Odriving through Aberdeen on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I found Coffee 52 in a paved courtyard, just open for lunch. The menu was full of delicious things such as skink cullen, hot smoked mackerel and chicken normand casserole with leeks and tarragon. As I strolled by the door, something about the cafe’s name rang a bell, and then, to my delight, I realized this was the place whose owner doesn’t like readers of the Guardian, and who earlier this year wrote a job ad banning them. Maybe I should have been offended, but there was bread and butter pudding made with crumpets on the menu, plus, to quote Groucho Marx, “I refuse to join any club that has me as a member.”
No chef really wants to see a restaurant reviewer waddle as they begin service, dip a finger in demi-glace to check its consistency, and behave as if a cold plate is the nadir of suffering, so I found it rather refreshing that the chef/owner here had already set up his stall that he didn’t have time for my ilk. This charming, long, narrow strip of bistro has survived for more than 25 years without me, and these days serves up a kind of bohemian, rustic, Scottish-French, laid-back and elegant menu to an endless stream of walkers. ins. Cafe 52 doesn’t need my statements.
One of the very lovely waiters squeezed me in very politely as a table for one and let me listen Since you left by rainbow while trying to choose between marinated herring in sour cream and walnuts and portobello mushrooms cooked in cider. Could it really be the same controversial coffee? I went to the ladies to wash my hands and found it freshly painted, a spotless sink, delicious hand soap and a large framed photograph of Mother Teresa with the words “Always Wash Your Minge”. Yes, this must be the place.
I really like Aberdeen and spent three wonderful days there alone, talking to strangers and eating: vegan Bonobo Cafe, where the “smoked salmon” bagels with finely sliced carrots are delicious; at the steak house Meat and liqueur Vovem for the pulled brisket mac ‘n’ cheese; before going further The silver darling on Pocra Quay for an oyster tempura with wasabi.
But Cafe 52 was my favorite. Owner Steve Bothwell may have little time for ‘liars’ and ‘bullshit’ as he puts it in this ad, but he’s created a place where glorious food matters, and I can say without a doubt that My Norman Chicken Casserole Repair Bowl will be one of the best things I’ll eat all year. Chicken soup – or stew, in this case – touches the soul, and a good soup is as close as it gets to a hug from Mother T herself. This had five or six pieces of soft brisket, thigh and leg cooked in a clear tarragon broth with a very occasional piece of soft potato or a slice of garlic mushroom, and was fine more than the sum of its parts. This stew, topped with a bright pink bundle of pickled red cabbage, was a delight, with fragrant tarragon as the star ingredient. I ate it with a side of kale, fried and spiced up with chilli, which is the only way to treat it – which is to say no mercy, otherwise it’s really good for the hamster litter box.
Bothwell’s octogenarian mother makes all 52 coffee puddings, and only two scoops in her bread and butter pudding crumpet. I felt the need to check with the staff if anyone had written down the recipes for their Carrot Fruit Brandy Cake or their coffee. syllabub rum cake. Bread pudding is a formidable dessert challenge, with crumb after crumb smothered in sweet custard and served with vanilla ice cream. It’s the kind of dish that winks at other tables and wishes me good luck, like I’m some kind of amateur at this game. The first four or five spoonfuls were sublime, all sticky and irresistible; I was living my best life. After that, however, things got tough. It was unpleasant to loosen my bra at the table, so I quickly took a pencil nap.
That’s when the owner spotted me and walked over to my table. Oh my God, I thought, this is where things get even tastier. “Your stew, how are you?” he asked, half-reluctantly, as if he didn’t really care about the answer, but was still curious.
“Incredible,” I said. “I liked it.”
“Fine,” he said, and left without another look in my direction. I opened a way for all of us. Don’t carry this diary with you.