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State of the nation
Review published on 04/05/2010 © Sunday Herald
Very few restaurants in Scotland have the metropolitan atmosphere of those in seriously big cities such as London, New York and Hong Kong. At the weekend, they might be passably busy, but during the week most Scottish restaurants feel parochial. This isn't down to the recession. It's cultural. Our eating out tradition is relatively recent and still pretty much weekends-only. If the truth were told, most restaurants here struggle, apart from weekend evenings. Eat out earlier in the week, and it's like arriving in Paris in August, when the city has packed up and headed for the seaside. That's a pity because, by way of townie, urban experiences, there's nothing more exhilarating than the buzz of a big, busy restaurant.
Which makes the feat performed by the Dakotas even more extraordinary. The unpromising looking hotels - one at Eurocentral outside Glasgow, the other at the Forth Road Bridge - look like they should be nasty motels with chronic food catering for commercial travellers and airport stopovers. To visit the latter Dakota, you have to try not to let your spirits be crushed by the surroundings - a cloned retail and "leisure" park consisting of an unbeautiful sea of parked cars, a supermarket and chain restaurants. I took a friend not long back from stylish Sydney there recently, cautiously promising her a passably good meal. She told me afterwards that when she saw the environs, she thought I was off my rocker.
Still, when you actually get inside Dakota Forth Bridge, it's like stepping on to a film set. You leave the lack-of-planning badlands at the door and find yourself in a very grownup, very hip, very busy, Manhattan-esque restaurant with lots of chunky louvre blinds and tinted glass to blot out any contradictory views that would spoil the illusion. Even on a Tuesday, this Dakota was hopping, so it was fun to be there. Our meal was fundamentally good, if you ignore the puddings: one a catastrophe, the other pedestrian. Predictably, the cooking was not as outstanding as when Roy Brett was at the helm, but then he was a hard act to follow.
You start with decent dips, nice cheesy breadsticks and unthrilling bread. The latter wasn't exactly stale, but it didn't taste thrillingly fresh either. Satisfying potted duck, slightly less fatty than French rillettes, came under a too-thick layer of clarified butter in a Le Parfait-style dish with toast that said "Poilane" but was somehow missing its characteristic sour-dough edge, and a little pile of cornichons, caper berries and finely diced onion which cut the richness. Another starter, this time Eyemouth crab, came with its white meat dressed with mint, a mayonnaise made with the brown meat, and Melba-style toasts of ultra-thin walnut bread. The only wrong note here was the mint, a flavour too bossy for the crab. Dill would have been much better.
I have sampled so much badly cooked pork belly of late that I have almost become phobic about it, but Dakota restored my faith with crisp crackling, creamy meat, and properly rendered fat. It came with a little stew of chorizo, black pudding and apples cooked in cider. The fruity element made a counterpoint to the heaviness and the two spicy meats added pockets of interest. A side order of seasonal purple sprouting broccoli, anointed with a well-balanced Hollandaise sauce, was truly delightful. The other main course - juicy curls of white squid and pinky tentacles - was Asian in its thinking and really worked.
The protein-intensive fillingness of the seared squid, still smoky from the grill, married well with the watery, crunchy bok choy which seemed impregnated with chilli and lime and laced with soy and fish sauce.
If only we had stopped there. A tart of vapid green figs in atrocious, pallid pastry coated with tooth filling-removing, undercaramelised sugar, fit only for making a sculpture at some silly chefs' Olympics, was ludicrously sub-standard. The chocolate mousse, decorated with random segments of blood orange, was totally underwhelming.
Call me a slow learner but I never cease to be amazed at the number of good restaurants that make a pig's ear of puddings.