There’s nothing I like more than a posh hotel at Christmas.
For me nothing beats that sense of grandeur, style and bounteousness that only truly comes with space, scale and someone else’s money.
This isn’t what I enjoy with my own domestic celebrations which rely on the usual stalwarts of family, food, friends and a box of Quality Street – pillars around which the whole precarious structure of Christmas is created.
The edifice around pinning your dreams on 24 hours of pleasure is one thing but artifice has its place too and I love grand hotels as a transformative experience, whisking us away from the dross of every day life into a land of fantasy.
If ever there was a time for that it’s now.
In the days when I had a waist, a Virgin Atlantic gold card and an expense account I would go to New York every Christmas.
Although these holidays took me away from my family I have to say they were absolutely the best way to spend Christmas.
New York at Christmas is just the most magical place on earth and words can’t describe the joy of waking up in Philippe Starck’s iconic Royalton Hotel and walking across Central Park to have lunch in Jean-Georges at 1 Central Park West.
Having Christmas Day lunch while watching the snow fall on Central Park is one of my happiest memories, so happy it even eclipsed the fact the restaurant is situated within the Trump International Hotel.
What horrors were being plotted on the floors above us as we lunched within Trumpington, little knowing the orange wig we saw in the corner was a horror to be endured not just for Christmas but for decades after?
There aren’t enough truly posh hotels on Tayside to supply the sense of wonder that offers escape from real life for the price of a cocktail at the bar. The closest to here would probably be Rusacks in St Andrews which manages to distil something of the feel of a Connaught into a much smaller space.
Better – although a longer trek – is the wonderful Fife Arms in Braemar, a staggering synthesis of art, artifice, substance, Scottishness and style, just a few hours drive from Dundee.
Gleneagles Birnam Brasserie
Closer to home is Gleneagles, that behemoth of a building bestriding the Auchterarder countryside like a rather ugly French chateau.
Surprisingly I realised I’d only been to Gleneagles twice before – once to use their spa and once to bid on a painting at a grand auction. I remember fleeing the hot tub when the braying of the mustard cord and loafer set became more overpowering than any spa journey involving borage and sea buckthorn oils on my aching limbs.
Until this week I had never eaten at Gleneagles, which was sold in 2014 to a company called Ennismore, who also owned the mega cool Hoxton hotel chain (Ennismore was itself sold to French hotel group Accor last year).
A substantial refurbishment started when the hotel was sold in 2015 and I was interested to see how the ethos of a company owning the supercool Hoxton had translated to this grande dame of Scottish hospitality.
Another very topical reason to visit Gleneagles is that chef Liam Rogers made it to the recent final of Masterchef The Professionals (he wuz robbed!) and we were hoping he might cook us lunch.
There’s a choice of various dining options at Gleneagles and we decided on the informal Birnam Brasserie for our lunch, a decision made easier by the fact the hotel’s prestige
Restaurant Andrew Fairlie only opens for dinner.
The chance to spot Liam in the kitchen was thus traded for the opportunity to try Gleneagles at an entry level, which doesn’t depend on the dress code suggested on their website.
Take note those lucky enough to visit the beautiful Strathearn restaurant (also only open in the evenings) – “in a room with more than a touch of theatrical magic, The Strathearn is a classical Franco–Scottish fine dining restaurant with a real sense of romance. During the evening this glamorous place deserves an outfit to match – we would suggest a collared shirt, sports jacket or blazer, or an evening dress or beautifully cut suit”. Get them!
While being hugely in favour of glamour my thoughts always return to the same question when confronted by a dress code as nonsensical as this – what would they have done with mega-rich Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, with his signature look of black polo neck, jeans and trainers?
Anyway, should I ever be lucky enough to dine in the absolute enchantment of the Strathearn room (it really is lovely) I must consult my friend Dylan Jones, ex-GQ editor, to evaluate the cut of my jib before setting off.
No such nonsense in the Birnam Brasserie which is located in an extension next to the hotel spa and opposite a rather non-beautifully designed café – getting there entails walking past floral displays and Christmas trees which are sadly more tacky than couture.
The Birnam is interesting for many reasons, not least that it’s probably the hotel’s most obvious attempt to appeal to an American clientele, culinarily speaking at least (The American Bar was closed when we visited).
It was quite empty when we arrived for lunch and we were shown to a corner table right next to a family of four.
I immediately noticed that an adjacent room looked to be much more interesting and also more festive, which, after all, was part of the reason we’d visited.
This other section – The Winter Garden – was smaller than the main brasserie we were in and featured a huge fireplace (unlit) and extensive greenery up the walls and across the ceiling, presumably inspired by the brilliant vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc.
If you’re like me and the couple close to us who asked to move tables (their first offering was a small table right next to the till-service area – in an empty restaurant!) you might want to ask why everyone isn’t given the option of a table in the winter garden.
My advice is not to bother because this is a space best seen rather than sat in – when you actually walk in it somehow feels like a suburban conservatory.
We’d looked online at the menu and been quite heartened – there was lots we’d like to eat here.
The website itself promises “you’ll find the best of French and Italian cuisine, from spaghetti vongole, venison rigatoni and risotto Milanese, to steak tartare, moules mariniére (sic) and salad Niçoise”.
None of these were on our lunch menu (to be fair, there was a moules à la Normande for £18). The more extensive menu featured online is available in the evenings only.
Prices on this concise menu were largely reasonable when you consider the location.
Delicious bread (which took an absolute age to arrive) was £2 and starters (here called light bites) range from £6 for soup through to £16 for a posh thyme-marinated chicken sandwich.
The problem with the “light bites” is they were all variations on the idea of a sandwich – apart from the soup, there wasn’t a single thing which didn’t come on bread of some form.
Salads seemed a better bet for a starter and were priced reasonably from £8 for the pea and broad bean salad with Greek feta, black olive, orange, fennel, toasted pumpkin seeds and shaved black truffle.
Given that broad beans and fresh peas aren’t in season we both opted for different salads and I’m afraid to say both were damp squibs – literally that, as they both arrived fridge cold and flaccid.
My dish of venere salad (£9 starter, £12 main) sounded good on the page – black rice, sugar snap peas, pear, baked radicchio, shaved radish, cashew, millet and cider vinaigrette – but the components were so cold and the dressing so scant it didn’t taste of much. The radicchio, which I love blisteringly hot from a grill, was rendered torpid
David’s starter of heritage tomato salad (£9) came with fregola, watermelon, raspberry, pine nuts and basil and was unpleasant. Chilled to within an inch of submission, the bizarre addition of raspberries and watermelon only added to the sense of us being in the wrong place at the wrong season.
Frozen raspberries were rendered even more out of place next to watermelon and basil, the whole dish being more of a plea for summer than a celebration of it.
You might wonder why we ordered a tomato salad, knowing it featured such incongruous ingredients? Well, the truth is there was very little here that appealed and, had we realised the online menu wasn’t available at lunchtime we wouldn’t have come.
David’s main course was another salad. Yes, I know! But there were very few vegetarian options on this menu and he just didn’t fancy a buckwheat risotto with green pea, baby spinach, apple and mint (£15).
His beetroot miso Caesar salad was only notable as a reminder that some dishes are classics for a reason and that some riffs should be confined to Johnny Marr and not the kitchen.
I chose the West Coast lobster risotto (£32) because I wanted to report back on some real cooking and also I wanted to see if it justified the hefty price tag.
It was a decent risotto but with a scant amount of lobster. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it although it was by nature a rich, one-note symphony which could have benefitted from a touch more herbs.
We passed on desserts which were mainly cake-based. Service was pleasant, a bit unbothered as is the way of 2021 but friendly enough. The room – standard ersatz deco-brasserie references – is nice.
This expedition taught me a lesson, of sorts, even knowing we’d chosen this restaurant as a more affordable option than some of the other dining
options at Gleneagles.
But, just as my mum used to laugh at those she deemed all fur coat and no knickers, the
Birnam felt to me like a waste of time – probably more suited to those staying in the hotel and somewhat jaded with the full razzamatazz of the two more formal restaurants.
I’d have preferred to dress up, wait for Restaurant Andrew Fairlie to open at night and splash more cash as a way to step into Christmas.
Now where’s my beautifully cut suit?
Address: The Birnam Brasserie, Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, PH1 1NF
T: 01764 694270
Price: Starters from £6, mains from £11, dessert from £3.50
- Food: 3/5
- Surrounding: 3/5
- Service: 3/5