Restaurant reviews Scotland: The most asked questions after 16 years of eating at places like Inver and Noto - Gaby Soutar

Come sit on your granny’s knee. I’ve a story to tell you about becoming The Scotsman’s restaurant reviewer, way back in the autumn of 2007. My predecessor had emigrated to San Francisco, with a new love interest. I was an editorial assistant, still opening the post and getting cups of tea, though I was already five years into the job. I know, I’m a natural minion.
Restaurant Chilling Out Classy Lifestyle Reserved Concept Pic: AdobeRestaurant Chilling Out Classy Lifestyle Reserved Concept Pic: Adobe
Restaurant Chilling Out Classy Lifestyle Reserved Concept Pic: Adobe

As a keen eater, I offered myself up to the editor, thinking I might fill the slot for a week or two.

To my surprise, there was very little competition. That was a shame, as I was fully prepared to enter a pie eating championship to win the prize.

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It might have been different if we’d purely been critiquing Michelin Starred places, but nobody was that bothered about testing pubs, cafes and other dubious dives on a committed basis. Back then, Scotland’s restaurant scene was entirely different. There would be an average of three rubbish restaurants to every excellent one. Now, that ratio has reversed. I can’t remember the last truly awful place I ate in.

Here I am, all these years later, celebrating my sweet sixteen, with something like 800 reviews and thousands of courses under my belt, literally. My bouche has been amused. If you placed every small plate I’d ever eaten, end to end, they’d now reach Equatorial Guinea and back. I’ve forgotten a few hundred of those individual venues, but I won’t when it comes to places like Inver, Noto, Heron, Gloriosa, Celentano’s, Eleanore, and Aran. Those memories are specially preserved, like pickles in a pantry.

I’ve eaten many incredible dinners, but have also survived flies in my soup, rude staff, an angry chef turning up at the office, mice scurrying in the background, hairs in the coleslaw and three severe bouts of food poisoning. (Ironically, they were contracted in the poshest of places. Let’s just say I’m still jumpy when offered venison tartare or scallop ceviche).

To commemorate my 16th anniversary, I’m answering a few of the most asked questions.

They do tend to come up a lot, like that dodgy venison tartare.

Do they know you’re coming?

No. I don’t tell them. Apart from the rare exception, when I’ve been invited to a launch dinner, and don’t have anything else in the bag on a Monday morning, the reviews are done incognito and The Scotsman pays my bill, like an old-fashioned sugar daddy. I don’t think I’m ever recognised, since I’m quite nondescript-looking, though a member of the waiting staff once sidled up to me and whispered, “I know what you’re here to do” which made me feel like an assassin who had been hired to take out their sous.

Also, a chef told me that they had pictures of reviewers in their kitchen, and the staff had drawn either devil horns or halos on them. I was part of that rogue’s gallery. I hope I had a halo, but I’m not entirely certain.

Your plus one must have the best job ever

That’s not really a question, but, yes, he does. All the meals, none of the work. He’s a pampered pooch and sometimes I wonder if it’s just cupboard love.

It’s my birthday next week, where can I go for dinner?

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I’m constantly asked to recommend restaurants and am happy to do so for a small fee. When this question comes up, I always go entirely blank, and can’t think of anywhere. As I get older, it requires grey-matter-straining effort to even remember the last place I reviewed. Thus, it’s irritating when people don’t bother committing to my propositions, or if they come back to me to complain that the music was too loud, the portions too small or there was no atmosphere. I do not provide guarantees, or refunds. Mind you, an acquaintance recently asked me to recommend a noodle place for her daughter’s 21st birthday. I suggested an Edinburgh restaurant, Mirin, so they went, and had an excellent time. My job here is done.

Is there anything you won’t eat?

Not really. I’m fine with offal, coriander and stinky cheese, and all the other delights that might give some people the ick or, as we say in Scotland, the boak. That’s just as well, as you can’t order the most boring thing when you do a review. You might be craving steak and chips, but you’re not allowed. I suppose that having an adventurous palate is the only truly essential qualification for being a reviewer, apart from being in the right place when the last person in the job absconds to the US. Mind you, there are some things that stick in my mind as particularly revolting. A chef once offered me a canape of ‘bacon snow’, which was a large clod of wet fat (not ‘nduja) that had been scraped off the grill pan. It was horrendous.

How often do you eat out?

This question always feels like a trick. The Scotsman Magazine is published on a Saturday. Thus, I am required to do a single review a week. Still, people like to ask. I suppose, if I’m having a jolly old busy time, it might be two or three times on a good week. That’s probably not far off average. Back in 2007, people only went out for special occasions. Now, the cost-of-living crisis aside, it’s normal. Everyone’s a food critic.

Is it panna cotta or pannacotta?

It’s two words, though I have to Google it every time. I’m hoping it’ll stick one day, perhaps in my 17th reviewing year.



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