It was my second lunch at Little’s, an experience that turned out to be less expensive than the first commercial outing with Graham Huband, the newspaper’s managing editor.
Back then, in 2020, our task was to decide the winner of the Restaurant Menu of the Year award and it’s fair to say that there was a heated debate among the judging panel as to who should triumph.
A local chef (and fellow judge) made it very clear that Little’s should win, while I was equally determined that the winner would be Kinneuchar Inn, which had recently opened to great acclaim (particularly on my part).
When it became apparent that no consensus could be reached on the panel, it was decided that a team would visit/revisit both contenders and I remember Graham and I had a perfectly enjoyable lunch at Little’s, that which then seemed to me to be a great asset to Blairgowrie and the surrounding area.
Nonetheless, I stuck to my beliefs that Kinneuchar should be the winner and there were times when the upstart from East Neuk won both Best Restaurant and Best New Restaurant awards, even though the awards show did -even was postponed to this year due to Covid.
I remembered the whole judging experience on a recent visit to Little’s where I left feeling like we had had a delicious meal, just like I had with Graham. In fact, the food was probably better this time around, with some of the dishes we sampled being absolute classics of their kind.
My Dover Sole with Almonds and Brown Butter was perfect, although you could expect it to be for £32.50.
However, while I think the food at Little’s is wonderful, to me there was something strangely missing from the whole dining experience here, and I think a lot of that depends on the environment.
Little’s opened in Blairgowrie in 2011 but moved to its new home in a refurbished Methodist church in February 2018.
First impressions are one of utter awe because I’ve seen churches repurposed for so many things – offices, homes, concert venues, nightclubs, art galleries and cafes are some of them – but I can’t remember ever eating in a church before eating here.
Entering any place of worship is rather humiliating, of course, and it’s the same here.
The dizzying space topped with a vaulted wooden ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows cannot fail to inspire wonder and yet it is a very different marvel to the one you get when you enter, say, the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, located in a beautiful Glasite church.
There, space seems to envelop you in warmth; here in Blairgowrie I feel strangely alienating and offbeat eating here.
The pink walls don’t help, nor does the two-seater leather sofa in the entryway, topped with a huge teddy bear. I guess this is meant to humanize the place, but instead it makes it feel a bit parochial, which is completely at odds with the cuisine here.
But those pink walls play a major role in making this space feel incongruous and slightly awkward, bearing in mind the incongruity you already feel because you’re about to drop a ton of cash on fish, bread and wine in a church. Freud looks away!
I hate to dwell on the walls, but a space like this should feel humanized and here I remember Oscar Wilde’s last words as he lay dying at L’Hotel in Paris: “This wallpaper and me we duel for death. Either it’s okay or I do it. Unfortunately, wallpaper won in Paris, as did pink here in Blairgowrie.
After these reservations I have to say the food here is quite delicious and the four of us ate so well that David’s father, here on holiday in Northumberland, said it was the best meal he had eaten in a restaurant for many years. David’s mother-in-law, Ruth, was almost as outgoing.
That it’s primarily a fish restaurant isn’t surprising when you consider that chef/owner Willie Little owns a fish shop in Crieff. And, while the menu has a few meat dishes and sadly fewer vegetarian options, there are four pizzas on offer that might appeal if you want a more casual or less poolside dinner.
A list of specials is chalked on a blackboard, all of which looked very appealing the day we visited. With mains ranging from £18.95 to £32.50 for my Dover Sole, the prices on the board, and here in general, were enough to raise an eyebrow at wily Northumbrian Bob 86-year-old.
Maybe I’ve become a mild southerner after my 40s in London, but I didn’t think the prices at Little’s were so unreasonable for fish of this quality, especially when compared to my favorite fish restaurant in London , J Sheekey, where Dover toasted the sole ranges from £46-56 to £32.50 at Little.
Again, Sheekey’s is a London classic, right in the middle of Theatreland, so it’s probably unfair to compare them.
My starter of turbot mousse with candy salmon and spicy mayonnaise (£8.95) was delicious enough to make me forget I normally run for the hills whenever I see the word candy on a menu. Here, the fish mousse was subtle and beautifully complemented by the kick of the mayonnaise and the leaves and micro-herbs surrounding it. An excellent entry.
David’s frittata starter (£4) came from a small tapas menu which included classics like patatas bravas (£3.25) and cod belly fritters with garlic mayonnaise (4.75 £).
Once again I agree with the feeling that vegetarians aren’t exactly catered for here, with a simple starter (two if the soup is vegetarian) and a grand total with no main courses, unless you don’t counted two. the pizzas.
The frittata – sliced and served in a bowl – was crispy and flavorful, but felt like a B-list guest compared to fish entrees offered elsewhere.
Likewise, David’s pizza main course (ordered because it was literally the only vegetarian option) was nicely presented but not special enough to look like he could really hold his own with the fish dishes inspired cuisine .
Some might say it’s nice that Little’s offers pizza dishes, but I disagree because, to me, it’s like going to a Bordeaux wine tasting and ordering a Coke, or going to a great Chinese and order fries. I mean, what’s the point?
Our main courses were much better, with all three fish dishes looking and eating brilliantly.
My Dover sole was just awesome and worth the award, I thought to myself. This fish, which was the most prized of all sea fish throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, is best served as simply as possible and the browned butter and almond toppings shown here have proven ideal.
Incredibly, the River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the aptly named Nick Fisher, reminds us of a bygone era when “the size of the sole you served reflected your level of success on the social scale”. The upper echelons, and those who aspired to it, ate the larger soles, while the next social level had to settle for smaller soles called “slips” or “tongues”.
At least now, slip-resistant soles themselves are a dish worth celebrating thanks to talented chefs like Stephen Harris at The Sportsman in Whitstable and Noble Rot in London.
My classic Dover sole at Little’s was the best fish dish I’ve had in quite a while, the sweet flesh falling off the bones so cleanly there was little left to suck on the bones. Just wonderful.
True to aquatic royalty, Bob’s turbot with cabbage and bacon, cream sauce and potato rosti was a wonderful slice of fish, the flesh of the sea king both firm and succulent. Like Dover sole, turbot needs minimal accompaniments although its texture means it can also stand up to a robust sauce.
Bob declared it excellent and that’s when he said it was the best meal he and Ruth had enjoyed in ages.
Ruth’s monkfish seasoned with curry, drizzled with spiced rice and served with a chive omelette was not something I would have thought to order, as I’m not always blown away by the flavors of curry with fish – and I also remember the endless dinners of the 1980 where the monkfish was the star of the show.
I should know because I’ve cooked enough of it, especially the baked monkfish with crème fraîche en papillote from the River Cafe — my decade-long hit dish that rewarded artifice as much as effort. Here, the meaty fish, almost impossible to overcook, was a good receptor for the assertive spiciness of the aromas.
The desserts were a delight. Ruth’s sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce and ice cream (£7.25) was excellent, as was Bob’s new season rhubarb, orange curd and vanilla yoghurt (also £7, £25).
In his sweet Northumbrian smudge, Bob pronounced his pudding “very unusual”, but for once “unusual” was not an understatement for horrible.
My trio of iced parfaits (chocolate, raspberry and mango) was served with blueberry compote, honeycomb, strawberries and raspberries, and was absolutely delicious. The service was charming and efficient. Our total bill was £142.95.
Since the food was so good, I wish I could explain exactly why I don’t think Little ticked all the boxes for me.
I guess some places feel good and some don’t, and often the reason can be intangible. Here is a very good chef serving high quality food in an interesting environment. What’s not to like?
It’s just that, for me, the atmosphere of the place was lacking and the whole thing was a bit reassuring, a bit lacking in spirit or effervescence.
I like places that leave you feeling both happy and full of energy, with a bit of momentum in your step, like you and the staff and the space have been on a little adventure together. I just didn’t get it here, lovely as that sounds. Maybe it’s me, not them… Damn good food, though.
Address: Little’s Restaurant, Riverside Road, Blairgowrie, PH10 7GA
P: 01250 875358
Prices: Starters from £3.25, mains from £9.50, dessert from £7.25
- Food: 5/5
- Performance: 5/5
- Surroundings: 4/5
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[A heavenly meal lacks spirit at Little’s in Blairgowrie]