With celebrations now a distant memory and the tree decorations packed away in the shed, I’ve kept two strings of rose-shaped lights inside the house, their weak amber glow offering a touch of festive solace to these days of darkness and squall.
I hate January. I mean, what’s there to like? The shops are full of root veg, if indeed they’re full of anything at all, and I’ve run out of ways to make the
River Cafe’s delicious smashed celeriac and potatoes (River Cafe Cookbook Green) adapt to a healthier eating regime for the new year.
Since going to a restaurant now requires a risk assessment, I’ve been using cookery books more and eating out less. Thus, books which are written almost like diaries have provided something of a vicarious thrill for those nights when going out feels like playing Russian Roulette with your future, something I’m generally not prepared to do for a few hours in a restaurant.
January is generally a weird month anyway, given most of us are trying to lose the pounds we put on over Christmas, on top of any weight we’ve already gained over the course of the pandemic.
Normally that would mean a desire for lighter food, even if we’re not really using the word “diet” so much. But eating most salads in these cold, long January days doesn’t really hit the spot in the way that an unctuous, rich oxtail stew would, or a plate of spaghetti carbonara.
This is when I long for the complex flavours of Thailand, Burma or Vietnam with their aromatic, sinus-clearing dishes that nourish and delight the senses with steamy fugs of spice and herbs.
At times like this, I want much more choice of such restaurants on Tayside, especially in Dundee, where only Rama Thai really passes muster.
Noto – Edinburgh
Despite the worry about going out to eat, I have been to a few places which are worth recommending, even if the first is an hour away in Edinburgh.
It’s worth the trip though because here is a restaurant which offers complex flavours and interesting juxtapositions in a variety of small plate dishes that are light and perfectly balanced.
Noto occupies an unassuming frontage on the capital’s lovely cobbled Thistle Street.
Don’t let this understatement fool you though, because this restaurant is producing astonishingly good food at very competitive prices. As such it’s a major find right in the middle of Edinburgh.
From a menu where we could have eaten everything, my sister and I chose to share the following: steamed duck bun (£10, wonderful), beef tartare, fried potato, egg yolk (£14, sensational), cured trout, radish, wasabi, apple ponzu (£13, fantastic) and the best riff on sesame prawn toast, served here with katsuobushi (bonito flakes) – the best £10 you could ever spend, legally or illegally.
A dish of wild halibut, brown butter cauliflower and miso (£26) tasted great but we thought was slightly less interesting than the smaller dishes we shared – and a little overpriced given the great value on the rest of this menu.
Our shared dessert of chocolate, miso, hazelnut (£8) was a rich, earthy treat and a lovely way to finish this meal of
Noto is the business – wonderful food, great service and a very attractive, minimally-designed space that complements the ethos of this food perfectly.
If I say everything is pared down here, I mean it as the highest compliment, because this is a time when I’m so done with elaborate tasting menus and extraneous fripperies – for me a simple room with great food and service is all I want right now.
Drovers Inn – Angus
Closer to home and more traditional than Noto is the excellent Drovers Inn at Memus, which I included in my recent round-up of “the best of 2021” based on previous visits before lockdown.
I’m pleased to say that the Drovers remains as great as I remembered it – in fact, the food this time was probably the best I’ve had there over my four visits.
My sister and I had lunch here on December 28, a day when you might expect a limited menu.
Happily, this wasn’t the case.
There are two sections of the Drovers, and initially I’d have preferred to eat in the bar area, which is more atmospheric than the more formal restaurant. But the bar was full and we suddenly realised that we preferred the more spacious dining room anyway.
Yes, pandemic paranoia was a factor here – not that the bar is in any way riskier than anywhere else, it’s just that right now I prefer a more expansive space to eat in.
But how I wish the Drovers would revamp their restaurant area!
I mean, it’s perfectly pleasant but it’s just so bland – the taupe paintwork, the horrible
1980s’ style chairs, the naff prints on the walls… it’s all so generic and dated and tame.
It really wouldn’t cost much to update this room and I do think it would be worthwhile because the food and service here are really wonderful and the location is very attractive.
It’s a big menu, which is all the more surprising because it felt like everything was actually cooked here (not always a given when a large menu is on offer).
Commendably, there is also a vegan menu which is not just unusual for a country pub in Angus but for the whole of this area. Kudos to the Drovers for this!
Our starters were delicious, as was the bread that preceded them.
Elaine chose seared scallops, crispy pork cheek, celeriac truffle puree, pickled apple and herb oil (£9.95) and pronounced it excellent – the very generous five scallops were beautifully cooked and presented with finesse.
The classic flavour combo of scallop and pork was enhanced by everything else on the plate, so much so that my chef sister declared it was a totally harmonious plate of food – and Elaine can sniff out an alien ingredient as quickly as a dog can sniff a bone.
My starter of pan-seared wood pigeon, pearl barley, cep puree, game crisps
and jus (£7.50) was winter on a plate and so, so delicious.
The cooking of the wood pigeon was spot-on. Top stuff!
Our main courses were just as good.
Elaine’s pan-fried calf’s liver with caramelised onions, bacon, creamed potato, buttery kale and red wine gravy (£15.50) was as earthily robust a dish as you could wish for on a crisp December day.
My venison was, I felt, the star of the whole meal.
This roasted loin was perfectly cooked and was served with a hazelnut and herb crust, braised leg boulanger (sic), a carrot and star anise puree and juniper jus (£18.95).
It was heavenly.
If you go to the Drovers, I must also recommend you throw any notion of cool, diet, denial or culinary elitism to the wind, and do as we did and order a side dish of their fantastic onion rings (£3.50).
Elaine had seen these delights waft by us earlier on their way to another table and we knew we just had to indulge.
I have to say, although they might have brought a trash element to our table,
the risk of shame was so worth it – these clouds of joy formed from the most basic of ingredients provided as much pleasure as the earthiest truffle or the finest caviar.
Dessert of winter berry cheesecake, blackberry sorbet, berry coulis and lemon balm (£7.25) was nice but probably the least inspiring dish of everything we had. Excellent sorbet though.
Service throughout was just great – friendly, knowledgeable and professional. Our charming waitress apologised for any delays in getting the food to us but really there was no need – it all worked and it worked brilliantly.
While chatting to the waitress she mentioned that they had experienced a sudden rush of bookings on the day we ate there, which would account for the bar and the restaurant already being full.
She also mentioned that they had suffered from 200 cancellations over the Christmas period.
My sister, who once owned her own renowned restaurant in Dalston in East London, said that her heart sank when she heard this news, not that it was anything we didn’t realise was happening.
We’d already seen a table near us be quickly rearranged from a space seating five to two because three of the party couldn’t make it.
What a time for our hospitality industry! While I am acutely aware of why we might not be able to eat out as much as we’d like to right now (I’m paranoid about getting Covid myself) I think it’s important that we all do what we can to support this beleaguered industry.
For me that means at least making sure I give as much notice as possible of any cancellations or changes to a reservation and also that I turn up on time for a booking and remain aware that the booking is often for a finite period of time.
Making a booking and just not showing up is not only highly disrespectful to a restaurant, it’s also endangering their livelihood, and right now we all have a duty to behave with as much responsibility as possible.
We left the Drovers feeling well fed but also hopeful that places like this can ride out the pandemic and keep doing what they do.
It’s highly admirable to me that a place in a tiny village in the Angus countryside provides food of this quality and service this good.
That they manage to do so while facing issues which must sometimes seem relentlessly overwhelming means we must support them all the more.
I can’t wait to go back to the Drovers and like it so much I’d even bring my own Farrow and Ball paint chart for the restaurant revamp!
Address: Drovers Inn, Memus, Angus
T: 01307 860322
Price: Starters from £5.50; Mains from £13.95; Desserts from £6.95
- Food: 5/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5 (with a lick of paint)