Any nation that could vote Dad’s Army among the top five situation comedies of all time is suffering from a colossal surfeit of nostalgia. We’re famous for it, after all. An evening spent flicking between the five terrestrial TV channels, not to mention their 60 satellite counterparts, must surely convince a Martian that many of us are still on fire-watch duty, scanning the skies for bombers.
In fact, the past is so dramatically present we might all be completing the punishment clause of Santayana’s edict: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And mostly on BBC2.
And I might have said as much, as we motored along the coast road, past the stone-strewn margins of the Firth of Forth, the washed-out dune grasses and the occasional, triumphant stretch of sand. But such musings would have necessitated another fiver in the nostalgia penalty box.
And I needed all my available loot for the bumper nostalgia fest to come. We were heading for La Potiniere in Gullane’s Main Street – a tiny restaurant with a massive memory bank. Ask any Edinburgh citizen of a certain age (and income bracket) about La Potiniere and the anecdotes will flow faster than wine. Not all that surprising if an Edinburgh hand is holding the bottle, I’ll admit, but it doesn’t diminish the fondness with which this chintzy little place, with its echoes of a hi-de-hi beach chalet, has been held by the capital’s citizens for over 25 years. Until March 2002, that is, when David and Hilary Brown put up the For Sale sign to bring a culinary era to an end.
In the 18 months during which the restaurant was closed, I noticed that the recalled talents of the Browns grew faster than a fisherman’s escaped trout. The single Michelin star which they had won – a remarkable achievement for a husband-and-wife team with no formal training – was scarcely sufficient reward for all the vanished fabulousness. Who would dare to wear the thorny crown of the successor? I felt a pang of sympathy when the new owners, Mary Runciman and Keith Marley, took over. Could impressive credentials from some of the most celebrated kitchens in Europe compete with the elusive treachery of nostalgia?
Well, Mary and Keith have had over a year to grapple with their slippery legacy and create their own style. This was never likely to show itself too vividly in the decor, as the intimate, 30-cover space with its cottagey windows and low ceiling scarcely lends itself to revolutionary chic. Hence, at a first glance, things seem much as they were before: floral curtains, oak sideboard, crisp damask.
The biggest – and, dare I say it – most welcome change is that the menu now offers some choice. Hilary’s idiosyncracy was a dinner-party ambience where all the guests were asked to arrive together and a five-course set menu presented, as though by a lavish and hugely skilled hostess.
At lunchtime there is now a choice of three starters, two mains and two puddings or cheese at 15.50 for two courses, 18 for three. Dinner offers four courses for 35.
I began with a terrine of chicken, ham, foie gras and leek, while my companion in nostalgia ordered parmesan tart which had an almost narcotic effect on her. “This is good,” she enthused. Then: “This is better than good. It’s really excellent – the pastry is to die for.” Never had she encountered a pie base so admirably thin and crumbly – and this woman knows her pies.
My terrine was no less of a success, not too chilled, with a mellow, melting stratification of flavour rather than a mosaic of ingredients, the foie gras lending a voluptuous smoothness and depth. I had intended only to taste it, but ended up plate-polishing with some home-made bread.
As a result, the roast guinea fowl supreme I chose as a main course looked rather daunting. It came surrounded by a selection of intensely flavoured roast vegetables and the sweet enticement of layered parsnips dauphinoise. A wild mush-room jus added another strand of flavour to the moist golden-roasted meat. A flawless assembly, and I could only eat half.
Which was not at all the case at the other side of the table. There, steamed halibut in a champagne sauce was devoured with almost indecent delight.
The same thing occurred with a crunchy little parcel of apple and banana billed as a “money bag” and certainly worth a few, to judge by the spoon-speed it inspired. “The best meal I’ve had in a long time,” was my guest’s verdict. My own is that La Potiniere is as good as it ever was. Perhaps even better.
This article was first published in Scotsman Magazine on 8 July 2004