The hushed reverence in fine-dining establishments is a given: if there is a tasting menu and a flight of wines to be had, solemn attention to the plates and glasses is expected.
What, then, to make of the Road Hole restaurant? The classically beautiful room is thrumming with noise as we enter, our loins girded for six courses of Scottish deliciousness. No one is paying much attention to anything but the scene outside the window.
Let me explain. The Road Hole restaurant is within the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, a place of pilgrimage for golfers from around the world and a place of unrivalled plainness and lack of appeal for anyone else; they keep driving, because just down the road is the town of St Andrews – pretty, with its dark architecture and famous Chariots of Fire beach.
It's a shame, because what chef Ross Marshall is doing at the restaurant is very appealing. The golfers, who have changed from jersey rollnecks and plaid slacks into different jersey rollnecks and plain slacks for dinner, are forking down food while watching the last few rounds come in to the 18th hole; and their main attention within the room is in ordering a very fine wine with which to impress their client/colleagues/golf buddies.
I feel a little de trop in heels and a dress. But sommelier Alan Brady, perhaps glad of a change from the totally tee-crowd, makes me feel very much at home. With the first course of scallops with artichoke and apple salad and a cider foam, a Tasmanian 2006 Reisling. The scallop is a hearty beast from the west coast; I welcome the day when someone has the courage to serve such exemplary produce completely unadorned. The foam is, well, foamy.
A chicken-and-black-pudding terrine sounds terrifyingly close to a silly-billy combination, and it comes looking like a crazy-paving tile, but the chicken is succulent and the earthy pudding is a good foil for it. Mercifully none of the dishes comes on slate, or any other novelty arrangement. The large, square white plates showcase the Scottish ingredients beautifully.
Next up, salmon from Loch Duart with baby beets, fennel and cucumber jelly. Another foam, another slick across the plate. But the cucumber jelly is outstanding, and the beet purée as intense in flavour as it is in colour. Via a New Zealand Chardonnay, I'm now sipping a beautiful rosé Sancerre from the Loire and the meaningless (to me) banter about bunkers, birdies and Rory has receded into the background.
Loin of venison, a meat I have a lot of time for, is excellently pink and melting, and a poached-pear accompaniment delightful. I could have lived without the slightly tired potato Anna. I wonder now, as I do from time to time, whether cooks at home will ever present their meat in little stacks with little commas of veg purée on the side. I decide not. The golfers probably approach a dish such as this as they would a tricky sand trap.
Even more like a structure to make one reach for the wedge is the pretty pudding of baked Alaska with strawberry and pepper cream. It is all tufts of burnished meringue and tiny, piquant die of strawberry. I love it, and the 2009 Valpolicella from Verona that comes, too.
I suppose I do wonder what I'm doing here – there are more picturesque hotels and restaurants all around Scotland's east coast, and many of them serve the fare of the Highlands. But my husband has always wanted to have his picture taken on the Swilcan bridge on the Old Course – even I've seen it on TV in a weak moment when I've watched a golf tournament.
Does it matter that, all around me, men are washing down their beautifully prepared dinners with Diet Coke or lager? It does not. When we drive toward the hotel, its institutional appearance and uniform greige colour screams "We're only here for the sport." But what's inside has surprised me – the décor, the staff, the finesse of the food.
This restaurant, and hotel, deserve a wider clientele; or rather the partners of the golf-obsessed should come along for the ride. There's a fabulous spa and that beach is wonderful to stroll along. Just ignore the manicured green stuff in between the dining-room and sands.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN ’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
The Road Hole Restaurant, Old Course Hotel, St Andrews, Fife, tel: 01334 474 371 Lunch and dinner, Tues-Sat. £50 per person for tasting menu; £45 for matching wines
Bruce Embankment, St Andrews, tel: 01334 479 475
This glass box perched on the dunes on the edge of the North Sea would be worth sitting in for the view alone, but with its stupendous food (in particular its brimming seafood platters), it's a sheer joy all round
Craig Millar @ 16 West End
16 West End, St Monans, tel: 01333 730 327
Perfectly cooked, very fresh fish in an elegant seaside dining-room with lovely views over the harbour; it's relatively inexpensive, too
The Peat Inn
Cupar, tel: 01334 840 206
This famous country inn is an adorable little place with a renown for good food, cooked extremely well, and presented with a smile
Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012 www.hardens.com