Apron Stage5 King Street, Stanley,
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Review published on 07/08/2008 © Sunday Herald
I bet you think that because I write about food I've got a fabulous kitchen, big and roomy with an Aga, a butcher's chopping block, a gleaming Kitchen Aid mixer in the latest, trendiest tone, a Conran-style dinner party table, hand-crafted by a local artisan, and last but not least, generously proportioned French windows that lead out to a verdant potager and a terrace stacked with pots of herbs.
Sadly, that's Country Living magazine you're thinking about. My kitchen is a galley, spacious enough to swing a cat in but not large enough to eat in. If I squint out the window I can just about see a mint plant, though I have over-compensated, somewhat eccentrically, by digging up the tiny shrubbery out front and planting leeks. Because space is at a premium, every skillet and gadget has to earn its keep, which fairly disciplines the mind. Any more than six people for dinner and two or more courses to serve and I'm running out of space to lay out plates.
Oh, how I crave a double oven, but the kitchen can't accommodate it. So forget plate warming, and bring on those one-pot suppers.
But having visited the Apron Stage in Stanley, I now appreciate that my modest kitchen is positively grandiose. With just 18 covers, this must be a candidate for the smallest restaurant in Scotland. As for the windowless kitchen, after a quick recce on the way to the loo, I'd say think in terms of two phone kiosks put together. It would be ambitious to run a cafe out of this space, let alone lay on a good meal for paying diners. Imagine the cabin scene in the Marx Brothers classic A Night At The Opera, and you'll have the measure of it.
And yet, in the hands of pros, this mini miracle works. Shona Drysdale and Jane Nicoll who run it are part of the team that put Let's Eat, in Perth, on the map. Shona has an eye for interiors and has made the Apron Stage look very pretty indeed. It's clean and fresh, and she has teamed up powder blue and milky brown walls with "distressed" painted furniture to create a look right out of the French edition of Marie Claire. You should feel cramped, but it's so tranquil and soothing that you don't, and you don't much notice either the very limited choice of dishes - three starters and desserts, two main courses.
The food reflects the constraints of the kitchen.
The first and last courses must be more or less made in advance leaving room to cope with the main savoury course. If, like me, you struggle with a small kitchen, you'll see the logic in the options.
My "caesar-salad soup" was evidence of the intriguing possibilities of cooked lettuce, and a last minute addition of anchovy-topped crouton made it seem more than a food processor job. That no-effort, no fuss stand-by of smoked salmon was flanked by a zesty, lemony smoked-trout pate, giving the whole a Scandinavian touch.
When space is tight, a steak is the thing. A majestic and generous fillet was briefly seared to remain rare, as requested, and accompanied by a fondant onion compote, a good red wine jus, and, in place of chips (too much hassle ), some nice roasted potatoes that had been keeping warm in the oven. A seafood casserole was effortlessly whisked up by dropping plump scallops, monkfish and sea bass into a warm rich bath of bouillabaisse-style broth. All this was fresh, unfussy food, just the sort of thing you might serve at home if the diners outnumbered space and hands in the kitchen.
I will definitely steal the idea of the strawberry consommé. Made with local Perthshire strawberries, it was a classic case of how less can be more with juicy, ripe berries simply quartered, floating in a fragrant strawberry puree. A zabaglione, that eggy, whipped Italian confection, had been frozen with crumbled, toasted almonds; its fruity, raisiny Marsala notes echoed by a sticky Marsala sauce and caramelised banana.
The Apron Stage feels like a mature, reliable operation where you won't be disappointed.
Downsizing? Most certainly, but further proof that small is beautiful.
© Sunday Herald