FORGET mistaking members of the polis for schoolboys, you know you’ve become properly ancient when even head chefs look like their faces have never seen a razor.
22-26 Exchange St, Dundee DD1 3DL (01382 220 008, www.castlehillrestaurant.co.uk)
Two courses £28, Three courses £34, Coffee and petit fours £4.20
The number of young ’uns in the nation’s kitchens is reaching epidemic proportions now that food has become show business and our youngsters have developed a prodigious appetite for a career spent slaving over a hot stove.
There is no better example of this new wave than 23-year-old Adam Newth, the nipper from Arbroath who may just be the biggest thing to hit Dundee since Desperate Dan. At the helm at the new Castlehill restaurant after leaving the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant at The Balmoral in Edinburgh, he is turning out contemporary fine dining the like of which Dundee hadn’t seen until Malmaison beat Castlehill’s owner and front of house, Paul McMillan, to the punch.
Starved of decent restaurants, Dundee has reacted to the arrival of first Malmaison and then Castlehill with enthusiasm. Try getting a weekend booking at Castlehill over the next three months and you’ll see what I mean.
We managed to squeeze in during midweek and found the place heaving. Judging by the noise, everyone was enjoying their evening hugely: this may be fine dining, but nobody seemed inclined to be buttoned-up. But then the whole environment is comfortable and given to informality, with low ceilings, wooden floors and sturdy leather chairs, ropes along the wall to remind us of Dundee’s maritime heritage, huge quotes from luminaries such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh MacDiarmid adorning the walls and doors with Lions Rampant upon them. If that sounds kitsch, it’s not; this place simply exudes a sense of pride in Dundee, even down to the name, which was chosen because of the restaurant’s proximity to a historic hill that basically no longer exists.
If the décor and name contain references to Scotland’s past, the menu is all about the country’s present. The dishes are all “on trend”: traditional main ingredients locally sourced and often cooked sous vide, with inventive accompaniments allowing the chef’s virtuosity to shine through.
Apart from the difficulty of getting a table, the first sign that Newth has got it right came with a lovely little amuse bouche of smoked salmon atop a smoked salmon mousse and served with shards of beetroot and a wild garlic purée. If that hit the spot, so too did our starters, Bea choosing the wood pigeon with barley, feta cheese and smoked bacon, while I went for the monkfish cheek with celeriac, pomegranate and a hazelnut dressing.
We wondered about the eccentric combinations, but they worked beautifully, with Newth’s skill laid bare: my monkfish cheek and pomegranate combination succeeded partly because the monkfish had been pan-fried, so that its crunchy outer skin was complemented by the sweetness of the fruit. Bea’s ingredients just meshed well, the accompaniments playing second fiddle to two dense, chunky pigeon breasts that exuded a gloriously rich gaminess.
Our main courses were preceded by a small dish of intensely flavoured neep velouté with a haggis crumb that had the consistency of granola, a nice touch that simply underlined Newth’s ambitious approach to his first stint as head chef. Our main courses were even better, however. Bea’s slow-cooked spring lamb was probably the best dish of the meal, with the lamb so succulent that it fell apart at the merest touch of a fork, with the meat enlivened by the accompanying wild garlic, peas and gem lettuce. Her verdict was a simple one: absolutely perfect.
My duck breast with Earl Grey jus and pommes anna was tender and ever-so-slightly pink, and although I struggled to detect any of the citric notes you’d normally associate with Earl Grey, the meat was perfectly cooked. The absence of any citrus flavour was also true of the small appetiser between our main courses and puddings, a shot glass of Earl Grey panna cotta topped with crumbled shortbread, even if it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this interesting little diversion.
There were, however, no caveats when it came to our puddings. Every restaurant has some version of a chocolate creation, so to stand out is difficult, but that’s exactly what Bea’s chocolate pavé did. A concentrated slab of dark, conspicuously bitter 57% badness, it was elevated further by the addition of a surprising triumvirate of candied nuts, popcorn and beautifully judged pistachio ice cream, a mix that provided further proof of Newth’s sure touch.
It was, however, as nothing compared with his virtuoso act: my rhubarb vacherin, which is presumably his signature dessert. Vacherin is better known as the principal ingredient in Savoyarde mountain classics like tartiflettes and fondues, but Newth used it as the basis for a delicately flavoured sweet cheese mousse, on to which he placed three discs of lemon meringue, while the plate was dotted with sweet, tender strips of rhubarb. The gentle mix of sweet, savoury and subtle citrus made for an unusually palate-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable finale to an excellent meal.
Sometimes, a new entry into a town that hasn’t been overburdened with options gets an easy ride, and I did wonder whether that would be the case with Castlehill. Such concerns were well wide of the mark. Even at such a tender age, Newth is more than just a safe pair of hands and while many expect even greater things in the future, the present is pretty damned good too.
• Castlehill, 22-26 Exchange St, Dundee DD1 3DL (01382 220 008, www.castlehillrestaurant.co.uk)