Originally for GlasgowLive.com
Cafes that serve rubbish coffee. What’s that all about? I mean fair enough if you walk into a shoe shop demanding a flat white, but this ain’t no shoe shop and no offence but you ‘only had one job’ as the kids say. It’s just that a cup of good coffee can provide such simple moments of pleasure in life — and paying £2.50 for a bad one is quite harrowing.
Saying that, having done a 7-year stint in my parents long gone cafe, there really are few things worse than some pre-caffeinated loony pestering you with a complicated order. “Extra, extra hot!” they would say. Is that right? Away and suck a volcano.
This evening I’m in Stravaigin and their espresso is just right: robust, round, nutty — much like myself. Not that this is a cafe review, but I always find it to be a good indication when restaurant-slash-bar operations choose not to serve the average stuff. They could absolutely get away with it if they wanted to.
It shows that the smaller things matter, and it’s the small things that accumulate into the stalwart Stravaigin has become since first opening it’s doors on Gibson Street in 1994.
Firstly: where do they source their staff? Fun, professional, and of the effortlessly cool variety. They glide from one table to another, topping glasses of wine, making people laugh. So relaxed is the service here, so intuitive is the timing, you feel as though you’ve left the world outside. This team are on top form.
Of course, who knows? It could be chaos behind the scenes. I used to work with a guy who, bless him, broke absolutely everything in sight — including the Head Chef’s nervous system. Orders were wrong almost always. But he was so unflappable — oozing charm and charisma in the eye of a storm — that costumers wouldn’t notice a thing.
We’re downstairs in the ‘restaurant’ this evening because the cafe/bar was fully booked. My starter is a dainty dish. We’re on our second date and I don’t want her thinking I’m some sort of uncouth savage, so I take my time and eat it in slow motion.
What a beautiful plate of food. Smoked sea trout comes with an ‘anchovy and parmesan emulsion’, satisfying my constant craving for umami flavours. Thin slices of apple offer a tartness, light crackers a texture, and there’s a splash of something vibrant, green and tasting of dill — the best herb of all. It tastes like something I’ve eaten before, but want to eat again. And again.
My date orders a red pepper risotto to start and it’s quite different in style to the plate sitting in front of me. A little Ottelenghi, even. It arrives in plentiful quantities with lashings of pesto, mascarpone and a liberal scattering of pumpkin seeds.
“Would you like to try some?” Eh, I certainly would. It’s wholesome and colourful and delicious and I like it an awful lot. Starters, on that note, are a resounding success.
But then it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. How on earth is it possible for things to go so, so wrong? I’m sat in utter disbelief at how very, very wrong things go. Disquiet stirs in my breasts at the monumental, monumental wrongness of it all.
Have I built up some tension? Good. People enjoy reading bad reviews so I thought I’d fake a bit of jeopardy to keep you interested. The truth is, nothing actually goes wrong — because by the time our main courses arrive I realise that, actually, this is one of those ‘perfect’ restaurants.
It seems that gnocchi has replaced risotto as the go-to vegetarian main these days. But unlike those chewy clumps you get in so many places, the gnocchi here is soft, fluffy and boxy in shape. Long fillets of aubergine luxuriate on a bed of baba ganoush-style puree. It has that moreish charcoaly flavour so en-vogue right now, babes.
Smooth, creamy ricotta enters the room. It heads to the speaker, plugs the auxiliary cable into it’s phone to play some neo-soul. Confit tomatoes and pickled fennel provide a tickle of acid to perk it all up. Another brilliant plate of food.
On the other side of the table, Stravaigin have another raving diner. Chunky pork belly, broad beans and watercress have a mustard vinaigrette pulling it together neatly. As someone who adores sour, tangy flavours — I like very much that the chefs here appreciate ‘acid’ as much as I do. Don’t take that line out of context.
One thing: what on earth is that taser noise? It’s as if that smooth, creamy ricotta from earlier has taken the auxiliary cable out of it’s phone, and plugged it straight into one of those neon-blue fly zappers that hang from restaurant kitchens. With the added liberty of turning the bass down low and the treble up high. It would go off intermittently and perplexed heads would turn.
For a change of scene, we head upstairs for dessert. There’s a women next to me wearing trainers and joggies, reading a book, caressing a pint. We’re dressed smart-casually. Those men over there have nipped round in trousers and jumpers — they’re just having nibbles.
Next to them are an immaculately dressed older couple, suited, booted, dressed, heeled. They’re splashing out on cocktails and I think she’s eating that gnocchi I had downstairs. Oh, and there’s a dog. Hello doggo!
What an atmosphere there is in this room tonight. Somehow they’ve created a space where you can turn up dressed however you like and never feel out of place. It’s a rarity, but isn’t this surely what we all really want?
Their dark chocolate comes in the form of dense rochers of coma-inducing ganache. There’s a tinglingly sharp mango sorbet to balance it out and a crispy tuile thing because it looks and tastes nice. Stunning.
This ‘black sesame and almond ice cream’ should be protected by UNESCO. I could eat it all day long. It sits on oat milk crème with crushed peanuts crumbled on top. The ‘creme’ has a mysterious texture, but it’s a solid non-dairy offering nonetheless and it goes well with that coffee I mentioned at the beginning.
Last week I was here for brunch with some friends.
Their chipotle scrambled duck eggs are phenomenal. So is the sourdough it sits on. The cured salmon is of such high quality you can see right through it. The buckwheat pancakes come with strawberries soaked in lime. And now all I want to eat are strawberries soaked in lime. What have I become?
Every corner of this place bustles and twinkles with feel-good vibes. It’s a warm and comfortable wooden space that looks after you. We’ve celebrated family birthdays downstairs, even once had an important work meeting at the bar. In this room, hangovers have been nursed over breakfast. When tourists ask for recommendations, I send them here. The date tonight went really well, too, thanks for asking.
Happy 25th birthday, Stravaigin! We’re lucky to have you.