When you’re as long in the tooth as I am, it’s reassuring to know there are still new experiences to come.
This week’s novelty was getting an insight into the thought processes of the condemned man, or at least the bit where he chooses his final meal. If you only had one last meal to go, what would it be?
The reason I know the answer to that question is down to the fact that, after countless restaurant reviews over more than a decade, this is my final bow before I hand this column over to my former colleagues for safe-keeping. So how, I asked myself as I deliberated on where to go, should I mark the occasion? This column may have experienced some rare culinary low points over the years, but that’s been by accident rather than design. The idea has been to try to visit restaurants which I think may be worth recommending, rather than ones that are ripe for a slagging (a hatchet job is far easier to write than a paean, but comes at a terrible price – you actually have to eat an awful meal first). So when the snow came down and I realised that a trip out of town was off the menu, I simply closed my eyes and stuck my finger on to the “old dependables” section of a guide to Edinburgh restaurants I did for a friend a couple of years ago.
I haven’t reviewed La Garrigue for more than six years, which seems like a long time for a restaurant which, over the years, has been a firm favourite of mine. So the chance to go back and run the rule over this bustling restaurant behind Waverley Station was one that brought a smile to my face. This way the chances of going out on anything other than a high were minimal.
La Garrigue also specialises in the sort of food I like most: it’s defiantly French and stoically unpretentious; not quite peasant food, but with the sort of earthy honesty which I find endearing. It’s a brasserie-style restaurant built in the image of its owner, Jean-Michel Gauffre, a man who has never forgotten his Languedoc roots and whose food comes straight out of his sleepy home town of Bédarieux, which lies in the Orb valley halfway between Marseilles and Toulouse.
With its brightly painted tongue-and-groove walls, rustic Tim Stead wooden furniture, wooden floors and endless vibrant paintings on the wall, this 50-cover eatery would feel buzzy even if it were empty, which it never is. Indeed, few Edinburgh restaurants can have a more devoted following.
The other reasons for its durability are the best ones: good food and a formidable wine list. The latter is evidently still the case judging by a recent award at the French Summit in London where La Garrigue was shortlisted alongside restaurants like Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons and won the regional award for Best Restaurant Wine List for French Wine.
Our quest to see if the food lived up to the wine started with Bea’s poached lobster with celeriac, radishes and aioli salad, while I tucked into the duck galantine with foie gras, pistachio and sweet wine jelly. Bea shaded the challenge we have on each course, with a perfectly cooked if parsimonious helping of lobster enlivened by a nicely understated celeriac-heavy salad. My starter was of a particularly rustic, almost coarse, variety. It was more like a terrine than a delicate galantine, but the flavours were deep and rich, with the juxtaposition of the duck and the foie gras giving light and shade to a dish which was good, but not great.
That wasn’t the case with my main course of roast and confit pheasant with apples, grapes, chestnut and potatoes, which was outstanding. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked, with the moisture of the apples and grapes not only keeping the meat succulent, but providing a sweetness that brought the best out of it, while the chestnuts added a welcome taste of the Midi to proceedings.
Bea, however, was less enamoured of her rabbit, which was filled with black pudding and accompanied by a chickpea, croquette and pepper stew. The entertainingly diverse supporting cast certainly did its job, but the problem was the lead, which was disappointingly bland and slightly overcooked. It wasn’t a disaster, but neither was it a tour de force.
I rounded off with the apple turnovers with cinnamon ice-cream, and while they were functional I quickly concluded that the turnovers could have done with more apple and the ice-cream with more cinnamon. Bea had ordered the lavender crème brulée and was similarly perplexed, saying that it was a long time since she’d had a good crème brulée, and that this rather heavy version wasn’t going to change her opinion that she would be better off making her favourite pudding in her own kitchen.
If that sounds niggardly, it’s not meant to be. This was a solid meal in extremely convivial surroundings and delivered by one of the great figures in Edinburgh’s restaurant scene. OK, it may have been more than a little on the rich side given that two three-course meals and a bottle of wine ensured a bill in three figures, but then La Garrigue has maintained an enviable level of business since it first opened in 2001 and had its best year for ages in 2014, a level of staying power that is not to be sniffed at.
All in all, I thought, a nice place to finish a job that has been both a privilege and a pleasure.
Two courses: £28
Three courses: £30