A third of American visitors to Scotland apparently believe that the haggis is a wild animal. Some of them even think they'll be able to hunt one during their holiday. Which is probably no less peculiar than the reality - that once a year, on Burns Night, a whole nation willingly sits down to eat minced lamb's lung, heart and liver stuffed into the animal's intestines. No wonder the deep-fried pizza caught on.
With Burns Night coming up next weekend, this seemed like a good time to try Patterson's, a new restaurant in London which is owned and staffed by a self-described "family of proud Scots". Raymond Patterson has spent the last decade cooking in the private Garrick and Athenaeum clubs, and has now emerged blinking into the daylight as a member of that endangered species, the chef-patron, in partnership with his son, and with occasional front-of-house help from his wife and two daughters.
Patterson's is in Mayfair, a part of town not noted for family-run restaurants, down a quaint, olde-worlde side street of the kind only American visitors still believe exists. I took my own live-in Scot, Harry, who is proud, but not too proud to accept a free meal. There are many things he misses about his native land, but it's fair to say the food isn't one of them. Still, he was looking forward to a taste of home, pointing out that there's a gap in the market for a really great Scottish restaurant in London. "After all, we run the country."
It's a very grown-up room, is Patterson's, with the pale oak floor and chocolate leather seating seemingly mandatory for any new restaurant, and an atmosphere of slightly anonymous good taste. There are no visual signifiers to reinforce the Scottish connection. In fact, the place couldn't feel less Scottish if there was a signed photo of David Beckham hanging over the bar.
Nor does the menu make a big deal about its ingredients, many of which are sourced from Scotland. The accent is serious French, rather than Scottish; foie gras ballotine with Sauternes jelly, Dover sole with lobster tortellini, braised rump of lamb with Dauphinoise potatoes.
The amuse-bouche, a wild mushroom velouté, started things promisingly. Then, for me, caramelised calves' sweetbreads with artichoke heart and salsify, a tricky combination of three delicate but distinctive flavours which was over-reliant on the saucing for its effect. For Harry, the house special, a smoked haddock soufflé, with its spectacular puffy crust broken at the table and a rich chive and caviar sauce poured in. Wonderful to look at, but slightly earthbound in texture, it was still a noble end for a fine piece of Scottish fish.
Raymond Patterson's background in gentlemen's clubs is evident in the size of his portions; our main courses were on the hearty side, with a slab of monkfish in particular suffering as a result; it was simply too large to cook through without getting a little chewy. The accompanying oxtail sauce and pearl barley combined to replicate the filling of a steak pie, and there were no green veg. "That's Scottish, all right," observed Harry.
He was also outraged at the use of Aberdeen Angus in that quintessentially English dish, Beef Wellington, and started muttering about another noble Scottish beast crushed under the rubber heel of the English oppressor. Soon he would be on to the Rugby World Cup, and all would be lost. Actually, a rugby player would have had more luck with the dish than I did; the shiny, golden dome of pastry tasted stale and flabby, while the steak was overcooked. In the words of the Selkirk Grace, "Some hae meat and cannae eat." And I couldnae.
Fruit crumble with crème brûlée ice cream, and a selection of French and Scottish cheeses rounded off what was a pretty dull meal. A shame, because we both so wanted to like Patterson's: the wine list is reasonably priced, you're left to fill your own glasses, and at £35 for three courses, the set-price menu structure isn't outrageous for well-heeled Mayfair. The cooking just didn't deliver.
Having said that, if you fancy a really grown-up Burns Night - Monty Burns rather than Robbie Burns - Patterson's is putting on a special six-course menu from 19 to 25 January, including haggis with neeps and tatties, Aberdeen Angus beef and Meg Dods syllabub, for £40 a head. I'm not sure whether they'll be piping in the haggis, but if the dining room is as quiet as it was when we visited, it might be the only occasion you'll actually welcome the sound of the bagpipes.
SECOND HELPINGS: A TASTE OF SCOTLAND
By Caroline Stacey
Flies the saltire for Scottish fare year round, with fine game, beef, cheeses and whiskies. From Monday 19 until the end of this month there are set menus starring haggis and other trad delicacies.
13-15 Eccleston Street, London SW1 (020-7730 6922)
This may be a poshed up Cotswold pub and restaurant but the kilt-wearing owner is putting on the full haggis supper, with shortcake for afters and whisky throughout on 24 and 25 January (Burns Night itself).
Coln St Aldwyns, Glocs (01285 750651)
Former Raymond Blanc scholar chef and landlord is loyal to his native Edinburgh at this time of year. Haggis from MacSweens is a starter at his spruce village pub; cullen skink often joins it.
The Green, Aycliffe, County Durham (01325 312273)
The Earl Spencer
A good-looking gastropub that hits Southfields' g-spot with good cooking and decent wines. On the 25th the Scottish chef's putting on haggis, smokies and Angus beef in the poet's honour.
260-262 Merton Road, London SW18 (020-8870 9244)Reuse content