I never fail to be impressed by the magnificence of Glasgow's Royal Exchange Square.
Those larger-than-life neo-classical façades, those temple-like steps, that amphitheatre atmosphere amplifying calls and footsteps - this is architecture to elevate the spirits. How fortunate that the Gallery of Modern Art is slap bang in the middle of it, or the city planners would doubtless have ruined it by now; witness the fiasco surrounding plans for George Square.
Such lack of judgement isn't unique to Glasgow. For all that planners like to blabber on about creating "urban piazzas", they haven't a clue about how to go about it, unless, that is, their plan involves demolition of sturdy historic buildings, deforestation, and a shopping centre with a Starbucks and Tesco Express. In Aberdeen and Perth, the schemes advanced for improving - or should that be ruining? - important civic spaces show that wishful thinking and short-term revenue-raising always top more rounded, grounded proposals.
Loading article content
These thoughts were going through my head while sitting at a window table in The Grill Room At The Square in Glasgow, which affords a bird's-eye view over this imposing forum. It's worth the climb, although I must say that on the way up, I was beginning to wonder what I was walking into.
The first issue is that The Grill Room At The Square is hard to find. "Cross over and look for a massive black and white 29" advised a helpful vendeuse in LK Bennett. Then it's up the stairs past lots of black paint and along empty corridors with signs to a club, members' room, terrace and bar. The whole thing is rather frayed around the edges, with an ever so slightly louche casino-like air. It felt like stepping onto the set of a 1950s gangster film. I half expected the Kray twins to be enjoying a drink at the bar.
Happily, when I actually got to the restaurant, it all seemed perfectly normal, more of a ladies who lunch, and golfers who meet sort of venue. The menu shows the usual grill room braggadocio. It even features Kobe beef at £60 for an eight-ounce steak. Mind you, the home-baked bread does come free of charge, which is something. It's not the best bread in the world - too airy and biscuity - but it's warm and welcome nevertheless.
Our shellfish bisque was broad-shouldered and its terracotta depths had enough texture to make me believe that crustacean shells had contributed to its full-bodied flavour. I sampled, then stopped eating, the parmesan and aioli it came with: both were well below par. Ditto the inept Caesar salad, which resembled a mixture for a chicken and ham pie, dressed in a mouth-mugger of a dressing that would surely taint the palate for the rest of the day. I couldn't detect the presence of any anchovies, and the croutons looked like those that sit beside the soup at motorway service stations.
A char-grilled, organic pork cutlet was rather good, juicy, with a reasonable sage and lemon butter, but badly let-down by its accompanying water bomb grilled tomato sitting on a field mushroom cap, redolent of a chain hotel breakfast buffet. Beef olives, on the other hand, were straight out of school meals. The dry beef had begun to turn up at the edges, as though it had been sat under a heat lamp for too long. Tasty enough with a winey gravy and reasonable mash, but it wasn't worth a tenner.
A small, mean pear crumble tartlet under squirty butterscotch sauce, served with unremarkable ice cream, tasted no better than a standard supermarket job, and was no bargain at £5.95. Lemon posset with raspberry purée and Chantilly cream was absolutely fine, but then you need to be a culinary incompetent not to pull off this elementary dessert.
The wine list here includes some interesting growers - and go for bottles, because the choice by the glass is limited with in-built, unjustifiable mark-ups. Our waiters were affable and got the job done.
At lunch, the Grill Room has the relaxed buzz of an upmarket department store restaurant. I'm not sure how that squares with the swanky nightclub vibe, but there's always the view to look out on.