Peter Ranscombe enjoys chef Kevin O’Neill’s Scottish dishes at Ralph & Finns in Glasgow.
WITH its soaring sandstone buildings and its baffling grid-iron street layout, Glasgow city centre is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find that most rural of delicacies – venison.
Yet, amid the honking of the bus horns and the wailing of the police sirens, chef Kevin O’Neill is conjuring some culinary magic with rural and coastal ingredients in this most urban of settings.
A well-aimed stone’s throw from George Square, Ralph & Finns sits in the Bank of England’s former Scottish office on St Vincent Place.
Owner the Tomkins family rebranded the restaurant from Urban Grill to Ralph & Finns at the end of 2020 following a major refurbishment.
Despite sitting in the heart of city, I was transported back to the hills and glens by O’Neill’s impressive Highland venison loin (£24), served with sweet and sour red cabbage, sweet potato fondant, and figs.
Being a Teuchter – and therefore suspicious of anything green if it’s not mint choc chip ice cream – I swapped the accompanying tenderstem broccoli for salt baked carrots.
They say the first taste is with the eyes, but that’s nonsense – it’s with the nose.
If a dish grabs my nostrils’ attention as it reaches the table then we’re already halfway there, and the venison hit that mark.
Earthy aromas, with sweeter caramel touches, and then a deeper, almost resinous-like note too.
The loin was served rare, capturing perfectly its tasty game flavours, with added sweetness from its caramelised edges.
The red cabbage was satisfyingly substantial, while the stickiness of the figs and the creaminess of the fondant potato added further layers of texture.
Together with the venison, they produced the perfect mix of earthy, salty, and sweet.
For me, the only thing missing was a crunch – perhaps from a parsnip crisp or a tattie lattice – and sadly the hand cut chips (£5.50) I sneakily added to the order were undercooked and so didn’t add that missing texture.
Those chips did arrive in a warmed metal pot though, which encapsulated the attention to detail throughout the meal.
A lack of crunch didn’t detract from O’Neill’s accomplished venison loin, which wouldn’t have looked out of place even at the most high-end country house hotel.
Aromas were also the name of the game when it came to Ego Bodegas’s Goru (£11 for 250ml), a blend of monastrell, syrah, and petit verdot from Spain’s under-rated Jumilla region.
Sweet black cherry and blackcurrant on the nose were joined by sweet vanilla and lush milk chocolate on the palate, balanced by grip from the well-integrated tannins.
With all the accompaniments piled onto the venison, the wine’s fresher acidity and sharper blackcurrant flavour were emphasised yet, with the meat on its own, the Goru worked much better.
King of the coast
Venison isn’t the only Scottish ingredient being celebrated on the menu either; Shetland hake, crab and crayfish linguine, and a herd of Aberdeen Angus – from fillet and ribeye steaks through to cote de boeuf and chateaubriand – are vying for attention.
It was a trio of Isle of Barra scallops (£16) – served with cauliflower, black pudding, and apple – that caught my eye for my starter, which smelt even more amazing than the subsequent venison.
Smoky, caramel notes wafted up from the plate, and were replicated among the flavours.
Yet the light caramelisation didn’t overpower the salty, fishy, sea-y flavours of the scallops, which were still soft inside.
I could have done with less earthiness from the cauliflower sauce and more of the bursts of freshness from the green apple matchsticks but, like the lack of crunch with the venison, that’s a tiny consideration amid another superb dish.
A glass of Granbazán’s Etiqueta Verde Albariño (£8.60 for 175ml) was the ideal companion for the scallops – Galicia’s flagship white grape was born to go with seafood and Granbazán is a top producer.
Supermarket albariño can be wishy-washy, but this bottle boasts complexity, with aromas ranging from lemon and lemon rind through red and green apples to floral and peach notes.
It’s the fresher lemon and green apple flavours that tame the acidity on the palate, which cut through the earthiness from the cauliflower and black pudding.
Even after 45 minutes in the glass, the wine was still bangin’.
Some of wine merchant Inverarity Morton’s other greatest hits were also jostling for position on the wine list, especially stars from the Languedoc in the South of France, including the great value Le Versant range from the Foncalieu co-operative, and red and white bottles from British winemaker Katie Jones’ Domaine Jones.
Away from the wines, the bar’s cocktails also impressed, especially the rosemary negroni, which was herbal without being overpowering, allowing space for the bitterness of the Campari and the velvety texture of the Antica Formula vermouth to shine.
Don’t be scared of the ‘chicken butter’
Even before the scallops landed on my plate, the “chicken butter” and crispy shallots served alongside sourdough from the Freedom bakery had me entranced.
Weaving chicken fat into the butter produced addictive salty flavours, like the most intense chicken stock you’ve ever tasted.
After that mix of earthiness and saltiness throughout the courses, it was time for something sweeter for dessert, and the vanilla crème brûlée (£6) with its caramel glaze and homemade shortbread didn’t disappoint.
While it was the right mix of creamy and airy, its flavour felt toned down after the intensity of the scallops and the venison.
In contrast, the shortbread dialled the flavour back up – not too buttery or cloying, yet able to stand-up to the caramelised dessert.
O’Neill’s autumn menu at Ralph & Finns demonstrates that there’s nothing dull about using traditional Scottish ingredients.
Venison, scallops, and shortbread may be culinary cliches – but they’re cliches for a reason.
That’s because, in the hands of chefs like O’Neill, they deliver again and again and again.
Find out more about Ralph & Finns, 23-25 St Vincent Place, Glasgow, on its website.
Catch up with more news and reviews on Scottish Field’s food and drink pages, in association with Cask & Still magazine.
Plus, don’t miss the secret diner’s restaurant review in October’s luxury issue of Scottish Field magazine.