Tasting menus are a big risk for both diner and chef. When they’re good, they’re really good. No messing around. No vacillating between confit this or slow-roasted that. Just exceptional produce, exceptionally cooked. Choices made for you. Plenty of pretension, but adequately judged. No cognitive overload, no compromises. Wine paired, food served. The arc of the meal clearly defined.
But with each course, each time the – gastronomy? genre? narrative? – dives and twists and turns, each moment the waiters glide up to and away from the table, each percussive pop of a cork, each innocuous clink of cutlery against crockery, each splash of jus against shirt or tablecloth, the chances of something going wrong increase. And sometimes, just sometimes, that’s what happens. When they’re good, they’re really good. But when they’re not? You might leave full, you might leave drunk, but you might leave unsatisfied.
I wonder if I’d have enjoyed The Peat Inn more had I dined à la carte. I had high hopes, I really did. My local wine-merchant, Peter, recommended it very highly. The Michelin guide, Great British Chefs, Jay Rayner, all waxing lyrical. And after three months in St Andrews, three months of canteen food, burgers, student curry deals, I had been dreaming of fine dining: of reductions and jellies and things browned with blowtorches and other things quenelled and perhaps, if I was lucky, something made with liquid nitrogen, or at least something equally silly. I had high hopes.
Lots of game, Peter promised. And lots of game I was delivered: partridge, breast and leg, smoked, cut across with a maple vinegar and chestnut sauce. Potato purée, parsnips, glazed salsify. Mountain hare melting into an odd but subtly lovely mix of celeriac and truffle (branded as ‘risotto’, which got my hopes up even more). It was fucking delicious (even if the risotto wasn’t risotto at all and I threw a minor tantrum in front of my bemused ex-girlfriend).
Local fish, Peter promised. And local fish I was delivered: sea trout, Orkney langoustines, beetroot and horseradish velouté. Butch, proper, Scottish. Very Scottish. Scallop tartare, calamari. Little flakes of raddish and staccato black sesame.
There is so much to recommend the place. The decor, at once rococo and clean. The service, pandering and charming in just the right quantities. Staff knowledgeable and patient, informed and informing, entertaining and dedicated. Chef-Patron Geoffrey Smeddle is clearly a very talented guy with an enthusiasm for restaurants that reaches far beyond the kitchen.
But something didn’t quite click. And I promise I’m not blind to my privilege – it was a fantastic meal by anybody’s standards, and I feel lucky to have experienced it. But I want to be clear-headed about this, and something – something – felt the tiniest bit off.
The scallop tartare wasn’t fresh enough. It was a little bit too fishy, a little bit too weather-worn, a little bit too flaccid. The langoustines needed cleaning, so my pinot was more grit than gris. The cheese course was a clusterfuck and I don’t want to talk about it. The feuilleté was lovely, but basically a bit boring. Geoffrey had Smeddled too much with the plum sorbet; it ached with confusion. The more expensive ‘vintage’ wine pairing didn’t really justify the extra 40 quid; all the thought had gone into the (somewhat confusingly-titled) ‘classic’ pairing – which, in the end, didn't always pair.
When you’re committing to six or more courses – six courses not chosen by you, not even designed on your behalf, but instead chosen at Smeddle’s prerogative, an expression of his world-view – you’re investing in the whole meal. The whole experience. Whether you think they do or not, the failures of one course spill over into the next; a poor dessert leaves a taste in your mouth that colours your memories of the starter, a poorly chosen wine dampens the success of the perfect pairing the course before. It’s not terminal – it rarely is – but it takes away from that pure, raw, atavistic joy that accompanies an exceptional meal.
If you dine à la carte, the chef is cooking for you. When you opt for a tasting menu, he's cooking for him – so you put yourself at his mercy. You have trusted his judgement. And sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – that judgement fails you.
So perhaps if I’d had fewer courses, been more deliberate, exposed myself to less risk, I would have been more upbeat about the whole thing. All things considered, it was a good meal. I left full, I left drunk. But I left a little unsatisfied.
Image thanks to Great British Chefs.