OF ALL the towns in Scotland crying out for decent local restaurants, few are doing so more loudly than Bridge of Allan.
28 Henderson Street, Bridge of Allan, Stirling (01786 831616, www.jamjarcafe.co.uk)
Main courses £8.50-£14.50
This affluent little town on the outskirts of the culinary desert that goes by the name of Stirling is stuffed with well-heeled commuters and professors from the university, but the eating out options are limited.
Nearby Cromlix, recently bought by Andy Murray and with a kitchen run under the aegis of Albert Roux, provides a good top-end option, as does Nick Nairn’s Kailyard at the Dunblane Hydro, but easy eating options in the town itself are limited to Italians like La Cucina, Vecchia Bologna or Paparazzi, with hotels like Adamo and The Royal offering the only other alternative.
All of which was why Clive Ramsay did so well for so long. An upmarket deli and cafe during the day, by night it turned into an easy-eating bistro, with tables out on the high street if it was a sunny day or warm evening. It was a formula that worked like a dream, with the high quality of the produce in the deli informing attitudes to the restaurant while the easy atmosphere and sensible prices of the food ensured the place was always busy in the evening.
Sadly, personal circumstances meant Ramsay moved on, but the formula was so palpably successful that there was no danger of the town centre site going begging. Sure enough, earlier this year a new, revamped and re-energised bistro-style restaurant called Jam Jar appeared, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Ramsay’s deli. This time, however, there was no deli, with the space that had been given over to selling lunchtime sandwiches and stuffed olives now given over to more tables as part of a general upgrade of the place.
It’s been a good summer too, with the long, hot days ensuring the outside area in particular has been packed every day. If such an extended period of al fresco eating has been an unexpected bonus, its longevity will be dictated by how it fares through the winter and the auguries are good: it is cosy, has a futuristic wood burning stove by the front door, and was still half-full midweek in early October on an evening when the heavens had opened and a deluge ensued.
Much of the appeal of a restaurant consists of intangibles, especially when it comes to first impressions. These were all positive at Jam Jar, with the spacious, open-plan design, comfortable and unpretentious decor and cheery staff combining to put us at our ease. The menu was varied enough to pique our interest too, with a decent mix of options ranging from some unusual pizzas and bog-standard burgers through to some more challenging sounding mains. All things to all men, in fact.
I weighed in with a starter of butternut squash, Katy Roger’s crowdie and pine nut crostini, which is exactly the sort of rustic dish that was called for on such a dreich evening. It turned out to be pretty simple and effective: large chunks of butternut squash and crowdie cheese on toasted bread making for a warming starter, even if the squash could have done with being cooked for a while longer.
If my starter basically did what it said on the tin, by contrast Michael struggled to drum up much enthusiasm for his starter of king prawn, avocado and rice noodle salad with coconut dressing. The description may have sounded great but the reality was disappointingly bland, although it was nothing a punchy sauce could not have saved.
If Michael wasn’t able to generate much enthusiasm about a starter that promised much but delivered little, completely the opposite was true of his main course of pan-roasted cod, black olive tapenade, crushed new potatoes and basil oil. This time the execution meant a relatively simple dish went down a storm, with the fish proving to be perfectly cooked and the tapenade making a lovely counterpoint, while the crushed potatoes were also spot-on.
My shoulder of lamb bonbons was less of a triumph. In fact, if truth be known, I struggled to finish all four golf ball-sized orbs of dry lamb, thanks in part to the fact that they were served on a bed of cabbage but with far too small a serving of sauce. A lack of sauce with such dishes is one of my pet hates, especially as the lamb was crying out for more to slake the arid nature of the whole dish.
Michael rounded off with a very fine but surprisingly un-tart lemon posset, which came with a wonderfully sweet berry coulis, while I went for the house sundae. As it turned up in a huge Kilner-style jam jar, I perked up no end. This, I thought, looked promising. Sadly, however, it proved to be a little bland, covered in whipped cream and with spongy marshmallows that refused to go quietly.
The bottom third – which consisted of Maltesers, vanilla ice-cream and a disappointingly sparse seam of chocolate sauce – was better, but as their signature pudding this is still a dish that needs some serious rethinking.
The same isn’t true of the menu in general, although some tweaks are definitely the order of the day. That said, this is decent bistro fodder, with a menu that has clearly had a lot of thought put into it but which was occasionally let down by the execution. Although there are lots of options for under a tenner, the place is not particularly cheap, but it does have a nice ambience, friendly service and, judging by the fact that most people started leaving shortly after we arrived at 8.30pm, a local following that uses it for dinner on the run. Ramsay’s legacy looks as if it’s in good hands.