The last time I was at the Macdonald Marine Hotel in North Berwick, shortly before the menu changed to a modern and more contemporary offering, head chef John Paul served up a sumptuous feast of classic haute cuisine, with heavy, French-influenced dishes that displayed a heart-warming mix of self-confidence and easy competence.
It wasn't my imagination either: in the interim, several friends have sung his praises and he has been crowned 2012 Hotel Chef of the Year. Surely, I thought as we arrived, we were on to a winner. The Marine has great views on to North Berwick's West Links, framed by the Firth of Forth and with the Bass Rock standing proud. I'd even applied a rare dash of forethought and booked a table by the window so we would be able to luxuriate in the splendid vista.
Things started to go wrong as soon as we arrived, though. There was no sign of my reservation, and all the tables by the windows were already taken. When I pointed this out, the crabbit Pole who had greeted (if that's the right word) us struggled valiantly to make herself understood, although when she finally did we wished she hadn't bothered – as the crux of her chat seemed to be that if we didn't like it we could jolly well lump it. One minute through the door and my brow was already more furrowed than a field after tattie-howking.
We quickly settled for a table with a good view of the view and got down to perusing the menu. I also took a good look around the dining room, which has been painted in a warming dark red and is hung with the sort of classic portraits of scary ancestors you'll find in most National Trust for Scotland buildings. I've stayed at the Marine before and it's a great family hotel, but it's here, at the fine dining end of the equation, that the Macdonald chain has been making huge efforts to up its ante.
Vicky opted for the monkfish cheeks with creamed leeks and Parma ham crisp, while I needed little persuasion to follow our waiter's recommendation and choose the crispy Stornoway black pudding with a poached egg and chive hollandaise gratin.
My black pudding was interesting, with the small disk of ‘crispy’ pudding turning out to be deep-fried, while the hollandaise was indeed packed with chives and, by the taste of it, a tinge of cheese with an almost sweet edge. It was small, but if not perfectly formed then at least up my street.
The same was not true of Vicky's monkfish cheeks, which were also mis-labelled. Instead of the simply prepared pieces of fish she was expecting, they arrived breaded and deep-fried. They looked and tasted, she said, “like posh fish fingers, only chewier”. She was not impressed, especially at £8.50.
If our starters confounded both our expectations, our main courses saw John Paul back on track. My slowly braised beef cheek was so succulent it fell apart at the merest contact with my fork, while the creamed potatoes were fine and the accompanying pitch-black rosemary jus was of exactly the required depth and richness for such a fine slab of meat.
Vicky was also much impressed with her casserole of rock turbot, white beans and chorizo. While I'd have preferred slightly stronger chorizo, Vicky gave the dish a nine out of ten.
I finished with an excellently oozing hot chocolate fondant, which came with half a dozen alcohol-packed griottine cherries and a palate-cleansing milk sorbet, which rounded my meal off nicely. Vicky spurned some interesting-looking pudding options and asked for ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce, and was rewarded with a mini-mountain of the stuff.
With a bunch of French kids running around and golfers still playing outside in the twilight, there is a nicely laid-back atmosphere to John Paul at the Marine, but there are also undoubtedly issues that need addressing. The table service, for instance, was achingly eager and hands-on, but what is the point of interrupting diners two or three times during each course to ask if they are enjoying their dish if your empty water glass is never topped up and the waiter forgets to bring the wine you have ordered? This is especially brainless behaviour when that wine is fearsomely expensive – although bottles are reasonably priced, the 250ml glass of house sauvignon blanc recommended to us weighed in at a whacking £12.
I've experienced at first hand that John Paul can produce food of top quality, but fine dining is about getting it right every night and paying attention to the details. Sadly, the end of night report was of the ‘good, but could do better’ variety.
John Paul at the Marine
Macdonald Marine Hotel, Cromwell Road, North Berwick (0844 879 9130, www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk)
Starters £5.50-£9 Main courses £10.50-£29.50 Puddings £7 Cheeseboard £9 Rating