DUNDEE, the once prosperous city, which one of its most famous sons, actor Brian Cox, claimed had been mangled by disastrous post-war and Sixties development, is on a voyage of rediscovery and reinvention.
Malmaison, 44 Whitehall Crescent, Dundee, DD1 4AY
Starters £5-£9.50; Main courses £12-£37.50; Puddings £6; Cheeseboard £6
Just as its youth culture was reinvigorated by a vibrant computer games sector that has made it one of the most popular places in Scotland to be a student, so its more grown-up economy is being buoyed by a waterside renaissance that is based around the impending arrival of the V&A next year within spitting distance of the Tay Bridge. It’s amazing how civic and economic self-confidence becomes a self-fulfilling success story.
In culinary terms, the seeds of a new dining-out scene are beginning to emerge. The café at the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre has long been a stand-out in the city, with Collinsons in Broughty Ferry its suburban rival, but they have now been joined by Scottish Seafood Chef of the Year/Young Chef of the Year Adam Newth, whose new Castlehill restaurant in the city centre is fast making a name for itself. At the more affordable end of the spectrum, more hip venues such as Duke’s Corner, a couthy but contemporary gastropub where the cooking is done in plain sight on a charcoal grill, are providing new options that are more than spit and sawdust.
But in line with Aberdeen, another place whose city centre eating-out options have been the subject of discontent among foodies for many years, one of the main signs that a sea change in local dining is under way has been the relatively recent arrival of a Malmaison hotel at the epicentre of the fast-changing city. That is certainly the case when it comes to Dundee, because the enormous Malmaison hotel, with its trademark neon sign, is right at the heart of the ongoing building works which are reconstructing the city centre in front of our eyes.
As with all Malmaison hotels, the place is as stylish as when Ken McCulloch opened his first revolutionary Malmaison hotel back in 1994. Contemporary and quirky, the place is as impressive as it is welcoming. Nowhere is this more true than in the restaurant, a long room built along the hotel’s frontage so that as many tables as possible have a view out over the Tay. Broken up by the sort of living flame feature fireplace you see in high-end ski chalets, it’s a comfortable yet functional room that was surprisingly full for a Tuesday evening.
The menu was classic bistro fare of the sort you find in most Malmaisons and their sister establishments in the Hotel du Vin chain. The wines were clearly broken down into six price points, starting at £17.50 for the house plonk (their words) and then going up in increments with options at £20 and £25 and yet more at £35, £45 and the top price of £55, with all but the top two price brackets available by the glass.
The food had a similarly functional feel, with a mix of classic easy-dining favourites supplemented by the odd foray upmarket. I started off with one of these, the tuna tartare, and was rewarded with a mound of beautifully fresh and light flesh which was enlivened by the addition of pickled ginger and wasabi. Absolutely marvellous.
Bea was similarly impressed with her mouth-wateringly succulent prime steak carpaccio, another starter which cost almost a tenner but was probably, on balance, just about worth it. Ditto Ingela with an unusual apple, pear and goat’s cheese salad, which reminded her of summer holidays and which she described as “light, zesty, really good”. Christian, who opted for the moules marinière, was the only dissenter: his underwhelmingly sized bowl of mussels came with a sauce that was disappointingly bland.
Our main courses were equally solid. My steak stroganoff, one of the restaurant’s two most popular dishes, came with slightly stodgy pilaf rice but was an otherwise decent, yet unexceptional, rendering of this classic. Christian’s Goan tiger prawn curry, the other house favourite for regulars, was a better-than-average example of the genus which was stuffed full of prawns and baby aubergine, and which avoided the usual error of over-seasoning. Christian, a top-end food producer in his daily life and not a man given to hyperbole, was dutifully impressed.
Arguably the best, however, were the two girls’ dishes. Bea’s sesame-crusted slab of seared ahi tuna came with a bok choi and miso dressing but was completely dependent upon the freshness of the fish: as with my starter, this was faultless, and so too was the end product. Ingela’s large fillet of pan-fried sea bass went down even better, its soft white flesh so tender that it yielded at the slightest touch of a fork, while the accompaniment of chunks of chorizo, black olives, new potatoes and a mussel vinaigrette added depth and flavour to the more subtle qualities of the main attraction.
Our puddings were, however, of a more variable quality. Bea’s pineapple carpaccio did exactly what it purported to, and was served with a nice coconut sorbet and a gently-infused chilli and citrus dressing to counteract the sweetness of the pineapple. Christian’s sticky toffee pudding was of the bog-standard variety, while Ingela’s competently executed Valrhona chocolate soufflé came with a gorgeously molten middle and a side helping of vanilla ice cream. My Mal hot chocolate – a complete punt on my part – turned out to be a dense mixture of cream and vanilla ice cream over which I was invited to pour molten chocolate. It was fine, but nothing more.
The same wasn’t true of this meal, which somehow turned out to be more than the sum of its parts. There were some thumbs-down moments – especially the automatic addition of a service charge, a whopping £4 addition for bread, which we didn’t order, and a bill which came to well over £200 for a low-key midweek meal with relatively inexpensive wine – but the service was excellent, the surroundings extremely convivial, the ambience relaxed, and generally speaking there was a consensus that Malmaison delivers the sort of really decent brasserie-standard food that Dundee has been crying out for. The best news of all, is that there appears to be more of the same coming down the track.
• Malmaison, 44 Whitehall Crescent, Dundee, DD1 4AY; 0844 693 0661, www.malmaison.com/Dundee