Tonight I ate at Albannach (Scots Gaelic for 'Scottish') at Trafalgar Square, London. I used to do restaurant and pub reviews when I travelled a lot (you can read some of the previous reviews here) but haven't done one in a while. Tonight's visit has prompted me to get back into Gordon Ramsay mode.
First of all, I'd like to steer clear of the Scottish stereotypes. A place doesn't have to be dripping with tartan, heather and playing Kenneth McKellar for me to say it's authentic - we've all had enough of Scottish kitsch, but there are a few basics to get right. Albannach is in the Scottish heart of London - a stone's throw from The Scottich office, The Crown Court Church of Scotland, the world's oldest Scots Gaelic choir at Covent Garden and the meeting venue of the Gaelic society of London (founded 1777). No shortage of local experts then.
It's perfectly possible to be modern and relevant and still be Scottish. The revival in Gaelic, the growth of modern Scottish folk music with new interpretations on old songs, the kilt being cool to wear amongst young people at ceilidhs all goes to show you can be trendy and contemporary yet still be Scottish. Rstaurants such as Ghillie Dhu in Edinburgh are using Gaelic now - after all it's always cool to demonstrate knowledge of your own country, rather than ignorance.
The Albannach has trendy white antlers for decoration, but that's about as far as it goes. The music was I think American swing, the staff from somewhere in Europe. They didn't really understand Scottish cuisine and I had to explain it to them. There's some basics you really need to get right. I usually get served by Indian people in an Indian restaurant and get Indian music. I would feel a bit surprised being served by Chinese people in an Indian restaurant whilst African music was playing in the background, yet this cultural mix up seems completely OK when you're a Scottish restaurant in London. I'm not going to dwell on this too much since doing so might seem too stereotypical, the point is that when I go out in Scotland there's often non-Scots serving me and this is perfectly OK but the difference is that there they know the menu and can explain it.
For a restaurant trying to be up-market, there is a pretty dire selection for vegetarians, none of the vegetarian options being very Scottish. Best go elsewhere. I was a bit surprised too that for a restaurant priding itself on its whiskies and being a "restaurant and whisky" venue, that I was presented with the wine menu on seating, no whisky menu in sight. Perhaps a wine and whisky menu would be more relevant in the circumstances?
Having been a fan of McSween's haggis for about 20 years (and mentioning it in the Scottish FAQ, the first online guide to Scotland, since 1994) I went for the haggis main course. What a disappointment. It was a haggis tower, trying to be trendy but like a Bay City Roller in platform shoes 30 years too late, failing miserably. It resembled a haggis hamburger atop a potato slab. I looked for several minutes for the neeps (turnip) that was supposed to accompany it but eventually gave up and called the waiter. He explained the white stuff tasting like potatoes was turnip, and then went to get some more "neeps", which also turned out to be potatoes. After some more digging around in the potato slab I eventually found about a square inch of actual turnip, buried deep within the tatties (potato). There it was, small yet not perfectly formed, as it was undercooked and not mashed or even cooked properly. This was a potato slab with a hint of turnip buried deep within, rather than the traditional tatties, neeps and haggis in roughly equal proportions side by side on the plate. Accompanying this was an anonymous whisky, no mention of which one it was. For a place priding itself in its whisky knowledge, I would have though asking me which one I wanted or at least saying which one it was might have been a basic.
When the second helping of "neeps" arrived I had actually finished the main course at this point so had a helping of potatoes as an intermediate course. Nice. Not. Again, there were a few small pieces of actual neeps buried deep within, like finding the proverbial sixpence within Granny's Christmas pudding. However, I thought I would illuminate the staff with a few pictures from Wikipedia illustrating what neeps looked like as it seems they had never tasted it personally and mistakenly believed that mashed potatoes were in fact turnips. Huh? Shurely shome mishtake?
I ordered coffee and dessert. Normally in a basic restaurant, never mind one trying to think about being upmarket you get the dessert first then the coffee. Not so at the Albannach, when you get the coffee first then the dessert 10 minutes later.
It is difficult to see how this place has one the awards that it has, it would be interesting to see when the awards were actually given and if the current staff were involved in any way.
Surprisingly for a restaurant that couldn't be booked online and gave the impression of being full for weeks, the place was deserted. There were about 3 tables in use, 9 staff or so busying themselves doing apparently nothing in as many creative ways as possible. It might have been better on a coldish night if we hadn't been sat next to the draughty window with our coats on and tables near the bar were going empty, another mistake. Maybe it was the cold keeping people away, or maybe tonight's diners had found somewhere more attractive to eat.
I don't subscribe to the 12.5% service charge philosophy. If I want to leave a tip I will and if I don't like the service I like the option of not paying it. Should a restaurant find it's not making enough money, it should increase the food prices and not rely on a 12.5% service charge to make up the shortfall. I also don't subscribe to the philosophy of just because it's central London it's got to be expensive either.
Wetherspoons in Whitehall is but a 5 minute walk away from Albannach. When Wetherspoons serve haggis, it is also from MacSween's. They do neeps you can see and which are separate. They do mashed potato (tatties) too. They charge about 1/4 the price of Albannach, have a warm room and the portions are bigger too. So there's no justification in being ripped off just to look at white antlers.
Perhaps you could be a bit more Scottish and cool by playing Clarsach music, something by Capercaillie or the Red Hot Chilli Pipers? A menu in Scots or Gaelic would be helpful or at least to say they are available on request, it shows you might have been to Scotland recently where bilingual signs are becoming increasingly commonplace. You might even pick up some good Scottish words such as "Hogmanay" rather than the "New Year's Eve" menu advertised on the site. If you put Cranachan on a menu, surely using the Scottish word for turn of the year isn't too much to ask?
I had cranachan for dessert. Again, this was made by someone who didn't seem to have a clue. The dry oats sandwiched between the cream and fruit were difficult to blend together with the soup spoon. Try picking up some tips from a proper Scottish award winning restaurant such as the three chimneys or on the cover of the Scots cooking bible if you want to know how to make this. Come to think of it just about anywhere in the excellent taste of Scotland would be able to give this place the proverbial boot in the goolies. Perhaps Taste of Scotland should come down and give them some advice. The chef at Albannach is Jason Wilson. I couldn't find any info about him other than he had previously worked at an Argentinian restaurant (Gaucho Grill) but did note that along the way that Albannach were advertising on Gumtree for staff, a rather surprising location to be looking for upmarket staff.
Bio: The author is a Gaelic speaking Scotsman, used to work for the Scottish Tourist Board, who work closely with Taste of Scotland (although the opinions here are entirely my own) and wrote the first online guide to Scotland and which even has a food and drink section. The restaurant mentioned above in London has thankfully absolutely no connection with the excellent Albannach Hotel which has a highly coveted Michelin star.
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