SOMETIMES you get a great feeling about a place as soon as you walk in the door, and that’s exactly what happened when we climbed a narrow set of stairs off Glasgow’s Byres Road and emerged into the sumptuous surroundings of La Vallée Blanche.
La Vallée Blanche
360 Byres Road, Glasgow (0141-334 3333, www.lavalleeblanche.com)
Starters: £5.95-£8.95; Main courses: £12.50-£21.95; Puddings: £5.50-£6.50 Cheese £8.95
Clothes do not always maketh the man, but few restaurant interiors in Scotland could be more welcoming and calming.
It could always be, of course, that the establishment simply panders to my love of the mountains. The restaurant is named after a famous off-piste run near the French ski resort of Chamonix, and the Glaswegian version gives a nod in the direction of Alpine chic, with rustic hand-made wooden planks lining the walls and antler light fittings. Although it confusingly exudes exactly the sort of log cabin ambience you would find in a top American ski resort, it is also undeniably Alpine.
It’s also undeniably based in the middle of Glasgow, and for all the sophistication of La Vallée Blanche there was a liveliness and noisiness to the place that you get only when people are letting their hair down and enjoying their evening out. There was certainly far more raucous chat than you would ever get in a similarly upscale restaurant in France.
But then, although the place styles itself as a French restaurant, with menu headings of ‘hors d’oeuvres’ and ‘plats principaux’, there is nothing particularly French about La Vallée Blanche. There weren’t even many Gallic staples on the menu, with the exception of seared foie gras and cassoulet, and most of the rest of the dishes would have looked at home on the menu of any high-end contemporary Scottish restaurant.
Still, that didn’t stop the menu looking pretty inviting, and buoyed by the knowledge that head chef Neil Clark, late of Etain, would be controlling events in the kitchen, it was with a sense of growing anticipation that Bea ordered the Jerusalem artichoke velouté while I went for the warm smoked haddock salad.
The results, it has to be said, were mixed. The velouté came with the ubiquitous dash of truffle oil and with crisp quails eggs, but its texture was more than a bit ragged. The word velouté actually comes from the French for velvet, but this was more like mohair – and lacked the sheer intensity and richness that you would expect from a fullsome velouté made with good stock. This just tasted like a soup; a perfectly decent soup, but soup nonetheless.
As for my salad, the excellent onion bhaji was presumably supposed to mesh with the light curry cream, but there was precious little sign of the latter. Yet the soft-boiled egg and salad combined well with the huge, spectacularly firm and meaty chunks of smoked haddock to produce a starter that was light and interesting, even if it was about as un-French as you could find.
Both main courses were a step up, with my pan-fried sea bream marginally the better of the two. It was a dish that was as simple as it was effective: a perfectly cooked fillet of sea bass sitting atop a salad of razor clams, Japanese mushrooms and pak choi. Bea’s classic Milanese dish of veal ossobuco wasn’t too shabby either. It was a hefty slab of tender meat with a deep, rich sauce of foie gras and port, all accompanied with pommes purée and (apparently) truffle, although we could find no trace of the latter.
The highlight of my meal was still the hot apple soufflé, which came with a large dollop of gorgeously creamy cumin caramel ice-cream. This dish has been on the menu since La Vallée Blanche opened, six years ago, and is so popular with regulars that our waiter reckoned it will probably never be removed. It was easy to see why: unfeasibly light and infused with a sharp Granny Smith-style apple, this was top quality. And blimey, it was actually a French dish as well.
Bea’s pudding, though, was a return to curate’s egg form, with the commendably strident tastes of an almond pannacotta that also included honey, candied walnut and apple sauce, being undermined by a texture that was as rough as a cat’s tongue.
If there was one big downside to La Vallée Blanche, it was the quite staggeringly charm-free and almost glacially slow service. Perhaps they’re trying to be authentically French, but whether it was making the booking or dealing with the waiters (with the exception of the only black-shirted waiter) during our meal, it was a uniquely unpleasant experience. Still, at least I now know that if I want to be assaulted by passive-aggressive sullenness, then asking my teenage kids to tidy up their rooms is no longer the only show in town.
Apart from that, there was much to like about the place. The interior was memorably plush, the wine list as excellent as it was overpriced, and the ambience happily relaxed. It may not be French, but it’s not all bad either.