Opus OneNew County Hotel, 20-30 County Place,
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Review published on 02/02/2009 © Sunday Herald
Do you know what? I think we're actually making food progress in Scotland. I'm on a roll with good meals of late and Opus One simply confirms what I take to be the emerging trend. Five years ago - even two - I'd have expected the cooking in a place like this to be pretty duff, or at best, predictable and dull. But this recently opened restaurant in the smart, family-owned, boutique New County Hotel in Perth cheered up my January with its well-chosen, carefully cooked food.
The Perth area, of course, is a bubbling cocotte of chef talent. Andrew Fairlie has been installed for long enough at Gleneagles to provide a fertile training ground for hardworking, ambitious young chefs who want to raise their game. Chefs who worked with the most reliable Jeremy Wares, once of 63 Tay Street and now at the Anglers in Guildtown, have turned up in all sorts of good places, like Hamish's in Methven. Ryan Young, Opus One's head chef worked there but the night I ate at Opus One, Young was on a night off and his sous chef, David Cochrane, was at the helm. He put not a foot wrong. If this was the B-team, Young must be an excellent trainer as well as a fine chef.
Presentation, as regular readers know, is not one of my key concerns. So often cerebral fiddling interferes with the flavour, but here everything was neatly and enticingly presented and heightened expectations were delivered in the mouth. A delicate carpaccio of raw monkfish cured in a refreshing, zesty lime oil formed a pretty bracelet around an elegant roll of cucumber that encased a fresh little salad of micro leaves and sprouted greens. Another starter - a beetroot risotto with chalky-firm rice that was thoroughly infused with the root's sweetness - came with a notably high-quality goat cheese "crottin" on top which had been grilled to just the right bubbling brownness.
Eschewing my current fish and vegetable-centric eating habits, I was drawn to the loin of venison because it came with a marsala jus. I wasn't disappointed; the venison was stunningly tender with a notover-pronounced wild flavour that spoke of heather moors and wintry woods. The marsala added a round, raisiny sweetness that flattered the meat. It came with melting confit potatoes, celeriac purée lent backbone by rosemary and a plump mushroom tortellini. Every mouthful was pleasing.
Sautéed fillet of beef made a similarly manageable and well-balanced dish. The steak came flanked by a dainty "crumble" of unctuous oxtail on top of creamed savoy cabbage, but the real stroke of inspiration here was an invigorating verdant-green parsley purée.
Dinner at Opus One costs £27.95 for three courses - that's remarkable value for cooking of this standard. It comes miraculously even cheaper with the hotel's winter rates; £59 buys you dinner, bed and breakfast.
There's cheaper food to be had in the bar too. I scanned the menu, which looked very promising. In particular, I'll be back to try the Border tart with nutmeg ice cream.
Back in Opus One, we happily lapped up our desserts. A warm chocolate risotto (essentially a rice pudding made more grown up by the addition of bitter chocolate) really hit the spot. Its accompanying white chocolate ice cream (often sickeningly cloying) was surprisingly light and a quenelle of intensely dark, glossily emulsified chocolate mousse elevated the dish from the comforting to the stylish. The lemon tart was about as good as lemon tart ever gets, given the technical challenges of keeping pastry crumbly and short under a custard. I predicted that the chocolate sorbet that came with it wouldn't go. I take it back.
The sorbet was bracingly bitter and didn't add to the sugar load of the tart. You could almost convince yourself that it was a health food - polyphenol antioxidants and all that.
The front-of-house service here is affable and solicitous. Don't, whatever you do, skip coffee and tea. They come with a plateful of home-made chocolates that are not to be missed. As you will have gathered, to add to its other accomplishments, Opus One shows supreme competence in the chocolate department.