smiling by her fritters, which came with a commendably punchy green chilli and mint raita. I was less chuffed with my wild mushroom dish. It was fine as far as it went, but when you get “wild mushrooms” on a menu, you expect something interesting – depending on the time of year, ceps, chanterelles or morel mushrooms perhaps – but it was difficult to tell the regulation-size specimens on my plate apart from bog-standard supermarket mushrooms.
Nor was the size enough: there were exactly half a dozen mushrooms on my two small discs of not-very-garlicky crostini, all of which disappeared in half a dozen small mouthfuls. Have I missed something? Is there a shortage of wild mushrooms? Are investors coming out of gold and investing in mushrooms instead, leading to huge prices hikes that have passed me by?
Our main courses arrived marginally more quickly than our starters, which was progress of sorts I suppose. I’d plumped for the Goan seafood curry, while Bea chose the chicken chettinad.
Although not anywhere near the best Goan fish curry I’ve had (that award still goes to Edinburgh’s Nine Cellars), mine was a pretty good mild curry, with chunks of garlic masala fried white fish, rings of squid and some mussels, although I didn’t see any prawns. If there was an issue with the dish, it was that I had to pay for rice when the curry was already priced at £13, bringing the finishing price up to nearer £16.
Bea was very impressed with her chicken chettinad, which turned out to be a chicken breast marinated in fennel seeds, cloves, chillis and lime. The meat was perfectly cooked and the unlikely amalgam of four wildly different, but very strong, flavours made for a remarkably layered and successful dish.
My final flourish was described as a warm pecan and raspberry brownie with berry coulis, but it was so overcooked that it was difficult to discern any flavours. Dry, irredeemably desiccated and crumbling before my eyes, this was a clear fail. At least Bea’s almost runny but intensely flavoured cheesecake went some way to redressing the balance.
On the way home, we pondered whether our pals were right to complain that the Left Bank was in decline. We certainly couldn’t argue with their verdict on the service, which was unfailingly cheery but almost glacially slow, but somehow the place has lost none of its charm.
As for the food, it may still be good value but its small portions and worryingly variable standards made for a meal that was instantly forgettable; and no matter what you thought about the Left Bank seven years ago, the one thing it could never be accused of being was forgettable.
Main courses £7.95-£14.95
Where to find it
The Left Bank
33-35 Gibson Street, Glasgow G12 8NU; (0141 339 5969 www.theleftbank.co.uk)