With the celebrations now a distant memory and the tree decorations tucked away in the shed, I kept two rose-shaped garlands of lights inside the house, their faint amber glow offering a touch of festive comfort to those days of darkness and squall.
I hate January. I mean, what’s there to love? The stores are full of root vegetables, if they are full of anything, and I have no more means to make the
River Cafe’s delicious Celeriac and Mashed Potatoes (River Cafe Cookbook Green) fit a healthier New Year’s diet.
Since going to a restaurant now requires a risk assessment, I use cookbooks more and eat out less. So the books that are written almost like diaries provided a sort of vicarious thrill for those nights when going out feels like playing Russian roulette with your future, which I’m usually not willing to do during a few hours in a restaurant.
January is usually a weird month anyway, given that most of us are trying to shed the pounds we put on over Christmas, on top of all the weight we’ve already gained during the pandemic.
Normally that would mean a desire for lighter foods, even though we don’t really use the word “diet.” But eating most salads on those cold, long January days isn’t quite as effective as a rich, creamy oxtail stew or a plate of spaghetti carbonara would be.
That’s when I long for the complex flavors of Thailand, Burma or Vietnam with their aromatic sinus-cleansing dishes that nourish and delight the senses with steamy smokes of spices and herbs. .
At times like this, I want a lot more choice of restaurants like this on Tayside, especially in Dundee, where only Rama Thai really succeeds.
Noto – Edinburgh
Despite worrying about eating out, I’ve been to a few places that are worth recommending, although the first is an hour from Edinburgh.
But it’s worth the trip because here’s a restaurant that offers complex flavors and interesting juxtapositions in a variety of light and perfectly balanced small plates.
Noto occupies an unassuming frontage on the capital’s charming cobbled Thistle Street.
Don’t let that understatement fool you, as this restaurant produces surprisingly 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: steamed duck bun (£10, wonderful), beef tartare, fried potato, egg yolk (£14, sensational), dried trout, radish, wasabi, apple ponzu (£13, fantastic) and the best riff on sesame prawn toast, served here with katsuobushi (flakes of bonito) – the best £10 you can get spend, legally or illegally.
A dish of wild halibut, browned butter cauliflower and miso (£26) was delicious but we thought it was slightly less interesting than the small dishes we shared – and a bit overpriced considering great value on the rest of this menu.
Our chocolate, miso, hazelnut shared dessert (£8) was a rich, earthy treat and a lovely way to end this meal of
Noto is the business – delicious food, great service, and a very attractive, minimally designed space that perfectly complements the ethos of this food.
If I say everything is pared down here, I say that as the greatest compliment, because this is a time when I’m so done with elaborate tasting menus and foreign thrift stores – for me, a single room with a 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 in Memus, which I included in my recent ‘best of 2021’ roundup based on previous pre-lockdown visits.
I’m happy to say that Drovers remains as good as I remembered – in fact the food this time around was probably the best I’ve had there in my four visits.
My sister and I had lunch here on December 28, a day when you might expect a limited menu.
Fortunately, that was not the case.
There are two sections of the Drovers, and at first I would have preferred to eat in the bar, which is more atmospheric than the more formal restaurant. But the bar was full and we suddenly realized that we preferred the more spacious dining room anyway.
Yes, pandemic paranoia has been a factor here – not that the bar is in any way riskier than anywhere else, it’s just that right now I prefer a larger space to eat.
But how I wish the Drovers would revamp their dining space!
I mean, it’s perfectly nice but it’s so bland – the taupe paint, the awful
1980s style chairs, lousy prints on the walls… it’s all so generic, dated and tame.
It really wouldn’t cost much to update this room and I think it would be worth it as the food and service here is truly wonderful and the location is very appealing.
It’s a large menu, which is all the more surprising since you have the impression that everything is really cooked here (which is not always the case when a large menu is offered).
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 that!
Our starters were delicious, as was the bread that preceded them.
Elaine chose seared scallops, crispy pork cheek, mashed celeriac, pickled apple and herb oil (£9.95) and declared it excellent – the five very generous scallops were beautifully cooked and presented with finesse.
The classic flavor combination of scallop and pork was enhanced by everything else on the plate, so much so that my chef sister said it was a totally harmonious plate of food – and Elaine can smell it an alien ingredient as quickly as a dog can smell a bone.
My starter of pan-fried wood pigeon, pearl barley, mashed porcini mushrooms, game crisps
and the juice (£7.50) was winter on a plate and so, so delicious.
The wood pigeon cooking was perfect. Top stuff!
Our main courses were equally good.
Elaine’s seared veal liver with caramelised onions, bacon, creamed potatoes, buttered kale and red wine sauce (£15.50) was as robust a dish as you could wishing for a crisp December day.
My venison was, I felt, the star of the whole meal.
This roast loin was perfectly cooked and served with a hazelnut and herb crust, braised (sic) thigh baker, star anise carrot puree and juniper jus (£18.95).
It was heavenly.
If you go to the Drovers, I also recommend that you toss out any notion of cool, dieting, denial or culinary elitism, and do as we did and order a side of their fantastic onion rings (3 £.50).
Elaine had seen these delicacies float by us earlier on their way to another table and we knew we just had to indulge.
I have to say that while they may have brought a trash item to our table,
the risk of shame was worth it – those clouds of joy formed from the most basic 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 good but probably the least inspiring dish of all that we had. Great sorbet though.
The service was just brilliant – friendly, knowledgeable and professional. Our lovely waitress apologized for any delay in delivering the food, but it really wasn’t necessary – everything worked out and it worked wonderfully.
While chatting with the waitress, she mentioned that they experienced a sudden rush of reservations the day we ate there, which would explain why the bar and restaurant were already full.
She also mentioned that they suffered 200 cancellations over the Christmas period.
My sister, who once owned her own renowned restaurant in Dalston, east London, said her heart sank when she heard the news, not that it was something we didn’t have didn’t realize it was happening.
We had already seen a table near us quickly rearranged from a space that could seat five to two people because three people couldn’t come.
What a time for our hospitality industry! While I’m fully aware of why we may not be able to eat as much as we would like right now (I’m paranoid about catching 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 that I give as much notice as possible of any cancellation or change to a reservation and also that I show up on time for a reservation and remain aware that the reservation is often for a limited period of time.
Making a reservation and not showing up is not only very disrespectful to a restaurant, but also endangers its livelihood, and right now we all have a duty to behave with as much responsibility as possible.
We left Drovers well-fed but also hopeful that places like this can overcome the pandemic and continue doing what they do.
It is very admirable to me that a place in a small village in the Angus countryside offers such quality food and such good service.
That they do this while facing challenges that must at times seem relentlessly overwhelming means that we need to support them all the more.
Can’t wait to go back to the Drovers and love it so much I’d even bring my own Farrow and Ball paint job for the restaurant revamp!
Address: Drovers Inn, Memus, Angus
P: 01307 860322
Prices: Starters from £5.50; Mains from £13.95; Desserts from £6.95
- Food: 5/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Environment: 5/5 (with a lick of paint)