We all have a place in the world that is just special to us, for whatever reason.
One of mine is at Milton of Crathes, a little spot that my mum just loved whenever she came up from Edinburgh to visit us. I have treasured memories of her and dad wandering around the little shops there, walking to the end of the path and gazing across the Dee as it burbled past in sparkling sunshine before having a bite to eat at the Milton and mum just nattering away, as she did, catching up, enjoying, being at ease.
She left us a few years ago now, but when I’m in that spot, I often feel that connection to her, feel that ease. It’s stronger some days than others, but when it’s mild, when the light is soft, when the day is quiet it is at its height.
As it was when my wife and I headed over a couple of Sundays back. We had a wander around the little shops, looked across at the Dee and went for a bite to eat at the Milton Brasserie.
It is an easy place to enjoy, especially on a bright spring day. The dining room is simple, but elegant with rustic wooden trunks bearing the beams that create the loft space, the high reaches of which are decked out in hessian to keep that theme of country charm running strong, without descending into the clutter and chintz of “country restaurant”.
Simple and elegant was the theme, too, when it came to the Sunday lunch menu, priced at £20 for two courses, £25 for three. It offered plenty of choice of classic dishes, without being overly fussy.
Service had that laid-back Sunday feel to it, too. Friendly without being overwhelming, needing the odd prompt to begin with, but then settling down into an easy rhythm of making sure you had what you needed when you needed it.
Starters for Sunday lunch can be a tricky affair, especially if – like us – you’d basically skipped on breakfast so you would have room for the fine food you were looking forward to.
The risk factor comes in allowing that touch of hunger to influence your choice of starter, going for something big and filling that will leave you too stuffed to fully appreciate your mains. Caution is required. Unless Cullen skink is on the menu in which case you just go for it, as I did.
Fortune favours the bold and in this case I was rewarded with a masterful example of the north-east’s finest seafood soup.
To be honest, this was more of a stew. It was creamy and lush, without being sickly. It was packed with beautifully flaking fish and tatties that were bang on the spectrum between soft and firm, just what you need for a skink.
With a couple of hunks of homemade bread, I was in my mint.
My wife was casting an envious eye over it and had that sort of look, to which the only correct reaction is “do you want to try some”.
“Please. Just a spoonful, though.” Which became two, then three. Hard to deny when she was loving it so much. But, then, so was I.
Not to say she wasn’t enjoying her own starter. She was. Very much.
She had chosen the smoked duck breast, three generous slices of gamey, rich meat. The smoking was delicate, letting the flavour of the virtually fat-free duck shine through.
Now, when you have a strong-tasting cut of meat on your plate, you need to balance it out carefully.
Milton’s kitchen nailed it with the accompanying Asian cabbage salad. It was drizzled in a delightfully sharp citrus orange dressing, laced with aniseed notes of star anise. Nestling in the mix was the odd little cut of fresh red chilli that added a fiery spike to proceedings.
It was an excellent way of setting our taste buds up for the rest of the meal.
Our plates were whisked away, more water was delivered and we had time for a wee chat, including reminiscing about the time we took mum up to Crathes Castle when Michael Ball was having a soundcheck for his Live On The Lawn gig and we thought she was going to rush the stage for an autograph. We’d laughed about it together back then, still smiled about it today. Happy memories.
The trip down memory lane was paused when the mains arrived. And here we had it. Sunday lunch proper.
I had chosen the chicken supreme, while my dining buddy had decided roast beef (which carried a £2 supplement) was just the thing.
The trick to Sunday lunch is to remember its source. It’s about good food, cooked simply, the sort of thing you do in your family kitchen without too much fuss or muss.
Which is precisely how the chicken was done. Roasted, the skin was nicely crisped, giving way to tender breast beneath, it had retained its moisture and married well with the slight acidity of the red wine jus.
Simplicity carried through to the veg, with nicely roasted potatoes with their fluffy interior, alongside broccoli, green beans and carrots. However, the veg really could have stood a healthier dose of seasoning. They were all on the bland side, other than the carrots which were spot on.
Not that this distracted at all from the plate of food – it’s what salt shakers are for, after all – but I do prefer a better balance coming from the kitchen.
Meanwhile, across the table my other half was staring down the barrel of a rather generous portion of roast striploin of beef.
The two large slices of meat, however, had been cooked beyond the pink promised on the menu and how my dining partner would have preferred it.
That said, the beef was still tender and melt-in-the-mouth, aided by the rich red wine gravy which added even more depth of flavour.
The beef arrived with the same mix of veg as the chicken, but also offered up a huge homemade Yorkshire pudding.
With all its crevices and craters, the pudding needed a healthier dose of gravy than was on the plate. A request for some more was greeted with a smiley “no problem” and the swift arrival of a gravy boat brimming with the stuff.
Remember that issue about overstuffing on the starters? No problem here. We both cleaned our plates, and sat back satisfied – if not resisting the urge to high-five on a job well done.
The offer of dessert was a step too far, even for us, tempting as it was.
Milton Brasserie is always a lovely spot to seek out and even more so now it is offering its new Sunday menu.
There is an air of tranquillity and refinement about the space, matched by really good food, lovingly made with quality local produce. As always, we enjoyed our meal and the experience.
I suppose I can sum it all up best by saying “mum would have loved it”.