I imagine everyone has a restaurant equivalent of a favorite outfit, a go- to garment you can just pull on in the morning, knowing your sartorial correctness will help the day flow better around you.
Some days this is what Janet Street-Porter so cleverly called “results wear”, a description driven more by the idea of clothing as a means to achieve something – a job, a friendship or, most likely, just getting laid.
Friday nights in bedrooms all across the world are often all about the search for results-wear, especially in the days before we were all grounded in trackpants, T-shirts and takeaway stains.
However, if the pandemic was all about mooching around like a cross between Rab C. Nesbitt and Waynetta Slob, now feels like a time to remember other options are available.
The compulsion to find new things to enjoy and new places to go definitely gets stronger, as the days become more light-filled, we can actually see each other’s faces and the opening of the Strawberry Shed at Newport-on-Tay gets closer (the projected opening date is May 7, but do check online before venturing there). This to me is the real sign summer is upon us.
I had a recent such moment when a week of eating out resulted in such mixed results that I just wanted to channel the restaurant equivalent of my old Helmut Lang combats, Comme des Garcons cardigan and Birkenstocks.
In saying this I must explain that the way restaurants and cafes are chosen for this column has nothing to do with focus groups, PR pressure, or even logic.
But every expedition to far-flung places to try somewhere new is instilled with the same ridiculously optimistic hope that this might be the one – the place that could become a reliable new staple, a great new discovery, a results place.
Even if a business is none of those things it can at least be interesting enough to bring to your attention as somewhere to keep on your back burner.
This approach yields many great finds, but it also results in massive disappointments because, if a restaurant is so terrible that reviewing it might read like a death knell, I quite simply put it aside for another, hopefully happier, day.
No one wants a negative Nellie right now when our world is falling apart around us.
The point of all this is that when restaurant fatigue sets in after one too many let-downs you sometimes just want to go somewhere you know will give you an unqualified great experience – the equivalent of pulling on your favorite pair of Adidas trainers or settling down by the fire with a glass of a good Côtes du Rhône and a bar of Dairy Milk.
This means a place that delivers every time, somewhere needing no ifs or buts – a restaurant that just works seamlessly and joyfully to give you pleasure.
My go-to place for consistent culinary and aesthetic excellence remains the Kinneuchar Inn which opened in 2019 and rapidly won both best newcomer and best restaurant gongs at The Courier / Menu Awards in 2020.
That same year it also won Best Gastro Pub at the ITV Food and Drink Awards while garnering a slew of good reviews following my own review in this paper which awarded it the highest score of 50 out of 50, a first for this column.
Major chefs made the journey from London to check out this new kid on the East Neuk block, and suddenly a small village near St Monans became the epicenter of a kind of honest, gutsy cooking that just wasn’t available locally before. In short, Kinneuchar became a thing and I’m happy to report it still is.
Just a few weeks ago I contributed to an editorial in the uber chic How To Spend It Magazine which focused on the foodie revival spawned by the hugely enterprising Balcaskie Estate (of which Kinneuchar is a part). The article claimed that “the East Neuk estate is an arts and food destination at the heart of a Scottish resurgence” and they were right.
This is the restaurant by which all others locally should be judged and, if they’re found lacking, perhaps it might be advisable to check just why Kinneuchar so often gets it right. So, for example, instead of pretending that the restaurant scene in Dundee is something to shout about (it isn’t), I have to ask why it’s often so difficult to find great food in the city? Only by recognizing what is lacking can we move forward, and only by appreciating the standards set by others can things improve.
What is it that makes a restaurant go from being an exciting newcomer to a classic?
What makes you get excited about returning to a place again and again?
I believe at the core of every great restaurant sits a very pure ethos which is imbued in everything you see and experience within their walls. The welcome. The chairs. The table setting. The way the menu looks. The staff who know the food so well they can anticipate your questions before you even ask them. The light fittings. The flowers. The way you have a drink in your hand within minutes of sitting down. And, of course, the food.
Kinneuchar gets all the aesthetic elements right but none of that would matter if the food wasn’t superlative. That’s why it’s always a thrill to see James Ferguson’s menu reflect both the seasons and his own passions. He’s just the best and, together with his partner Alethea Palmer, they have created a world-class restaurant here in Courier Country. That takes skill, perseverance – and guts.
The current menus seem to me to be more concise than before, and that’s no bad thing because it means you don’t feel such a greedy pig ordering nearly everything. So, this time we had the house sourdough with cultured butter (staggeringly good bread, and such good value at a mere £ 2.50), the Welsh Rarebit (£ 4) and the pigs head croquettes with green tomato ketchup (£ 4).
Those were our snacks, and yes, there were just three of us lunching. The Welsh rarebit is, whisper it, better than that served at St John in London, which I always thought served the quintessential version of this comfort classic (a recipe for it is in their Book of St John cookbook, although I always add more Guinness than they advise).
The Kinneuchar version has the molten cheese blackened just enough to identify the knife-crossed irrigation channels which “create the perfect flood plain for the Worcestershire sauce”, as described so poetically by Fergus Henderson.
The pigs head croquettes are such a delight that I ate them in seconds, forgetting even to photograph them as a reminder of how happy they made me.
My starter of smoked cod brandade, soft boiled egg and radish (£ 10) was perfection – a wonderful embodiment of flavor, simplicity, balance and texture, the brandade served with a pool of olive oil which provided a glossy mirror to the vibrant yolk of the perfectly cooked Cacklebean egg. Joy on a plate.
David’s fava, chilli, mint and grilled flatbread (£ 7.50) was equally celebratory, combining earthy, gutsy flavors into a thing far greater than the sum of its parts.
Andrew’s main course of roast Tamworth pork belly, white sprouting broccoli and anchovy (£ 20) was so good I had to lean over and steal some crackling. But then the crackling of this superior pork was so good I did something I’m still so ashamed of – I suddenly thought I’d convert vegetarian David to the carnivorous cause by wafting this piece of olfactory drug under his nose over and over, until he relented.
That my quest failed can only be explained by David’s remarkable sense of ethics and resilience because I’m still convinced that crackling had mystical powers to induce a state of reverie, possibly leading to a fatal bacon sandwich later for the unwitting vegetarian.
Despite stealing some of Andrew’s pork, I still feel that my wild turbot, pink fir potatoes, spinach and caper butter (£ 34) was the best choice, the richness of the dish a wonderful celebration of the king of the sea.
Wild turbot is rare and thus is a much-prized ingredient all around the world; how lucky we are to have a fishmonger of the caliber of David Lowrie in St Monans offering such treasure.
For such a special fish you really need a skilled chef to do it justice and James Ferguson did it proud, the pearlescent flesh so beautifully cooked that I could have picked up the bones to gnaw them clean. Great stuff.
We shared a green salad (£ 4.50) which shamed most other offerings of that name. Dessert was a fantastic blood orange St. Clements cream with shortbread (£ 6.50).
This really was a perfect meal, the latest of so many I’ve had in this very special restaurant. This is truly my happy place and I only wish James and Alethea could clone themselves and open in Dundee.
Back in the city, comfort food of a different kind came via Cafe Sicilia on Perth Road. This is a useful place to know about because it serves good, home-cooked food simply, but well.
Situated in a part of Dundee that seems heaving with great independent shops and cafes, Cafe Sicilia is a nice place to have good quality Italian food for lunch.
Our Puy lentil soup (£ 4.10) was rich and satisfying and my arancini (£ 4.95) were assertively flavored and delicious. A special deal offers both for £ 7.25.
My sister Elaine’s girello (£ 4.50) was also good, the folded pizza base rich with tomato and mozzarella filling. A similar deal offers soup and the girello for £ 6.75. The coffee is good.
A solo visit for lunch a few days later confirmed this place is a real find.
My pasta with Sicilian sausage, mushroom, ‘nduja and tomato sauce (£ 10.95) was great, as nice a lunch as you’d wish for while shopping in this lovely part of town.
The cakes are delightful, and I was very happy to nab the last piece of a delicious pistachio cake, made on the premises and totally more-ish.
Service is sweet, the surroundings are cheery and the chef is very funny, with a good line in Dundee patter.
This is a place I’ll return to often, not least because there’s a great record shop nearby (Le Freak) and also an excellent vintage shop (SookSouk). Fraser’s Fruit & Veg is steps away.
It’s also worth knowing that you can circumnavigate the silly 45-minute free parking regulations on that part of Perth Road by parking in one of the nearby car parks for two hours before being charged.
And if you’re looking out for Cafe Sicilia aim for the place that looks like an old 1960s launderette because that’s what it used to be. A lovely find.
Address: Kinneuchar Inn, 9-11 Main Street, Kilconquhar, Fife, KY9 1LF
T: 01333 340377
Price: Snacks from £ 2.50, starters from £ 7.50, mains from £ 15 and desserts from £ 6.50
- Food: 5/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 5/5
Address: Cafe Sicilia, 123 Perth Road, Dundee, DD1 4JD
T: 01382 665454
Price: Dishes from £ 4.10, meal deals from £ 6.75
- Food: 4/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 4/5
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[Why you need to try Kinneuchar Inn in Fife]