THE exterior of the Buttery in Glasgow might be nondescript, but inside there is warmth and good food in the most surprising of environments.
Cleverly decorated with church furniture, you would never imagine it is owned by a brewery. In fact, Alloa Breweries readily admits it's a far cry from its other properties.
Although the West End of Glasgow is littered with restaurants, the development of the M8 motorway cut the Buttery off from Glasgow's city centre and its main competitors, immediately turning it into a destination restaurant.
The establishment is split into two: the ground floor, the Buttery, is a 50-seat, fine dining restaurant which includes "the snug" - a private dining room which seats up to eight; while the basement houses a 50-seat, brasserie-style restaurant, the Belfry.
Whichever restaurant you choose to eat in, the house philosophy remains the same - there is no pressure to gobble down your meal. "We don't turn tables round", explains head chef Stephen Johnson, who has presided over the kitchen for the past five years, after leaving chef-mentor Stewart Cameron at the Turnberry Hotel, Ayrshire. "If you book for 7pm, the table is yours till 2am.
"We're not in the centre of town, so we don't get any passing trade. It's not a case of ‘if we don't get them back, we'll get someone else in' - we have to build a relationship with our customers."
Equal to that is his relationship with his brigade. When it comes to changing the menus, Johnson stresses it has to be a team effort. "I welcome ideas from any member of the brigade - especially from new members.
"For example, I have a young trainee who, up until two months ago, was a waiter. He has never cooked before, but we've got him working on terrines and desserts and he has already made a contribution to the menus. The smoked salmon parcels with sea lettuce and a beetroot sauce was his suggestion - he has a good eye for colours and placing food on a plate."
Although the main kitchen is on the ground floor next to the Buttery, the Belfry has its own kitchen next to the restaurant in which dishes are cooked to order. During service a chef de partie moves down there.
"When I arrived here the Belfry was called the dungeon. Chefs would take turns to do a stint down there. But, as it is so important to business, I thought it would be better if the same person worked down there and ran it as ‘their' restaurant."
Back upstairs, the Buttery offers à la carte, table d'hôte luncheon (three courses for £14.85) and vegetarian menus. The à la carte changes monthly, but always carries salmon, lamb, beef and venison. How these four main ingredients are cooked changes on a monthly basis. For example, last month's menu saw carved loin of lamb on a tartlet of sautéd kidneys in a Madeira sauce and a rosemary jus, while this month's offers sliced lamb on minted potatoes with a jasmine tea-flavoured jus (both £12.85).
In addition, bar snacks are served in the lounge where a pulpit has been converted into an oyster bar. Customers are given a well thought-out "bar menu" including sliced smoked sea-trout with a basket of dill cottage cheese (£6.45), grilled steak sandwich with mushrooms (£5.95) and seasonal vegetables stir-fried with peanut butter beansprouts and glass noodles (£4.85).
Johnson draws up a separate vegetarian menu for the Buttery restaurant. It changes only every two or three months, because Johnson says it requires more thought and experimentation. Although he serves 10-12 meals from that menu each week, he says the interest in the menu is on the increase and he is gaining a reputation for his vegetarian cooking.
Vegetarian favourites include Buttery fruit platter with a lemon and honey yogurt dip (£4.60) and layers of green leaf pancake with mushrooms, onions and an oatmeal sauce (£9.95). Although the fruit platter is a starter, it is served on a main course plate and is piled high with fruits such as star fruit, stawberries and fresh figs.
Johnson does not employ a pastry chef but opts to produce desserts himself. Having run the pastry section at the Turnberry for a while, he says he has learnt to enjoy this area of the kitchen.
His piÁ¤ce de résistance is the Buttery grand dessert (£6.25) which features miniature versions of all the desserts - home-made carrot cake with an orange caramel sauce, almond basket filled with home-made fudge and pecan nut ice-cream and crÁ¤me fraÅ'che, traditional summer pudding with chilled Anglaise sauce, white chocolate and mint crÁ¤me brÁ±lée, iced wedge of Tia Maria parfait with a coffee bean cream, and strawberries with glazed peach sabayon and a basket of vanilla ice-cream.
"I think a dessert menu should be so interesting that the customer doesn't know which one to have - this way we solve the problem for them!" n
TRADITIONALLY, feeding staff who work in a hotel has played second fiddle to the establishment's primary function of looking after guests. But it hardly seems fair for staff in the hospitality industry to get second-rate food or service, particularly when they are part of a service industry.
With this in mind, the management at Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, contracted out its staff catering operation to Gardner Merchant earlier this spring. Although the decision was taken a year ago, major refurbishment work in the staff restaurant took place at the beginning of the year, including the installation of a separate kitchen, enabling Gardner Merchant to start its five-year contract in March.
Catering for 600 fellow members of the hospitality industry is no mean feat, let alone the staff of such a high-profile hotel, explains Sandra Black, restaurant manager at the unit.
She adds: "We're serving the staff of a five-star hotel, so it's got to be right. They are providing guests with top-quality food and services so they need to be treated in a similar manner themselves. They have got to go out to work in a good mood, feeling refreshed and well fed."
Head chef Ken Trant, who has worked for Gardner Merchant for a year following a career with the Royal Navy, operates the menus in the 120-seat staff restaurant on a four-week cycle. "The customers here are quite open to new styles of food, although they do like traditional items such as fish on Fridays and Sunday roasts."
Hot food is served on a hot counter, where there is also a bain-marie of vegetables. Salads are a "help yourself" set-up from a salad well, and a three-tier, chilled counter displays sandwiches and rolls. "I have always been a great believer in batch cooking - I don't like leaving things out so that they dry up. Everything is cooked fresh to order - we're replenishing dishes all the time," explains Trant. "This also ensures there is no wastage."
The daily-changing menus for lunch and dinner always carry a home-made soup, such as Singapore laska (a thick, Chinese-style soup with a julienne of different peppers), tomato and cardamom, Scotch broth and French onion, and one other starter, for example, soused herring garni, stuffed savoury tomatoes with garlic dressing or a trio of fresh vegetable terrine.
Three hot main courses are offered, including a vegetarian option, as well as freshly made omelettes with a choice of fillings, pastries, filled rolls and salads. Main courses recently on the current menu cycle include turkey tarragon and cheese kiev (a twist on chicken Kiev), aromatic chicken in a creamy sauce served with herb pasta and tagliatelle with mushroom and courgette carbonara.
Desserts include a fresh fruit selection, cheeseboard and yogurts, together with two daily-changing dishes such as jam roly poly with custard sauce, jellied pear and individual mandarin cheesecake.
Gleneagles staff are issued with personalised charge cards in order to pay for their meals - live-out employees are entitled to one meal per day, those who live in get three meals a day, while shift workers get two meals a day. And, if the hotel staff wish to eat more frequently in the staff restaurant, they can boost their cards' credit via a cash machine.
The contract is operated on a management fee basis. On top of this, Gleneagles makes a fixed contribution for everyone who eats in the staff restaurant (provided they do not exceed their daily meal allowance).
A recent survey carried out by Gardner Merchant confirmed that more than 80% of the 600 staff use the restaurant. The nature of the contract means no incentives are offered in the contract for Gardner Merchant to boost business - however, any growth in sales is a measure of its success.
Foodservice assistants are responsible for making up sandwiches and rolls, dishwashing and basic food preparation for the cold food displays. They also provide 300 packed lunches per week for golfers visiting the hotel's course.
Perhaps the biggest advocate of contracting out the staff restaurant at Gleneagles is the hotel's own executive chef, Alan Hill. "It's one of the best decisions the hotel has ever made," he explains.
"It makes sense to put the food out to the professionals in that market, so that the brigade here is left to do what it is trained to do - feed the guests at the hotel. Gardner Merchant is totally devoted to serving the Gleneagles staff - it listens to them and is working to give them exactly what they want." n