Not many famous London-based chefs have put their names over restaurant doors in Scotland. Apart from an ill-fated Glasgow venture involving Gordon Ramsay, I can't think of a single one. Ambitious empire builders are far more likely to be found opening in the Emirates than in Edinburgh. So the arrival of the Galvin brothers, Chris and Jeff, in a grand old hotel in the Scottish capital, is an interesting development.
The Galvins, both chefs of some repute, have built a terrific little group of restaurants since they joined forces seven years ago to launch their original Bistrot de Luxe in Marylebone, offering a highly-polished version of cuisine bourgeoise, without all the fine-dining fuss and bother. Despite upmarket locations in Harrods and the Park Lane Hilton, and a brace of Michelin stars, their mini-empire still feels like a family business.
All of the Galvins' existing restaurants are located within Zone 1 of the London Tube map. Their new collaboration with the Hilton group, in the swankily refurbished Caledonian Hotel, involves an 800-mile round trip, should one of the brothers decide to carry out a spot check. In interviews to publicise the launch, they made much of the fact that they'd be spending lots of time in Edinburgh, and presumably that's the case – they've been brought in as much for their expertise in making restaurants work as for the pulling-power of the Galvin name.
The more accessible of their two new restaurants in the Caledonian is the ground-floor Brasserie De Luxe, a handsome set of interconnecting rooms built round a circular seafood counter, and pre-loaded with school-of-Vettriano nostalgia. Upstairs is the big-ticket Pompadour, once Edinburgh's grandest and most expensive restaurant, now polished and primped back to full Belle Epoque splendour.
It's a pale, exquisite meringue of a room, the kind of place an Anita Brookner heroine might visit for afternoon tea, to stare mistily across at the Castle over cucumber sandwiches (although only one of the vast, semi-circular windows offers that premium view; the others look out towards a neon McDonald's sign twinkling bathetically over the tramworks on Princes Street). With its wedding cake cornicing, pale chairs and heavy naped tables, it's all very muted, as if everything has been marinated in eau de nil – although of course you don't go to somewhere called Pompadour expecting Formica and a dirty burger.
Head chef Craig Sandle, poached from Number One at the Balmoral, Edinburgh's other great railway hotel, is in charge of the kitchen and clearly the Galvins have chosen the right man for the job. My meal at the Pompadour was as good as any I've eaten within the Galvin group – which is to say, very good indeed.
After a selection of pastry-based morsels, a pre-starter arrived in the form of the Galvins' fabled crab and scallop lasagne. The silky pliability of the pasta was miraculous; even more so in a starter proper of rabbit ravioli, filled with meat as melting as oxtail, partnered with the citric snap of artichokes barigoule. Marinated scallops were served sashimi-style, sliced into a corona with Charlotte potatoes and Jerusalem artichoke under a pointillist dusting of chives; a pretty plateful which felt fancier than the Galvins' normal style.
My guest, Jenny, is a non meat-eater, so we didn't sample the signature dish: a whole poulet de Bresse, rubbed with foie gras butter and truffles, and poached in Armagnac inside a pig's bladder, then carved table-side for two to share. But the mains were both wonderful, the kind of satisfying, sophisticated dishes the Galvins do so well. Veal sweetbreads, crisp to the bite but foamily light inside, came with a bacon cassoulet, with Coco de Paimpol beans to lend texture. Roast monkfish with celeriac purée was galvanised by a bourguignon garnish so dense and sticky it may well have violated Jenny's piscatarian principles.
A shared tarte tatin concluded what was a great meal, if a slightly underwhelming experience. The staff seemed in awe of their grand surroundings, and there was no real sense of anyone owning the room, which had the tip-toe-y feel associated with Michelin-starred dining. Many of the widely spaced tables were unoccupied on a Saturday night; a new Galvin opening in London would be rammed with tweeting early adopters.
Our bill came to more than £100 a head, with a £35 bottle of Gruner Veltliner (and, irritatingly an extra £4.75 for what we assumed was a free refill of mint tea). In other words, suitable for only special occasions. The decor is a bit too girlie for the bankers, which left us wondering just who the Pompadour would be right for. The Michelin inspectors, is one obvious answer. They're going to go nuts for this place. And if the Galvins can succeed in making the room feel even a tiny bit as vibrant as the food, then Edinburgh will have a fabulous new place to watch – and experience – the fireworks.
The Pompadour by Galvin, Caledonian Hotel, Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131 222 8975)
A la carte dinner £58 for three courses before wine and service
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: Edible Edinburgh
This restaurant in a historic building serves excellent food using the seasonal, local produce – the smoked mutton, pickled pear and nasturtium is a typical dish.
1 Royal Terrace Gardens, London Road (0131 558 1221)
The focus here is on sustainability and artisan producers – try the smoked sea trout with beetroot, dill, heritage potatoes, mussels and celery (£17.50).
10 Lady Lawson Street (0131 221 1222)
The Ship on the Shore
This restaurant in Leith serves great fish and shellfish – the smokehouse platter includes halibut, queen scallops, salmon, Arbroath smokies, mussels, haddock and mackerel.
24-26 Shore (0131-555 0409)