6 Willoughby St, Muthill
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Food rating: 10/10
FRENCH vocabulary comes to mind when I think about the Barley Bree. I’m not being pretentious, honest, it’s just that I lived in France for four years, and to this day certain French words pop into my head before the English equivalent does, I guess because they seem more apt in the context.
“Raffiné”, which translates as “refined”, is the first one, but I prefer the French adjective here because the English word has connotations of fussiness and formality, neither of which applies to the Barley Bree. A very Gallic sense of well-balanced moderation nevertheless shapes the dishes. You won’t go home with your belly dragging, facing the prospect of a restless night of heartburn. Or if you do, you only have yourself to blame.
“Soigné”, the past participle of the verb soigner, meaning "to take care of", is the second epithet that occurs to me. It describes a stylish wardrobe, or an individual who is well groomed, yet when I apply it to the Barley Bree, it’s not the physical environment or look of the place I’m taking about, but the cooking. It isn’t pernickety, but ingredients are cared for, and utilised in a manner that melds a clear, consistent strategy with uncompromising attentiveness to detail. A steady stream of praise for this Perthshire restaurant comes my way from customers who do not analyse every little detail as I do, but who instinctively recognise this quality, even if they cannot define it.
Actually, the chef-patron of the Barley Bree, Fabrice Bouteloup, as his name suggests, is French. He trained in France then worked in London in several top-flight Michelin restaurants. If any of his former chef-colleagues dropped by the Barley Bree, I’m sure they report back to their mates that far from going to seed in sleepy Muthill, Bouteloup’s cooking compromises not a jot on technique or competence.
We settle at a table next to the wood-burning stove, soaking up the warmth and authentic ambience of this former inn and stables. Complimentary micro-courses arrive: a butternut squash soup, underpinned by rich meat stock and enlivened by a dragon’s breath of fiery chilli; lemon zest-spiked smoked haddock fish cakes in an artfully brittle breadcrumb crust.
Of the starters, it’s the slow-cooked duck egg that makes us marvel. With its translucent albumen, waxy ochre yolk, and its oval form framed by carmine pomegranate coulis, it’s a work of art, almost Japanese in its precision. Frills of raw courgette, shaved on a mandolin then marinated in a bold lemon and garlic bath, provide a counterpoint. A neat chickpea panisse works as an absorbent vehicle for the oozing egg.
Rillettes, made from Gloucester Old Spot pork, are the acme of this south-west of France classic: an ideal fat-to-lean ratio encapsulating essence of herby, peppery, salty pork. As well as a traditional smooth prune compote, cornichons, fronds of chervil and oak leaf lettuce (both supremely fresh), there’s unorthodox pickled radish, and ivory-white pork crackling “puffs” that are as airy as popcorn, but a million times tastier.
Saddle of lamb – evenly rosy, fine-grained – references the cuisine of the Midi with its inky pools of olive, anchovy and aubergine purée. It comes with a wedge of fried polenta, and soft chickpeas mixed with an Italian aubergine caponata, under a layer of crunchy breadcrumbs, in the manner of a cassoulet. Then there’s a sensational breast of St Bride’s guinea fowl, crisp-skinned, meticulously seasoned, and a crusty rectangle of roasted, pressed leg meat, its vegetable accompaniments red cabbage that’s sticky with sultanas, and melt-in-the-mouth turnip fondant.
It’s not that our velvety pot au chocolat, topped with poached plum and a refreshing magenta sorbet of red fruits – strawberries, morello cherries, perhaps – wasn’t good, just that it is upstaged by the Tarte Tatin. Voluptuously buttery, flaky pastry, plump cheek of caramelised apple, textbook vanilla ice cream made with an egg custard base, this rendition of the celebrated dessert created (so the story goes) by les demoiselles Tatin, is a show-stopper. It would kill me to visit the Barley Bree and not eat it. And frankly, I’d be gutted to find myself anywhere near the vicinity of this excellent restaurant without dropping by to dine.