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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Browns Bar & Brasserie - 1 George Square

Browns Bar & Brasserie, 1 George Square, Glasgow G2 1DY

George Square needed a place like this, something befitting Glasgow’s official centre and grandest landmark. Up until Browns, all we had were another bland Wetherspoons (Counting House) the shifty pubs under Queen Street station, the Millennium Hotel, and the modest The Edge on the corner with Cochrane Street.

Admittedly Jamie Oliver has arrived, but it is just a name and any place that forbids reservations just to create the buzz of queues at its door, doesn’t feature on my radar. I also doubt whether you can just enter for an imbibe-only visit.

Browns bills itself as a Bar & Brasserie and first impressions are well, impressive. There’s a large area greeting you inside the single glass door – should really be a double door to block cold north breezes – I’d say around 3,000 square feet, with a dais on the far right of the room.

Colour scheme is an elegant union of creams and browns and the seating eclectic, my favourite being the high chairs that have their own personal bar; the tables resembling a counter. The management seem to prefer having you wait to get seated judging by the way a waitress intercepted our path to a nice table with curved couch seating. My impatience, nay abruptness, causing me trouble again.

We were graciously allowed to stay where we were though and watched as others waited for a staff member to lead them to their table. At least half seemed to have booked and were led to the dais, joined soon by a group of ladies to our left who had been enjoying birthday celebration drinks at the aforementioned high-chairs. I like that: no, not ladies, well yes of course I do…oh forget it… I mean pre-dinner drinks. Gets you in the mood, so most people say.

The food is brasserie-style, no surprises there, and reasonable for such a central location. The grill options look particularly well-priced and does the Prix Fixe. This is the kind of place you would meet an old friend from out of town, fresh off the train, an easy rendezvous in an establishment that won’t embarrass the city.

A place also for taking mum for afternoon tea. That’s what me and The Muse did, even though respective mothers were missing. There had been a wee wait before we received any sort of menu, but we disguised our slight annoyance and took to observing the interior more closely. The distinctive small barrel-shaped chandeliers caught our attention, unusual. The large central bar – wood-slatted with a metal top - is quite stately but could do with being a slightly darker wood to give it real presence. And perhaps they could do without the branding on the large clocks, but overall there is a pleasing old-fashioned salon feel to this joint.

That extends to the nicely formal service and to the high tea we received. Cucumber, and salmon sandwiches minus the crust, cream scones, selection of four cakes, and loose tea with a strainer each. This and a choice of the particular tea blend. All for £10.95 for two. Great value.

I know a lot of places are doing high-tea now, but it can be done badly, as a recent visit to The Blind Pig on Byres Road demonstrated, their effort, including chipped crockery and lukewarm tea, was abysmal. Here, I had all the tea my pot could provide and the food was light and without obvious flaw.

A few groups of gents had now arrived around the bar seeking mere session-beers, and service was a little slow for them as the barman struggled with a few orders especially with cocktails. We decide to add to his troubles. The cocktail list is just one part of varied selections in all aspects of booze, from the often-neglected dessert wines & ports, to gins – 9 choices – to beers, which include one of my personal favourites, Cusquena. I don’t need, though, to be told the units of alcohol in each beer, as they have decided to inform you at the bottom of the page.

The offer of one of their Signature Cocktails, a selection of around 15, for £4.95 from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday close was too good to pass. The Muse went for a Bramble, while I headed east for a Sherbet Caiprovska.

After placing our order I went downstairs where there are more tables in an area that looks like an overflow or for private-hire. But it also features a really imaginative seating layout. A select few tables sit out under the glass pavement above, an outside-in feel to be enjoyed whether it’s sunny or when, more commonly, the raindrops gather then slide along and down the glass, making you glad to be indoors.

I returned to enjoy my cocktail and The Muse and I, reflected, as is our wont on these occasions that the city has gained something here. This is despite the fact that Browns is part of a London-based chain that has now spread into double figures across the country, we do like to see home-grown ventures.

Browns is likely to compete with establishments like Urban Brasserie in the middle-income-elegance stakes, and Glasgow has an inhabitant worthy of its most prestigious address.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Highland Hospitality? Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B, The Real Food Cafe, The Cluanie Inn, The Bothy, The Ballachulish Hotel

Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B and Tea Room The Real Food Cafe, Tyndrum The Cluanie Inn The Bothy, Fort Augustus The Ballachulish Hotel Despite the inclement weather forecast we pressed ahead with our mini-Highland break, sampling as much hospitality as we could stomach, and including a wee stroll or two amidst the sedentary nature of the whole. A warning though: This recent holiday from the confines of Glasgow included very little imbibing, so it breaks from my habitual brief but hopefully it will be as worth reading as the rest. Tyndrum & Spean Bridge I’ve been in the Real Food Café in Tyndrum before, for fish and chips on that occasion, about two years ago. As I recall things didn’t run quite as smooth back then, the operation callow and finding its way. Its reputation was good though even then, and the slight untidiness of the place and mediocre service disappointed. Now, the place is well established, their systems tried and tested, reputation still growing, and the service excellent. They even have an adjoining porch with wood-burning stove. We enjoyed a mid-morning coffee at the sociable high bench seating along with the best flapjack I’ve eaten since school play pieces. Sweet, great texture and remarkably light. The coffees weren’t bad either. All the cakes are freshly home-baked – we exalted in the sight of a new batch of scones appearing – and the hot meals including pies, chicken, sausages, burgers and curries use locally sourced and referenced meat. And the speciality of fish and chips, which continues to win admiration and awards, features sustainable options such as coley. The place, which invariably has a real buzz, is everything a modern café should be. At least six wet walkers had entered and were enjoying their break from the elements before we left. Little did we know that we were to get even more sodden than them before the weekend was done. The Real Food has brought another dimension to Tyndrum, a village blessed with being an ideal stop-off point on the way to Glencoe, Fort William and further north. The café does rival its near neighbour The Green Welly Stop, but having talked with its owners I know they see this competition as a good thing, knowing that it will bring more footfall and benefit to the village as a whole. We moved onward through the rain, only stopping at the Spean Bridge Woollen Mill cafeteria. Not very cool, I know, but the only other place we could find was the next door hotel’s chippie whose fatty smells warded us off very quickly. The mill’s cafeteria laid on baked potatoes, chilli, lasagne, basic salads, paninis etc. Uninspiring but necessary in this natural stage point in many journeys north. Kinloch Hourn & Cluanie Inn Luckily the rain ended around Invergarry near the southern tip of Loch Ness, as we turned off the main A82, heading west on the country’s longest dead end road. 22 miles later we reached Kinloch Hourn. This is as remote a settlement as you can get. Two farmhouses with three residents in total. One offers a small B&B –more of which later. Car parked, we trekked for two days – first night in a bothy, sadly without a recognised bar, so no review for that – and the second was back at the aforementioned farmhouse after a 13 ½ hour tramp through the best and worst that the Highlands can offer. High passes, secluded lochans, sea vistas, isolated lochs, raging torrents and treacherous mud flats. The last of these almost sucked me to somewhere cold and dark and the mud covering made it hard for me to look respectable when we arrived back at Kinloch Hourn desperately looking for a bed for the night. Luckily Mary and Joe, the folk who run the wee B&B took pity on us despite there being no official rooms left. Joe took us up the steep stairs in the overflow building across the yard. Basic accommodation but very welcome. We returned to the living room for hot soup, cups of tea and a bath each in their own bathroom, their little diesel generator re-booted just for our benefit. In the morning a massive cooked breakfast was laid in front of us. Over the beautifully cooked eggs, bacon and sausage we talked to Joe about life in such a remote spot and his experiences helping walkers in trouble. On leaving he handed us the bill. A ridiculously tiny amount for the hospitality we had received. We added something to the bill and drove back along the B road, pausing halfway to allow a procession of MGs past on their way for tea and scones at Joe’s place. The rest of our weekend was spent in Skye where unfortunately we were unable to sample any of the interesting pubs and hotel bars in and around Portree. Next time I will include the Isles Inn and Portree Hotel on Somerled Square at least. We did mange to visit the Cluanie Inn on the way there. A habitual favourite of mine, situated fifteen to twenty miles from any other hostelry, on the edge of Loch Claunie on the A87. It’s been tweeked over the years, different owners I think. The open- fire in the bar area down steps to the right of the main room still remains, but some of the cosy charm has gone. I need to return on a cold winter night to find out if I’m correct. Fort Augustus & Ballachulish On the leisurely drive south we detoured via Fort Augustus to see what has changed there since a night spent in the The Lovat hotel four years ago. The Lovat offers features such as bio-mass underfloor heating and other trendy boutique hotel bits and pieces alongside more traditional highland-lodge-style fittings. The open-plan bar area lacks a little atmosphere though so imbibers need some alternatives. There’s 2 or 3 places by the impressive locks that join the Caledonian Canal with Loch Ness. The Lock Inn is a basic little pub but not without interest, cosy little corners and community feel to it. Its closest neighbour is The Bothy, a far more ambitious and spacious establishment. I remember watching the Rugby World Cup 2007, an Ireland match I think, and the atmosphere was nice and raucous. I also remember the tiny toilets up in the rafters. This time we wanted some edibles and asked for a table in the front bar area. Sadly they shipped us through into the characterless back extension conservatory. Thus the specials board was out of sight, and not one of the waiting staff informed us what was on it. The menu was a dreadful affair, nothing fresh nor local in sight. The experience not helped by us seeing the kitchen staff going back and forward through the courtyard to retrieve the next frozen thing to be cooked. Two of those things were a carpet, sorry veggie, burger and the worst venison burger in history delivered to yours truly. Even our request for a baked potato instead of a burger-roll was swiftly refused. Neighbouring tables weren’t doing any better, four German tourists nearby had asked for local whiskies, but were left to choose for themselves as the waiter didn’t have a clue. But he did shout out their order for all to hear once they had picked. Nice touch. I don’t know if The Bothy is owned by a local or is part of a national chain but whoever is in charge is complacently counting their money – the place was busy – while offering sub standard fare and service. I left the Muse to deal with the bill while I went upstairs, thinking that I had seen better food served in a real bothy in the middle of the wilds of Knoydart three days previously and that was freeze-dried pasta carried in on backpacks. The toilets were how I remembered them: cramped. But now there was a shower cubicle, with no curtain. Good for any exhibitionists passing through, needing to freshen-up. One more stop before our return to Glasgow. The Ballachulish Hotel sits under the bridge of the same name. Once you have crossed from the north instead of going left to Glencoe and beyond, take the Oban road. The hotel sits by the confluence of Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven, alongside the Dragon’s Tooth golf course whose use is free for residents. Its baronial appearance impresses, rather more so than the anodyne Isles of Glencoe Hotel just along the road. The Isles, also owned by Akkeron Hotels, is a modern building housing accommodation and leisure facilities available for use by residents of both establishments. The Ballachulish’s appeal grows as you enter the Bulas Bar & Bistro, contemporary luxury as the blurb says, alongside the traditional wood panelling of the main reception and hall. Comfortable and chic, with decent leather seating, exposed stone and all the latest features you would expect in a city wine bar. Perhaps, then, not wholly appropriate for the setting, but perfectly acceptable. The menu offers hot basic meals, as well as, a selection of cakes and muffins and warm scones with cream and jam, from 12-6pm. Then the more extensive night-time brasserie fare comes in. So at mid-afternoon we expected no problems ordering some fresh coffee and scones. We waited for a good 5 minutes for anyone to appear at the bar. Eventually a young eastern-European lady appeared and took our order. We’d been settled for a wee while when she returned to say there were no scones but she could offer us shortbread instead, as if scones and shortbread were one and the same thing. Shortbread! No money-back was offered but we insisted we would only pay for the coffees. The Muse then went looking for the manager while I began scribbling this blog, nothing like frustration to get the juices flowing. The manager was unhelpful, stating that he should have been told that they couldn’t provide the food advertised, and nothing more. No apologies, no explanation. A very disappointing end to our little sojourn and survey of Highland hospitality. Ironic that the most humble of our hosts, at Kinloch Hourn, provided the best welcome and dedication to service. But the bad points remain in Scotland, continuing to drop the holidaymaker experience below expectations, squandering the chance that our landscape provides and making it less likely we will ever reach our potential as a thriving tourist destination.