Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, review - we try the Garden Cafe at this arty venue

We visit the Garden Cafe for an alfresco lunch

I’ve had a few surreal moments in my life.

One of the most Dali-esque was meeting a bearded dragon called Nugget at this place.

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This orange lizard was wearing a pink harness, and basking in the sun with his owner. I chucked him under his wattle and he seemed to enjoy it, as much as a reptile enjoys anything much beyond UV rays, rocks and insects.

He certainly liked sunbathing on the clipped lawn at historic Hospitalfield - the red sandstone Arts & Crafts house, believed to be Scotland's first school of art and with previous lecturers including Peter Blake and Joan Eardley.

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It’s flanked by a new Garden Cafe that’s like a glasshouse (or Nugget’s terrarium), designed by architects Caruso St John, and built as phase one of a five-year £10 million restoration plan to continue to make the house and its surroundings a landmark cultural centre.

The friendly and enthusiastic visitor greeter, in one of their green Hospitalfield t-shirts, tipped us off that upcoming events include a bat rave. (Hannah Tuulikki’s Echoes in the Dark Silent Rave). I’ll have to brush up on my echolocation before then.

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Their cafe is open Thursday to Sunday, from 10 to 5pm. We visited on the Sunday, so couldn’t do a house tour, as they run Thursday to Saturday, but the garden and fernery were open, for £6 admission. Beyond the lawn, on a site that was once a monastic garden established by Benedictine monks, there are paths lined by roses that have marbled petals like raspberry ripple ice-cream, rocketing lupins, lavender, and sculptural thistles.

There are also frilly lettuces, which will probably make it onto head chef Simon Brown’s menu.

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We bagged a table on the terrace, under a parasol, since it was sweltering inside. The menu is classic art gallery cafe - a genre I love.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious not to go for the Arbroath Smokie tart (£10.95) but I fancied the hot smoked salmon instead (£10.95). It consisted of a thick and buttery potato rosti, the same colour as Nugget, that was topped with pickled carrot ribbons, a tangy spiced honey yoghurt and soft slippery fish segments. On the side was a thick cross section of turmeric-tinged cauliflower that was doused with a grassy green coriander oil. A dreamy alfresco lunch.

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I also ordered the soup (£5.25) though some might think having it on a hot day is totally illegal.

Thankfully, I didn’t sweat more than my industrial application of Sure would allow, and I savoured the algae green and dilly courgette, pea and mint mixture. It came with two slices of springy sourdough on the side and a nice big wad of butter, in a ramekin, not a wrapper.

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We also had a special salad plate (£10.95), aka a mosaic of shrubbery. There was a herby courgette, broad bean, chickpea and lemon salad; caraway-seed-dusted red cabbage slaw, a bouncy lettuce salad with seeds, as well as new potato salad with horseradish and chive.

That’s as well as three large crunchy croutons of sourdough, which had been slid between a couple of the salads like envelopes in a letter rack. We dipped these into the side dish - a smooth white bean dip with dill. Since our visit, we’ve recreated this at home and it’s going to be a lunchtime staple.

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For pudding, I was worried that the strawberry, fennel and basil cake (£3.50) on the menu might not be available, since it didn’t appear on the counter inside. I asked for it anyway, and - hooray - it was in the fridge, since the cafe was so hot that it might have melted into a puddle otherwise.

That’s okay, I could’ve happily chugged this lovely cake, with its layers of sponge, jam and thick butter icing, like a milkshake.

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Though, maybe not as well as my iced latte (£3.20), which was made with coffee from nearby roastery, Sacred Grounds. We also tried a stiff macchiato (£2.80) and a triangle of strawberry and orange Bakewell (£3.50) - super sweet, but lifted by a summery zesty tang, and with a suitably snappy crust.

At this point, they were trying to get the bearded dragon back into his pet carrier, and he was really fighting back.

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It’s probably the most animated I’ve seen a reptile.

I know how you feel, Nugget. I really didn’t want to leave either.

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The Verdict

How much? Lunch for two, excluding drinks, £34.15

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Food 8/10

Ambience 9/10

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17/20

Garden Cafe

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Hospitalfield House

Arbroath

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(01241 656124, www.hospitalfield.org.uk)

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