I CAN'T help noticing that people from Northern Ireland are becoming the cheery face of hospitality these days.
They seem to be replacing all those sunny Australians; I guess they can only take the lack of sun for so long. Perhaps Northern Ireland has particularly strong training courses for careers in the hotel and restaurant trade. Or is it just that its people, despite that country's history of sectarian division, are naturally charming? Staying in a Belfast hotel recently I was struck by the warmth of the welcome, and the frequent use of the word "wee", so different from the Scottish usage. As in: "How was yer wee breakfast?" "Have you got everything you need in yer wee room?" Such questions appeared to be genuinely solicitous.
I don't know if it's due to the injection of Northern Irish staff, but it feels as if Glasgow's One Devonshire Gardens has now loosened its stays somewhat. For many years it had a reputation for being off-puttingly uptight and snooty, and that's the kiss of death in Glasgow. But currently, under the wing of the Hotel du Vin chain, there's a different vibe. The front of house service, with its Northern Irish accent, is highly professional, yet relaxed, gregarious, and articulate, as opposed to stiff, aloof and silent.
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Now that both Gordon Ramsay and Michael Caines have beaten a retreat from Glasgow and admitted defeat for the time being, Hotel du Vin looks like the city's best special occasion option. Its prices certainly locate it in this bracket. The food is still pretty good, albeit the spirit of fancy, fine dining cooking still seems more present in its kitchen than in Hotel du Vins elsewhere. But then the setting is more special, say, than its counterpart in Edinburgh, so a bit of swank seems appropriate.
After a mouthful of warm, and all to easy to nibble mascarpone and roasted onion bread, a salad was set before me. Now, this was so shockingly pretty and cleverly done, that you could almost ignore its £12.50 price tag. Slightly Japanese in its delicate carefulness and dexterity, it was a visual and textural delight, combining colourful vegetables - pickled, raw, and crisped - that had been cut in different ways: balls, cubes, amulets, shreds. It was crowned with a tiara of fresh black truffle shavings, and I guess, truffle oil, since truffle in its natural state generally needs warmth to strut its stuff. A scallop starter supplied similar elegance, the discs of white flesh under a filigree-like golden fried exterior, and set against a slippery nest of black squid ink noodles, then garlanded with a yellow lemon butter sauce bedecked with pink salmon roe and speckles of green herbs.
Both starters hung together conceptually. A main course of hazelnut-crusted monkfish was served on an otherwise perfect risotto nero that had been rather too assertively flavoured with lemon zest, and encircled by a dice of cucumber and tomato that just didn't work with the fish and rice elements. It looked gorgeous though, so perhaps this was a case of the kitchen allowing visual appearance to override taste. Truffled gnocchi had a pleasing, rather unusual texture, as though they had been made with polenta and had been adeptly fried to produce an amber crust. Under a tangle of pea shoots and wild mushrooms, they made another eye-catching dish. Unfortunately, it also included the same vegetable crisps of the starter salad. On a menu that isn't terribly long, such repetitions are a mistake.
For dessert, it was easy to like the cuddly, grown-up amarena cherry soufflé with its pour-on Valrhona chocolate sauce and its custardy kirsch ice cream, but I just couldn't handle the adolescent red velvet cake. Apparently its gaudy, vibrant pinky-red colour is sprayed on, so that's why it looks so lurid. Its chocolate sponge, jam and creamy innards were too sweet for me to handle, despite the mitigating effect of its likeable pecan crunch and salty cheesecake ice cream. This dessert definitely constituted eye candy, but if this kitchen has a weakness, it is that its otherwise welcome pursuit of visual appeal can, on occasion, override other considerations.