The quality of food in Scotland has increased so drastically over the past decade it’s almost impossible to recall the bad old days when La Potiniere was one of the few splashes of culinary colour on an otherwise monochrome landscape.
Under its original owners, Hilary and David Brown, this small, twenty-cover restaurant in Gullane was an extraordinary success story, the sort of place where you had to book months ahead to stand any chance of getting a table. The restaurant was held in such awe by foodies that it almost became a place of gastronomic pilgrimage.
Despite gaining a well-deserved Michelin star, that all changed a little over a decade ago when, after 25 years at the coal face, the husband-and-wife team split and, after what seemed an interminable hiatus, the restaurant passed into the hands of Mary Runciman and Keith Marley. The legacy they had been left was considerable, and the task of living up to expectations a difficult one. These days, they also have significantly more competitors because, while East Lothian remains strangely under-served by good restaurants, the relatively recent arrival of Ducks in Aberlady and Angelo Cocchia’s Osteria in North Berwick, not to mention the unveiling last month of Albert Roux’s team a stone’s throw away at Greywalls, means La Potiniere is no longer the only show in town.
Yet if our visit to the Gullane restaurant last week was any guide, Runciman and Marley are rising to the challenge magnificently. Put simply, this was one of the best meals of the year, and one that completely justified the 30-minute journey from central Edinburgh. The place may have all the ambience of a station waiting room, but from start to finish the food was of almost unimpeachable quality.
That there was someone with imagination and a sure hand at work in the kitchen became apparent from the moment the first dish arrived. The amuse bouche, a sherry-glass of gloriously viscous lovage and leek soup with a cream and salmon topping, set the meal up perfectly, and from there on in it meandered around the culinary houses but the quality never slackened.
The Browns’ success was partly built around a take-it-or-leave-it set menu that left customers with no choice but which allowed the kitchen to play to its strengths, and that spirit lives on in a menu giving a maximum of two options for each of the four courses, and just one option for the soup. On the plus side, because there was nothing on the menu that fazed either of us, it did allow us to try everything on offer.
Beginning with the starters, Vicky chose the pea mousse with a ham, egg and pea salad with mint oil, while I ordered the parmesan flan. The result was two delicate dishes that displayed such a superb lightness of touch they reminded me of Shirley Spears at the Three Chimneys at her finest. Served in the small copper saucepan that gives the restaurant its name, the only thing wrong with the flan was that there wasn’t ten times as much. Nuanced in flavour and light in texture, it alone was worth the journey. Vicky thought much the same of her lime green pea mousse, which was unfeasibly airy yet packed with an array of delicate flavours.
If our next course, a bowl of steaming, creamy Thai coconut soup with poached scallops with an unmistakable tang of chilli, was right up Vicky’s street, our main courses suited both of us perfectly. I chose the poached and seared fillet of beef with baby morels and a pink peppercorn sauce while Vicky opted for the steamed fillet of sole with a langoustine sauce.
If you can judge a top-end restaurant by the quality of its sauces, then La Potiniere passes with flying colours because both sauces were beautiful. My peppercorn sauce turned out to be surprisingly and commendably subtle while the rich langoustine sauce resonated with unexpectedly deep, fishy flavours that brought out the best in a rolled fillet of sole, which was served with lemon mousse, crushed new potatoes and asparagus. Not only was the fish perfectly cooked, but so was the beef, with the slow-cooked spale bone from AK Stoddart so tender I could have cut it with a spoon. The only downside was a plate so super-heated that Vicky’s sauce started to form an unsightly skin – a basic error, and mildly surprising given the slick production values of the rest of the meal.
Pudding was preceded by a glass of sweet, velvety amaretto and apricot cream, a sort of liquid brle that commended itself to Vicky mainly because she couldn’t taste even a hint of amaretto, but which certainly hit the spot with me.
That was very swiftly followed by a vanilla yoghurt mousse with poached rhubarb for Vicky and a warm, soft-centred chocolate with pineapple and banana compote and home-made cinnamon ice-cream which did not taste of cinnamon but was none the less marvellously creamy for me. As with the pea mousse earlier, both combined a lightness of texture with a package of competing flavours that fused perfectly.
The Browns may be long gone, but their legacy of excellence lives on.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 6, 2010