Eat on the Green, Udny Green, by Ellon, Aberdeenshire. Dinner £39-45 per person. Lunch £25-30. Menus and winelist online at:
The Kilted Chef is wearing breeks today, albeit tartan ones, and nursing the after effects of a night in Edinburgh where his restaurant Eat on the Green did NOT win the ‘Best Restaurant Experience’ gong. That went to Glasgow’s seafood joint Gamba, which I once ate in, very expensively and not without dissatisfaction.
Mr Wilson doesn’t seem bothered. Eat on the Green is one of North East Scotland’s top dining destinations, located in a former pub in the rather perjink village of Udny Green, near Ellon. The interior brings together the sumptuous, the pure-dead-flash and the homely; its appeal to Aberdeenshire’s somewhat reduced Porsche-and-champagne set (there’s a Laurent-Perrier sponsored ‘clubroom’ , Le Salon Vert, with silvery sofas and a chandelier made of dangling bottles, not Kristal, by the way) leavened by some quite serious art (including a massive Gerry Burns) two lovely private dining rooms, one off the kitchen and a reception desk beamed in from the Starship Enterprise.
All of this in a low-ceilinged building with lots of quirky corners and a newly-refurbished £20k men’s toilet, any surface off which you could eat your dinner. That, however, is unnecessary as we are at that ‘chef’s table’ from which you can see into the kitchen, but don’t have to sweat with the brigade. Unless you want to pay your £200 and be a ‘chef for a day’ on one of Mr Wilson’s cooking courses.
He’s a star, Is Mr Wilson, but a genial one, and entertaining as he tells his tale of a local boy returning to his roots and finding culinary success in this initially suspicious farming community.
“How much are ye takkin fir a bowl of soup?” He remembers the craggy local comments. “Aye, I quite likkit it. But it’s affy dear.” He was determined, though, when he set up the restaurant in 2004, that it would be fine dining without snobbery (“We’re not a burger bar”), the best ingredients sourced from as near at hand as possible. Which wasn’t without difficulty. A few leery local suppliers kept him at a distance until they realised just how good Eat on the Green was, and how popular. With big names too. Sean Connery, Alex Ferguson. And Donald Trump’s golf complex is just down the road.
“We turned him away,” confides Mr Wilson, with a discreet hint of pride. “He and his entourage wanted to have dinner, but we were full.”
Mr Wilson’s career started at the Strathburn Hotel in Inverurie at 16, before a move to the prestigious Ballathie House in Perthshire (“I took a 50 per cent pay cut at 18 and a half”), Cromlix House in Dunblane as head chef and time with Baxters as a development cook. based in Grimsby. Yes, Grimsby, where Baxters had a plant developing ‘fresh soups’. Inevitably, he began to hanker for home.
It was in England he developed the kilted persona which became popular with local TV producers, and has become his hallmark in the USA and beyond. He’s tireless in raising money for charity, seems good to his staff (they all exhibit an effortless friendliness you don’t get from cheffy shouting) and is a family man with four children, one recently born.
“My wife says that when I cook, it reminds her why she likes me.”
I am here as part of a whistle-stop food, drink and music press trip organised by Visit Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen Festivals. For lunch. It’ll be the usual slivers of showy, fancy food full of foibles, I surmise. A palate-tantalising taste and then on your way.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
What Mr Wilson does is take the opportunity to present us with the best of his ingredients and what simple, heartfelt, very careful high end cookery can do with them. Or in the case of what is more cheese table than board, present local products in their pristine state. They didn’t stay that way for long. I still feel guilt at what I did to that amazing, unopened smoked Clava from Inverness-shire.
Post-canapés and champagne, gigantic sharing plates are paraded through one after the other: black pudding balls, deep fried (haggis and black pudding are the coming cool ingredients of 2017, I am informed by another member of the party). Tempura vegetables and caramelised roasted roots veg, all from the restaurant’s own polytunnels. Venison, right on the money with that tender texture it’s so difficult to achieve. Pork belly, three ways, halibut in a delicate, tangy sauce. Arbroath Smokie in pearl barley risotto, delicate and moist. Scallops and giant crayfish, from nearby Foinaven Fish using boats based in Buckie and Peterhead. Huge, generous quantities, all the cooking calibrated to perfection. While Mr Wilson turns the tables, literally, and quizzes each of us in turn about what we do , why we do it. He likes to talk, to meet people. Going around his guests and chatting is part of the deal for him, rewarding, instructive and essential. Food is social. And essentially unpretentious.
"I’ve never been into that spacebomb and foie gras sort of thing. Finesse without the bullshit, that’s me. Mince and tatties, but done really well.”
It’s the beef cheek, cooked for 14 hours and with a deep, utterly irresistible gravy, that knocks me sideways. I’ve had this cut before and found it impossible to eat, the strange, grainy texture and thin lines of fat sucking all the moisture from my mouth.
“If you cook it long enough, the fat dissolves,” says Mr Wilson, and that’s the simple truth. This is fantastic, melt-in-the-mouth meat which responds to the warning he was given when he opened the restaurant: “Remember, it’s good beef country here - remember, loon!” Me, I’m in beef bliss.
Couldn’t eat another thing. Except, oh, all right then, some slates (enough with the slates, OK? We Want Plates!) of puddings too perfect to ignore in their pressing of all those chocolate brownie, fruit and tart/sweet buttons. And what about some cheese?
All right then.
Now, I wasn’t paying for any of this, I hadn’t seen any prices, and I wondered if we were looking at the kind of colossally expensive place only really accessible for special treats, celebrities and football managers. It’s got a private champagne club, for heaven’s sake! But a quick look online showed that Eat on the Green is actually very reasonable indeed. Dinner is £39 for two courses, £45 for three, with a very uncheeky £5 beef supplement. A decent bottle of Rioja is less than £30, a dram of Glengarioch £4.50. Obviously, boats can be pushed out if you so desire.
Me, I’m thinking about Gamba, the fortune I lavished on our family dinner there, the unexpected, somehow lax fussiness of ungenerous servings. Eat on the Green is on a different level. An admiring Gordon Baxter, Mr Wilson’s former boss, arrived to celebrate his 80th birthday at Udny, and afterwards told his former protegé: “We’re here...and you’re there. You’re the real deal.”