Bruce Palling on a weekend trying to eat well in Glasgow and Edinburgh
The question of Glasgow versus Edinburgh is one of the classic futile urban rivalries way up there alongside Sydney (“whattaraya worth?”) vs Melbourne (“what school did yagoto?”) or even LA vs SF. Most of Glasgow’s glories seemed to have long floated down the Clyde while Edinburgh still manages to have the sheen of a well-maintained classical city (helped no doubt by being the second home of key hedge-fund players in Europe).
We went to Glasgow last weekend to attend our first gay wedding and thought it would be amusing to have Friday lunch at whatever passes for the best place in town. The fun begins when we booked into the Corinthian, the top Michelin place in town. Admittedly the Serbian telephonist's grasp on English was not exactly black belt, but even this did not prepare us for a restaurant with its chairs upended and heavy cleaning proceeding rather than actual cooking. They had taken a lunch booking but in fact they only opened for dinner.
Perhaps we were lucky, as The Observer‘s critic said some time back that it was “gaudy, ghastly and over-elaborate. And that's just the clientele”. So we started calling the other likely suspects without getting anywhere and jumped into a cab heading towards the West End, where there are a smattering of good local places.
Five minutes into this process we noticed another abandoned financial institution now transformed into a restaurant called 78 St Vincent. I genuinely cannot recall what we ate except that it was unmemorable and that the wine was an execrable New World Ozzie berry blend at 14%. The only other punters were a table full of slack tied businessmen rapidly demolishing the remainder of the day. (A word of warning: try not to venture downtown after 10pm as you are liable to be deafened by the ambulance sirens or inconvenienced by the vomit puddles. Curious when you see how large the local inhabitants are.)
The wedding was a two pronged affair (timing wise) so rather than endure two nights in between in Glasgow we fled to Edinburgh, where I am pleased to say, things turned up for the better.
New York may have Dean and De Luca and San Sebastian the fish markets but Edinburgh trumps them all with Valvona & Crolla. This vast Italian food and wine store was started in the Thirties but was given a huge boost because Scotland was a popular place for Italian Prisoners of War so they had a captive audience so to speak. It is easily the best Italian provisions store north of the Alps as well as having an amazingly diverse range of Italian wine from Sicilian scorchers to the grandest Gajas and Barolos. Not only that but if you pay £6 corkage you can purchase their wine and take it to the simple restaurant just up the steps.
Now this is the sort of place I can manage on a regular basis. Noisy, three rows of wooden tables under what looks like a converted storage shed and completely packed with families and their wide eyed babies happily slurping down scraps from their contented parents while other groups have their signature pizzas.
I went for the Bucatoni Ametriciana (slightly larger than spaghetti with a hollow centre with a pancetta and other anonymous meat in a tomato ragu) which had a divine stinky, sweaty drainy odour (how offal!) Then Tagliere di Bistecca, a huge rare rib eye with the customary rocket and Reggiano shavings with olive oil (pictured, right). This was good enough for the River Café in London but for a fraction of the price and washed down with a whole bottle of Barolo Paesi Tuoi 03. Now Barolo is not the sort of wine that drinks well young and this was no exception but it’s pure steely class occasionally peeped over the rather tannic parapet.
The final course was a slight mistake--a selection of cheeses along with figs, jam and biscuits. Sadly it had only been released from a refrigerator seconds before so the sustaining flavour of the cheeses was cloaked by the chill.
I never fail to go to this pleasure palace whenever I am in Edinburgh--if only it was replicated in London as you can eat stupendously well for £20 a person and then spend the £80 you saved on a Brunello or Barolo 97.
Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA Tel. 0131 556 6066