Halfway through dinner at The Pompadour, the Galvin brothers’ restaurant at the £24mn revamped Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh, I became borderline insensible. Through the skewed filter of let’s say several glasses of wine, the blond, sort-of-comely sommelier’s earnest, cotton-wool soft, sotto voce delivery began to seem unintentionally comedic. I started to feel an urge to roar with laughter, purely because it would have been so incongruous paired with his velvet owl delivery and the tranquil, piss-elegant dining room. By the time he came to explain the next pairing, I had changed tack and started to airbrush him into various unsavoury scenes from Dennis Cooper. I was, I realised, hammered.
Such is the way of the wine pairing. There’s often just too much wine. I remember a dinner at Chanterelle (RIP) in New York, perhaps a decade or so ago, after which one of my friends announced that she had to lie down on the floor of the cab on the way home. We dropped her off at her apartment, where her full nine-course dinner made a surprise reappearance, while I went out to Ian Schrager’s latest hotel boîte and tried to make out with her fiancé.
The Pompadour and its seven-course, three and a half hour extravaganza is at the very heart of the new look Waldorf Astoria Caledonian hotel. For years, it’s been the palatial railway hotel that outlived the station it was a part of – less grand dame, more old dear. Its glory days had long passed. I never set foot in it once. Now there’s a Guerlain spa, two Galvin dining rooms, live music of the cocktail jazz variety and lots of swish lobby space for Japanese guests to glide through with their paranoiac surgical masks on.
Now there’s a Guerlain spa, two Galvin dining rooms, live music of the cocktail jazz variety and lots of swish lobby space for Japanese guests to glide through with their paranoiac surgical masks on
Actually, the revamp isn’t as extraordinary as it might be. It’s perfectly nice, but you could probably spend £24mn tarting up a single penthouse these days. There are plush enough touches, but in some parts it looks a little like David Collins knocked out a range for Debenhams before he passed away. And at the heart of the ground floor, the main lobby space doesn’t move more than a few degrees left or right of a dark terracotta palette, intended to match the old station-side façade (now exposed inside). This makes for a lot of brown. Still, there’s little to complain about in comfort terms throughout the building; the bathrooms are bright white marble with Ferragamo products, and the views on the castle side are as good as you’ll get in the city.
It’s difficult to nail down quite what the international Waldorf Astoria aesthetic is, though. I know before I set off for the airport what a W is going to be like. But my only experience of the Waldorf Astoria is of the New York original (currently in its second location), which involved such violent static electricity build up from the carpets that I checked out with a morbid fear of door handles and lift buttons. Going on my experience of the Scottish property, I’d sum up the group’s style as 75% Hilton, 25% Orient Express (the hotels, not the trains). Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what you’re looking for, or trying to be all things to all people.
There are Manhattan flourishes: the Peacock Alley space at the mothership is referenced in a wall-sized, peacock-shaped lighting installation in the central bar here. And the black and white photographs in the rooms are – peculiarly – of Grand Central Station, not of Edinburgh Princes Street. (Although there are some lovely old framed letters in the hallways, detailing historic royal visits to the building).
The big draw at the Caledonian, however, isn’t in what it’s brought from New York City – it’s in what the Galvin brothers have brought from Paris by way of their London base.
I love the Galvins. Their food is unashamedly off-trend, fancy French. They’re a class act. And The Pompadour is fine dining in a gloriously undeconstructed, unreconstructed, unbuggered-about-with fashion, right down to the vast cheese trolley and the opulent whisky cart. It’s hushed and groomed and starched and pretty. And dying out in popularity – because offering this kind of labour, ingredient, and space-intensive product makes for a ruinously small profit margin compared to the nakedly avaricious “no reservations and small plates” business model that turns tables in an hour and somehow gets you spending £50 on a few saucers of pickled mackerel and beetroot.
The Galvins’ kitchen team is headed up by Craig Sandle – previously at Number One, The Pompadour’s arch-rival restaurant in the Balmoral Hotel, at the far end of Princes Street. Sandle does this kind of food spectacularly well. The first time I ate his food at Number One, I rated it in my top ten meals of all time. The food at The Pompadour is similarly flawless, even if the room, despite its listed interior and overtly feminine attention to detail, isn’t quite as sumptuous – though that’s more to do with the fact that along with the great views of the Castle, you get views of Lothian Road, and the great unwashed on their way to the start of an orange-skinned, coke-fuelled weekend in the Grassmarket – Number One, in sensible contrast, is subterranean and windowless.
Stand-out dishes were a lush, plump and melting ravioli of rabbit; scallops with chicken wing; and a rich gamey grouse dish, which I’d introduced into the tasting menu by way of my avoidance of all things lamb. When I go back, I’ll order a la carte, and have the whole poulet de Bresse for two, rubbed with foie gras butter and truffles and poached in Armagnac inside a pig’s bladder, then carved at the table. It sounds as ludicrous as it does delicious.
While the waiters at Edinburgh’s other hot new restaurant, Timberyard, are a walking mood-board of moustaches and tattoos, the staff here are old school preened, and well schooled in serious fine dining, albeit with a smile. This is an excellent restaurant, but it’s not for all occasions, or all comers. Or moods. Or Americans with polo shirts and golfing trousers (mercifully absent on this occasion – which is a first for me in a fine dining restaurant in Edinburgh).
And that sommelier? He really knows his stuff. I may have turned into a tipsy giggling 12 year-old moron at the back of a classroom as he talked me through the finer points of legs and minerality, but he taught me that a 2012 Petite Manseng from Domaine Cabidos creates quite a phenomenal sensation when paired with a plate of rose veal, foie gras and truffle. And when it comes to a meal like this, these things are a serious business. You can mock it all you like, and patronise every hip small plate, no reservations caff going, but the world would be a poorer place if this kind of fine dining disappeared for good. C
The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB
thecaledonianedinburgh.com; 0131-222 8888