The beautiful midweek night we visited the Adamson, in St Andrews, the place was stowed out and there was a steady stream of would-be diners being turned away. I’d booked well ahead and been told the only table was at 9.15pm. Sure enough, when we arrived, the town’s newest, shiniest contemporary restaurant was roaring along merrily.
Despite the town’s reputation for well-heeled students, there didn’t seem to be any eating at the Adamson, although there were plenty of good-looking petite ones working there (apparently no males or aesthetically unblessed females applied). Apart from that, though, there were all manner of folk in attendance, from perma-tanned Italian golfers in immaculate pastel shades, to American tourists and plenty of locals.
By the time we arrived, half an hour early – in the hope of a prematurely evacuated table (some hope) – we had already built up quite an appetite. Bea was at school in the Auld Grey Toon and every time we revisit it requires a lengthy ramble around the place, finishing up with a peek in through the windows of the old house on South Street where the rules of golf were apparently drawn up.
This trip was given extra interest by the fact that we had both recently read some of Shirley Mackay’s excellent murder mysteries, which are set in medieval St Andrews. The author used contemporary town plans, and it’s absolutely incredible how little the place seems to have changed in the past 500 years, to the point where virtually every wynd, path, close and church remains intact.
If St Andrews has got a reverence for history, so too do the founders of the Adamson, which is named after one of the town’s most illustrious non-golfing citizens. Dr John Adamson was a physician and pioneering photographer who invented the first calotype portrait in 1841. He lived on the site until it became a post office in 1865, before morphing into the eponymous restaurant last year.
Plonked on bar stools at a table by the front door, we were very happy to wait – although to describe the service as sluggish would be slandering slugs, and I eventually had to make my own way to the bar. Nor did we really appreciate the freezing draft every time the door opened (approximately every 30 seconds). God knows what it would have been like on a standard-issue St Andrews day.
Dr Adamson would probably have approved: from his portrait, the old boy looks like the severest sort of physician and a man who would undoubtedly have eschewed the sort of strong liquor that did for his most famous patient, prodigal golfer Young Tom Morris, who died aged just 24. Adamson would no doubt have applauded what tasted like an almost total absence of any rum in our White Russian cocktails.
We didn’t have too long to wait, though. The Adamson is clearly a well-oiled machine and we were seated right on cue, although we weren’t exactly overjoyed to find ourselves next to the entrance to the kitchen and toilets, with Bea’s chair jutting right out into the corridor. Still, someone’s got to sit there, and it did allow me to watch proceedings in the kitchen – where I could see head chef Scott Davies going about his well-ordered business through the large serving hatch just feet from our table.
Things started well enough, with the arrival of a menu that meshed old brasserie classics with contemporary favourites. There was soon, however, a taste of things to come when the water we had ordered failed to turn up and the waiter then tried the old trick of recommending a wine that wasn’t on the menu before offering to bring the nearest thing they had, which just happened to cost £10 a glass (and was sent back).
Still, both our starters were excellent. Bea’s seared hand-dived scallops with celeriac, crispy pork and pink grapefruit worked on every level: well-conceived and well-executed, this was a novel and successful take on an ingredient that is now ubiquitous.
My white crab and courgette risotto with lime crème fraîche and pea shoots was equally impressive; indeed, it was virtually flawless.
From there on, however, the meal took a marked turn for the worse. My main course of slow-braised blade of beef bourgignon and mash was very dry and accompanied by a cloyingly rich and sweet reduction.
The real horror came as Bea tucked into Atlantic sole with brown shrimp and buerre noisette. She had no complaints until halfway through, when she crunched on a small stone. We couldn’t believe that an aquarium-style stone had found its way into a dish (although Bea was just relieved not to have cracked a tooth), and to his credit co-founder Graham Dawson, who was working front of house, agreed that he had never seen anything like it. He also immediately insisted that we wouldn’t be charged for the dish.
From there, we wrapped proceedings up quickly, but not before we endured some more bafflement. Bea reckoned her crème brûlée was the best she’s had for ages, but my vanilla and lime cheesecake with rhubarb, ginger beer jelly and crumble simply didn’t work. Disassembled, the constituent parts were spread before me, with a marshmallow as the centrepiece. I’ve seen this done well, but on the whole it’s a silly affectation: it felt like buying a car but arriving to pick up a heap of spare parts.
The final nail in the coffin came when Bea went off to use the loo before our drive back to Edinburgh and found it blocked, presumably yet another symptom of an operation running at the full extent of its capacity.
That said, from the hubbub around us and the obvious happiness of fellow diners with their evening, ours appeared to be an isolated example of a sub-par night out at the Adamson. But my, what a shocker.
127 South Street, St Andrews, Fife (01334 479191, www.theadamson.com)
Main courses £9.95-£39
Cheese £7) Rating