Hotel du Vin, St Andrews
It is a cold January afternoon in St Andrews, an attractive university town perched on the east coast of Scotland. The streets are thronging with the local student populace, seemingly impervious to the whipping wind as it rushes in off the cold North Sea. I find myself here on a Tuesday, and I am in search of dinner and a bed for the night.
The Hotel du Vin beckons.
Established in 1994 by the highly regarded Gerard Basset (1957 – 2019) and Robin Hutson, the former a Master Sommelier (later to also be Master of Wine) who brought his wine expertise, the latter bringing his hotel management know-how, Hotel du Vin grew to become a highly regarded chain of boutique luxury hotels with a reputation for good wine and good service. The duo subsequently sold the chain some years later, and at the time of writing the chain is in the hands of Frasers Hospitality, which also owns the Malmaison hotel chain.
Although I can’t recall the last time I dined in a Hotel du Vin – it must have been some time during those misty, pre-pandemic years – I recall classic French dishes with a bistro tenor. That seems to remain the case today, the menu a mix of bistro staples and seasonal specials, and with no wintry bias intended I end up eating entirely from the latter section of the menu. I begin with oven roasted scallops, a dish of generously sized scallops apparently roasted in the shell and topped with gremolata, a zesty blend of onion, parsley and garlic, all resting in a handful of fresh green cress. The scallops perhaps unsurprisingly appear to have been lightly pan-fried (before perhaps having been finished in the oven) but let’s not split hairs, they were delightfully fresh, gently cooked, and they worked well with the gremolata and accompanying croutons.
The starter ticked all the boxes but did not really provide any of the antifreeze required to insulate me against the wintry weather outside. That role fell to the next dish.
Now I will confess that, in apparently a somewhat inattentive frame (I was naturally distracted by my date), I read porchetta on the menu, but my brain thought porcini. So it was something of a surprise when, having anticipated the arrival of a tower of mushrooms of Babelesque proportions, out from the kitchen came a generous slice of roast porchetta, resting on a bed of creamy polenta, with gremolata (again!) and accompanied by a rich pork jus.
But what a serendipitous slip of the mind! The pork had been finished in the pan, giving a wonderful colour to the meat, the fat was perfectly rendering, present but melt-in-the-mouth, while the polenta and jus ensured that I spent the rest of the evening emitting a warm insulating glow. Porchetta and polenta, I have realised, are the modern man’s Ready-Brek. If that is a confusing cultural reference, you obviously didn’t grow up watching UK TV during the 1970s.
What to drink? Well, I spotted a couple of interesting Loire choices hiding on the wine list, but I decided to push the boat out of my comfort zone (am I allowed to mix metaphors in that manner?) with a bottle of the 2019 Condrieu La Petite Côte from Yves Cuilleron. This was a wine of ups and downs, with very expressive aromatics and great texture, but while it possessed a certain presence and grip it lacked a sense of acidity and freshness, and the 14.5% alcohol perhaps didn’t help. Ultimately this is not a wine I would go back to, although with an appropriately light chill it worked pretty well with the evening’s choices.
I decided I could not finish the evening without a little sugar, and my finger tip landed on the tarte tatin and vanilla ice cream, which was pleasant enough, although a tarte tatin it was not. Sticky apple sweetness, yes. Compact caramelised apple jewels, no. All the same, it still provided fuel for the next day, as I headed further along the coast for more culinary adventures. But that’s a story for another time….
Prices: The scallops were £15.50, the porchetta £18.95, the tarte tatin £7.50 and the Condrieu was £80, at the very top end of the list. All in all dinner for two came to a few pennies over £171. (24/2/23)