Lunch with a friend on a beautiful Wednesday at the end of January, what could be better?
I was so looking forward to seeing my friend Hue Nguyen. Not only did we have a lot to catch up on, but next week Hue will be tattooing me again and we had to discuss what she would do to add to the gallery of walking art that my flesh has become.
Hue is another foodie and she is also a vegetarian, so the choice of venue was very important. She’s also incredibly stylish, so our options had to include places that looked and felt great.
That’s when the problem of eating in Dundee hit me again. To put it bluntly, Scotland’s fourth largest city is currently well below its weight in terms of great dining options, a situation I unfortunately don’t see changing any time soon.
While other aspects of the city seem to pick up speed in the future, Dundee’s culinary offerings are often dismal – not moribund, exactly, but certainly not bursting with good health.
While even the smallest Scottish towns are full of excellent restaurants, Dundee still seems to struggle to offer the smallest assortment of crumbs to anyone hoping to savor examples of the richness of food cultures and innovations so celebrated elsewhere.
From a culinary point of view, it sometimes feels like much of Dundee is still stuck in the 1970s, the decade when Heston Blumenthal claimed good food was forgotten – except haggis sweets have now replaced spam donuts and black forest cake as daily specials.
In 1976 I was walking down South Molton Street in London when I spotted Dave Vanian of the Damned sitting on a bench looking as gothic and miserable as you can be when your band is about to enter history by releasing the first single from a British punk band. .
With typical punk nonchalance, I approached the white-faced ghoul and asked for his autograph and he wrote; “If you’re trying to find somewhere to eat in London on a Sunday, don’t bother!”
Dundee feels a bit like that right now, a time when every day can really feel like a Sunday when you’re just trying to find a good place to eat.
The Brexit and Covid issues for the hospitality industry have been well documented, especially in this column, and are unfortunately ongoing.
But even before the pandemic, there was a food problem in Dundee, although it is true that some of the problems are national and even international.
For example, it’s a huge moron to me that there isn’t a single pub serving good food in Dundee. By that I mean a place that offers a small menu of good food cooked on site – a selection that reflects the seasonality and richness of the good produce around us.
The fact that most pubs are owned by one of the two major players in the hospitality industry means their offering is seamless and more focused on consistency and reliability of numbers on a spreadsheet, rather than satisfaction client. Even places that give every indication of being independent are often owned or run by these massive organizations.
My sister used to cook in such a pub in London. When she took on the role of chef the pub was fiercely independent and when they were later bought out by one of the big guns my sister was told to expect major changes to the kitchen and that much of the menu and purchases would come from the central office.
Whoever decided this of course knew nothing about food.
Needless to say my sister is gone. I still see messages from his former establishment trumpeting their independent spirit, but independence isn’t about snapping a picture of bearded staff wearing aprons while serving Moving Mountain burgers and dirty fries – it’s something steeped in the heart of a business.
A recent list of the UK’s 100 best gastropubs featured three in all of Scotland, and two of them are in or near Edinburgh and are owned/run by Tom Kitchin (his Scran and Scallie is completely overrated, in my opinion).
The closest gastro pub on the list for us Taysiders is the Ship Inn at Elie.
It’s a pitiful situation for a country and region with such a wealth of good produce on our doorstep, but much of the food served to us in Dundee (and elsewhere) comes from a huge food service company that also provides dishes that are “microwave ready” in many pubs and restaurants.
This explains the omnipresence of certain dishes and the homogeneous nature of a large part of what is offered to us to eat. It is such a sad situation.
The Apex Hotel
After narrowing down the local pubs, Hue suggested we eat at the restaurant at the Apex Hotel in Dundee, a place I had rated somewhat unfavorably in 2019.
I’ve since returned but haven’t felt it’s improved enough to write about it again, assuming that one bad review is one statement and two can be considered a a grudge.
But a lot has happened since July 2019, and now it seemed only right to give the Apex another chance.
I’m afraid to say it didn’t go well.
First, the positives. The Apex is a beautiful hotel and is to be commended for being the first to bring a sense of modernity to hotels in Dundee (it predates the Malmaison and Hotel Indigo, and still has the best positioning and the best feeling of the three).
A recent £1.5million investment in the Dundee Hotel is evident as you enter the light and bright reception area, through the public areas to the bar and restaurant.
The feeling is kind of a 1950s redux and it really works. It looks contemporary and inviting.
I was told when booking that we didn’t really need to book for lunch and when I arrived I understood why. No one else was eating and yet the hassled waiter who greeted me asked me to wait while he made coffees for some guests – meanwhile other staff seemed to be wandering aimlessly around the empty restaurant.
It’s not the best thing to do waiting five minutes at the edge of an empty open restaurant when you can see the staff inside joking but – let’s not forget – we are coming out of a pandemic and we all have to learn to breathe a little slower.
Eventually I was directed to a table with no glasses, napkins, or any sign that eating might be happening there. It was next to the emergency exit. This is apparently where lunch is served.
At least I could see into the very attractive restaurant, although we couldn’t sit there.
Hue arrived and immediately asked why I was sitting in Siberia. Glammed up to the nines, she’s not a woman who enjoys sitting next to an emergency exit when beautiful tables can be seen yards away. But – let’s not forget – we are coming out of a pandemic and…
The menu is short, but not the kind of short that promises intense joy.
Unfortunately, this brevity wasn’t meant to highlight a few very special dishes – it sounded more like one of K-tel’s greatest hits that you could get anywhere, and often for less money.
There were 13 options on this menu but if I tell you four of them were sandwiches, two of them were fries and two of them highlighted gochujang (Nigella, what did you started when you popularized this Korean paste?) then you’ll probably get the picture.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a free-range egg and watercress mayonnaise sandwich on a choice of white, brown or gluten-free bread, served with chips (£6.50).
I’m not denying that you might want to eat breaded fish and chips, tartar sauce and mashed peas (£15) in a hotel or that three bar snacks for £15 might be what floats your boat if near Dundee seafront.
What I’m saying is it’s all so boring.
I mean, if I want an egg mayonnaise sandwich, I either get it from the nearby supermarket or order it from room service when I finally get back to my hotel room at 3 a.m. and need some mop up the alcohol. I don’t necessarily want it in a hotel for lunch.
Hue had the truffle and parmesan fries (£5), the Korean cauliflower (£5) and the hummus flatbread (£5). She said the fries were nothing special, the cauliflower needed more spice ointment and the hummus should have been advertised as having Moroccan flavors.
I enjoyed the spicy hummus more than her.
My short rib burger was almost inedible, but I was very British and ate it because I liked catching up with Hue and couldn’t take a fuss. The meat was incinerated so decisively that it had an imbued pungency that was deeply unpleasant, like chewing pieces of a book spine after a fire in the library.
The green salad I had requested, off the menu but apparently available, was a chopped quagmire of nothingness, the peppers reminiscent of the things my mother used to present when she had one of those crazy spherical vegetable choppers in the 70s.
The service was charming.
So here is. A lovely hotel, a very attractive restaurant sitting empty, great service and a menu that made me wish I was cooking for Hue at home. I’m sorry to be so harsh but it’s true.
In fairness I asked to look at the dinner menu and it looked more appealing considering there were a lot more options which might give the chef a chance to show off his cooking skills .
When I first saw the limited nature of the lunch menu, I thought I should come back for dinner that night as well, but, after having such a rambling lunch, the truth is, I don’t just couldn’t face a comeback so soon.
I mean, how hard is it to get a good burger?
I’m so sorry to give the Apex a second negative review because the potential is definitely there. But, even given that we are all in such a state of flux and
many hotels have suffered such a massive loss of revenue during the pandemic that they really need to rethink their lunch offering.
This immensely attractive dining space could and should be filled with the buzz of people having the kind of transformative dining experience that a large hotel can provide.
What we got was very, very far from that.
Address: Quayside Bar and Grill, Apex Hotel, 1 West Victoria Dock Road, Dundee DD1 3JP
P: 01382 309309
Prices: Lunch dishes from £5, three snacks from £15. Dinner – two courses £19, three courses £25
- Food: 2/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Environment: 5/5
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[Lunch didn’t float at Apex Hotel at Dundee’s quayside]