Archive dining and drinking january 2010

January, 2010

Photo: innis and gunn oak aged beer. Cheers to the field leader

Nice to see, at the very start of the year, our column's sponsor being treated to most of a page in The Herald, in the course of a major feature in which Innis & Gunn main man Dougal Sharp - buoyed by astronomic sales success in key overseas markets - convincingly made the case that his products are leading the growth of what I'd call the deluxe premium beer market.

Thankfully normal service appears to have been restored at main local "off sales" outlet, Waitrose, following a festive buying spree that left the shelves temporarily Innis & Gunn-less at a critical juncture of the holiday period, but of course there are now a fair number of above-average bar-restaurant ventures where you can sit in to enjoy one - for example Oran Mor, Bobar, Booly Mardi's; and that's just the top of Byres Road.

It's no exaggeration to say the beer has surpassed all expectations in places like Canada where quality Scottish products can expect to do well.

One Canadian (Winnipeg Free Press) food and drink columnist gave this piece of advice to his readers on the run-up to Hogmanay:

"If wine just ain't your thing, there are a whole bunch of interesting options for popping at midnight (or earlier), especially in the beer world. There's the Innis & Gunn Triple Matured Oak Aged Beer.
"It's dark brown in the glass, with lovely vanilla and spice on the nose thanks to the complex ageing process. While fairly heavy and chewy, the nutty caramel and oaky flavours are delicious and surprisingly soft - although at 7.2 per cent alcohol, make sure you pace yourself. Limited quantities - get it now."

Sound advice, I think, at home or abroad.

Photo: the blin pig. Blythe Spirits

Talking of good publicity I see that the Blind Pig in Byres Road - recently treated to a fairly sniffy review in The Herald's Saturday magazine - is currently revelling in the glory of yet another but very different review which puts that earlier put-down somewhat in context.

The Pig, in short, has been awarded the Order of the Blythman, an accolade few actively seek but which is nonetheless all the more welcome when it happens.

I'm referring to the doyenne of the Scottish restaurant reviewing game, Joanna Blythman, who (to my mind) appears to take great relish - albeit probably not Yorkshire Relish - in demolishing an establishment brick by brick if it does not meet her particular ideas about inventive cuisine and high standards.

There it is in the window: a facsimile of her review of the place, in which she appears to be making it clear that she puts this ambitious bar-restaurant venture in the same sort of quality league as Tom Kitchin's wildly popular Kitchin venture in Edinburgh.

I suppose she is saying the food ethos of these two presumably very different venues is in the same ballpark, in some important way, and whether or not she is correct it's interesting to see what is still, after all, a high street pub, winning such plaudits. It seems hardly any time since this site, the former Whistler's Mother, was lying moribund and boarded up, and its elevation from disaster area to critically-lauded hotspot is very encouraging.

Other local restaurants which have successfully garnered an Order of the Blythman award include Pinxto, the Basque-leaning tapas bar honed to stunning success by veteran West End operator Allan Mawn - whose wholly different venture next door,

Velvet Elvis, also appears to be going from strength to strength.

Photo: the flavour. Taste "The Flavour"

The lady behind new venture The Flavour Co on Great Western Road close to Bank Street at Kelvinbridge deserves a Blythman award herself - and she only opened last Wednesday.

I have to confess I know the background to this concept, and was sort of vaguely aware what its enterprising and enthusiastic owner had in mind.

But it was a delight last week to see the wee shop that once upon a time hosted long-gone Aziza, and then a clothes shop, bursting back into life as something genuinely "different".

There's a strong emphasis on "healthy" ingredients - whether you're buying wholesome soup or some of the shop's delightful little cakes - but prices are extremely shopper-friendly.

Nestled in between Strawberry Fields kids' clothing shop and the Achilles Heel Sports Injury Clinic, and just opposite The Coach House Trust, it's a small but very attractive take on the sit-in-cafe with takeaway deli concept - you could call it "a sandwich shop" but that doesn't do it justice.

The food is ace. I have tried soup, couscous, wrap, sandwiches and cakes - not all in one go - but the coffee may well be the star of the show.

Despite the small size of the venue, the coffee really is excellent and can be taken away in biodegradable Ripple Cups or sipped inside as you perch on a barstool at the window, watching the world go by. The owners strive to serve quality fresh food that will make you feel good without feeling bloated - freshly-made sandwiches, delicious hot soups, fresh fruit salads, fruit smoothies and freshly-bottled juices. And for a touch of indulgence there are the most delicious cakes, all made locally.

Out of Africa

I haven't had a chance to sample the novel (to me) cuisine of The Queen of Sheba Abyssinian restaurant in Georges Road, just yet, but a glance at its menu the other day certainly captured my interest.

Without really knowing anything much about the venue, which is very new, I'm nevertheless impressed that the owners haven't felt tempted to regale diners with a huge and complicated menu. Instead there's a tight but probably well-chosen representative sample of all the main bases in the Ethiopian/Abyssinian culinary repertoire.

The first observation worth making is that if you like lamb, you're quids in. This is obviously the main meat dish of choice, with a dozen or so lamb-themed entrees; there's also Merek, a spicy lamb-based soup, which sounds interesting.

I suppose once upon a time "Chicken Bhoona" sounded exotic, whereas it's now on a par with mince and tatties as regards familiarity, but there's a journey of discovery waiting to be made at this place - Zilzil Tibs, for example, turns out to be strips of lamb in Awaze sauce.

What's Awaze sauce? I haven't a clue, except that it is predictably spicy and is made into a marinade with Ethiopian honey wine, or Tej, and cooked with garlic and onions.

I spent years guzzling all sorts of exotic beverages when I worked for the old Booze News, but Ethiopian honey wine sadly passed me by - I don't think you'd even find it in Waitrose.

I dare say this sort of marinade, and the fiery Berbere sauce, have been on the go for a thousand years, maybe longer, but haven't been on sale in a Glasgow restaurant until now.

Other entrees include beef dishes, hot chicken dish Dora Wot, a plenitude of vegetarian options, and - perhaps the best choice for newbies - Mahberawa. This is a mixed platter (price £15) which includes samples of most of the other dishes on the menu ... an Abyssinian Mezes, in fact.

More on this beguiling new arrival (which is decked out with African-style rattan furniture) in future issues.

Athena Reborn

Once there was the Athena Taverna in Pollokshaws Road, of blessed memory - curiously also one of only a very few outlets in the south side mentioned in the Good Beer Guide - but that characterful outpost of Hellenic culture vanished when the Cypriot owner retired; and in these parts the nearest exemplar of Greek cuisine resides in Langside (just off Battlefield Road), where you'll find the time-honoured and still hugely popular Greek Golden Kebab restaurant.

Meanwhile back in the West End, where (another Order of the Blythman award) Konaki Taverna has been waving the blue and white flag for Greece for maybe ten years now, it is arguably very encouraging to see the words "Athena Taverna" revived in a completely new venture just around the corner from Konaki.

It opened in December, and the limited feedback I have received has been very positive.

All the familiar classic taverna dishes are there, from souvlaki skewers to rich beef stew stefado, the time-honoured moussaka and the keftedes meatballs.

Besides the a la carte option there are some set menus - the lunch option is £7.50,

Monday to Saturday from noon to 2.30pm; pre-theatre (Monday to Friday) is from

5pm to 6.30pm, priced £9.95; and there's also an evening set menu, served Sunday to Thursday, from 6.30pm till late.

The wine list is fairly elaborate, spanning assorted New World and some classic old world options, besides some Greek choices - of which Othello is probably the best-known brand name (in fact the first time I saw this particular wine was in a Turkish restaurant). One of the others is from Santorini, the windmill-clad volcanic island off Crete.

Athena is at 1116 Argyle St, immediately next door to Crabshak, and marks the latest welcome dining arrival in this steadily-improving neck of the woods.

Korean Magic

A little farther along the same road (heading towards town), the restaurant formerly called Kokoryo has now mysteriously changed its name to Shilla, which turns out to be the name of one of three historic kingdoms of ancient Korea. I know this because a poster in the window informs us of Korean history and legend in some detail - including the story of a ruler reputedly born from a goose egg - although not why there's a new name for a restaurant which in every other particular appears to be doing the same job as before.

The only way to solve this mystery is clearly to pay an early visit.

Despite its strong Korean credentials, with a cuisine markedly different from Far East neighbours China and Japan, there's also a sizeable sushi offer here - including a Sushi "to go" deal.

Photo: o'neills. Service with a Smile

Nobody ever really recognises staff service properly - I mean when it's good - and that's perhaps particularly the case with pub staff.

So congratulations to everybody who works at any of three O'Neill's chain pubs in the city which I've visited; in Sauchiehall St, Queen St (almost on George Square) and Merchant Square.

Of course gourmet diners will cock a snook at the suggestion that you can have a good dining experience in a chain pub, but in fact everything about the offer in this unusually long-lasting themed tribute to the Emerald Isle works surprisingly well - hence, perhaps, the longevity.

I've visited all three within the last three or four months, the Queen St branch most recently, and the staff, from pretty wee lassies to big bears of men, are unfailingly helpful, friendly and efficient.

People who apologise for taking a few minutes to serve when they're clearly busy with two lots of previous customers, adding "I'll be with you very shortly" with a reassuring smile, deserve praise.

Now and then you still get the opposite kind of treatment in less well-managed ventures - grudging and unsmiling service from someone who'd rather be writing The Great Scottish Novel than serving you, the only customer.

Meanwhile the actual O'Neill's product is a generous high-quality pub grub offer which excels in managing the simplest things well - as in "classic burger".

Of course it's not "Stravaigin", but as a workaday fall in out of the rain sort of place it does its job with consistent flair and flourish.

The fish and chips I had in the Sauchiehall St outlet a while back was a memorable treat on a cold day. They kept me waiting about 15 minutes and apologised fulsomely - and they needn't have bothered because it had clearly been prepared to order.

Meanwhile in the West End at least there's Jinty's in Ashton Lane, the only pub I'm aware of which regales you with quotes from Oscar Wilde emblazoned in gold on its dark wood partitions.

It's arguably an Irish bar in the "true" sense, with a long pedigree of quality live folk music and a varied and interesting food offer too, as I recall.

Photo: nick nairn. Nick at the Hydro

Readers who couldn't get rid of all their spending money no matter how hard they tried over Christmas might do worse than take a wee trip up to Dunblane from around next month.

That's where one of the "biggest" names ever to grace the West End circuit has decided to pitch his culinary tent - in a venue synonymous with opulence and aspirational living.

Dunblane Hydro has been revamped and effectively relaunched, at a cost of zillions, and a core element of the relaunch centres, inevitably, on the food offer.

It's to be the responsibility of Nick Nairn's, who ran the eponymous restaurant near Charing Cross before sensationally packing it in to be able to spend more time with his young family.

The venue was taken over by an operator who had done very well in Giffnock, but it didn't have a chance to gather speed in the crowded West End, sadly.

Now Nick - who more recently has been regularly on the telly in a couple of the better celebrity cookery programmes - is Back, with a capital B.

He is to be the grand conductor of a Dunblane food offer which will revolve around his showpiece restaurant, Nick Nairn at the Kailyard, aiming to produce stunning dishes (including some of his own regular favourites) based on the best natural Scottish produce that he can find.

He will be cooking some of the time himself, in person - and these promise to be suitably theatrical and tasty occasions - but most of his work will be tied up in directing every aspect of the food and drink offer, aiming to ensure conference guests or hotel guests are never offered a merely average dining experience.

Very posh and ambitious ventures of this sort aren't really my main interest, which is more about finding the above-average within the apparently mainstream, but I like the idea of a man who made his name in the West End going on to still bigger things - it has the capacity to do for the reputation of cuisine in Scotland what Gordon Ramsay simply couldn't manage in the unfamiliar milieu of Glasgow.

Quite regardless of this column's some generic fascination with all things edible we'll have more reports of how Nick's grand venture is progressing in future months.

Fast Food Special

I'm glad nobody has asked me to provide a definitive study of West End fast food outlets and cafes within the last five years, because for a while they seemed to be changing hands every five minutes.

Again, for snook-cockers everywhere, I'm sorry that Louis' Bistro in Gibson Street didn't work, particularly as it certainly deserved to, but nevertheless pleased that after many months of hammering and sawing this site has re-emerged as .... Chicken Cottage.

This venture, as the name suggests, is all about chicken; burgers, wings, kebabs, wraps - or even a whole flame- grilled chicken.

There are also some barbecue specials along the lines of bbq lamb ribs, a fish burger, a veggie wrap, and all manner of side orders such as apple pie, potato wedges ... the sort of stuff which seems a great idea if you're a student wending your way home from an evening of revelry very late at night (when you should have been studying).

In the interests of science I nipped in, freezing cold, on one of the days when there was about a foot of snow outside.

Obviously the place is very new, but I was immediately struck by how pristine and well-presented everything seemed, without the (to me) plastic toytown look of the big international fast food chains.

The staff, clearly in promotional mode, were treating customers like habitues at Rogano, and the presentation had a sort of Japanese bento-box feel to it: all signs of an outfit trying to do a very mainstream job to an above-average standard - which I rate higher than almost anything else.

The promotional literature for Chicken Cottage - a brand with a relative handful of outlets in the UK, but with restaurants in about eight other countries - suggests you should "taste the secret", and it's obviously not a secret known to that well-known colonel.

The coffee machine hadn't arrived when I called, so I made do with a rather nice cup of tea, but I'm assured it will be very much better than anything you'd expect in a fast food joint - conceivably a smart move, this - and will retail at around £1.30p a cup.

Chicken Cottage is a halal brand, too, meaning the mainly younger Muslims who like Western-style fast food culture can dine with confidence, and between the immediate local area and visiting students that's probably a lot of people.

I suppose I would rather have seen this site becoming Glasgow's first Guatemalan bistro - or maybe an Argentinian tango bar - but on balance I'm just glad somebody has found a promising use for a floundering restaurant location.

Meanwhile, and you read it here first, the Cypriot owner of the venture is meditating upon the launch of a Greek restaurant in the basement, which would combine two radically different ventures in one interesting slice of Gibson Street.

Chilli Grill

Back at Charing Cross, the big restaurant site right on the corner (next to Cafe Salma on one side, and The Black Sparrow on North Street), has finally found its latest operator - it has previously had incarnations ranging from Chinese to Spanish, and none have flourished.

This latest one may strike a chord with the younger crowd in the area, based on grills with umpteen different chilli sauce variants, and like Chicken Cottage is all-halal, and part of an expanding chain.

It's called Chilli Grill - "Halal Peri Peri Grill House" - and on further inspection turns out to be another interesting take on the fast food outlet: fresh not frozen chicken, options like buffalo steaks, the ever-popular beef burgers, pizzas, and some fairly interesting side-dish options (eg corn on the cob basted with peri peri paste): it seems a conscious attempt to pitch straight at the mass market by aiming a few feet above the mega-brands of the business.

Photo: stravaigin. Shape of things to come

So are we being over-run with fast food restaurants, and is West End dining plunging down the vertiginous slope to obloquy and despair?

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