I thoroughly approve of the new-look Cromlix.
Its refurbishment is radical, yet respectful. A second entrance opens up the back of the house to the green serenity of the garden. Architects have dispensed with a tacky suburban conservatory that badly needed to go, and reworked the whole space. Now there's an elegant bar that makes use of the original features of the house, and a substantial glassed-in building with wood-grained walls and limestone flagstones that houses a Chez Roux restaurant. Boldly, the kitchen is open plan, so you can hear the head chef prompting his team, see the sous chefs checking sauces for flavour, and glimpse the kitchen porter drying skillets.
This urban kitchen might cause consternation to old-school diners accustomed to tepid plates from a distant kitchen, a dying breed that treasures the over-upholstered, rural swagger of the late 20th-century country house hotel, but I think it's a wise move. Without surrendering any of its quaint charm, a conscious decision seems to have been taken that Cromlix, which is owned by Andy Murray, isn't going to be a stiff-backed, frosty place. You get the feeling that it doesn't want to be consigned to a once-in-a-blue moon, special occasion category. Staff are young, chirpy, and appear genuinely enthused by the whole project. Perhaps they have been actively encouraged to engage with customers? Certainly, the message is loud and clear: everyone is welcome here.
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Chez Roux serves up the hallmark Roux virtues - impeccable sauces, reverence for fine Scotch beef and shellfish, clean presentation, craft in the pastry department - with a prevailing mood that is relaxed and modern. A graceful leek terrine resembling eau-de-nil marble came with a copper cocotte containing tomato vinaigrette, and an emollient truffle cream; a glowing example of Roux savoir-faire. The leeks, potential slippery customers, were silky soft, but not in the least overcooked. A couple of shelled langoustine tails sat in plump, pink proximity on the plate. The two sauces worked together surprisingly well.
On the particularly good value fixed price, three options per course, daily menu (£29.50), our other starter was just as sure-footed: top-notch crab bisque served with a model rouille. But the main course on this menu, described as slow-cooked featherblade steak, was a poser. It was still pink in the middle, which seemed at odds with the slow-cooked thing, and was sliced thinly as you might cut a steak. Of course, featherblade is a cut that can swing both ways. Seared and rare, it's a butch steak for flavour-seekers who don't mind using their teeth. Braised, it can be languidly submissive. Ours was neither one thing nor the other, so the meat offered slack resistance in the mouth. Naturally, the accompanying potato purée was exemplary, as were the gleaming star anise glazed carrots. Scrolls of vibrant, juicy watercress added a fresh, animated flourish.
On the à la carte menu, a main course roast saddle of rabbit - boned, rolled in paper-thin ham, stuffed with a herby farce - was sat upon a bed of bright carrot purée, fragrant chanterelles and bosky boletus, its caramel coloured gravy scented with tarragon. Now this was a vintage Roux artwork, and 101% rewarding to eat.
I think it was Albert Roux who introduced the UK to the definitive version of French tarte au citron at Le Gavroche. Tasting it at Cromlix was mildly disappointing: the pastry wasn't sandy enough, the filling, almost lemon curd-like in its sweetness. Thinking back to how Nouvelle Cuisine electrified and lightened up French cooking in the 1980s with an awareness of health, maybe it's now time to revisit the amount of sugar in desserts such as this, with a view to reducing them. I infinitely preferred the warm diplomat pudding, a hybrid of British bread and butter pudding and French pain perdu that was barely caramelised on the outside, and served with proper Chantilly cream and jewel-like, ripe red strawberries.
There are rough edges: pre-dinner sushi could benefit from the advice and expertise of a trained sushi chef, and the bread isn't special. But given the glaring absence of decent eating spots in and around Stirling, Cromlix shines out like a glittering oasis in a dessert.