IF EVER anyone wanted an identikit plan for how to create a successful gastropub, they need look no further than The Sun Inn just outside Dalkeith.
Right on the busy A7, and with unmissable billboards advertising their achievements – primarily multiple Scottish gastropub of the year awards – this place epitomises what can be done with a bit of thought and elbow grease.
At first sight, The Sun Inn is barely different from the other old coaching inns that line the country’s roads. But where so many are either dilapidated or have been modernised to within an inch of their lives, The Sun Inn has been stripped back to basics and really tastefully decorated.
Log fires, exposed beams, dark green tongue and groove panelling to waist height, bench seats around the walls and a range of smart printed wallpaper give a feeling of comfort, while the hunting prints, antlers and stuffed pheasants consolidate the air of traditional country pub.
That said, you’re left in no doubt that this is the sort of place you come to eat, not drink.
As soon as you walk through the door you’re met by one of the many members of staff and your coats are whisked away with formidable efficiency before you’re shown straight to your table.
On the Sunday lunchtime we ate there, it was packed, almost exclusively with families, many with toddlers or babies.
Little seemed to faze the staff, however, not even one spectacularly mischievous bread-chucking baby who had the throwing action of Dan Marino in his prime and gurgled with delight each time she frisbeed another slice across the packed room.
Bea decided to go with the a la carte menu while I and the children went for the set Sunday lunch.
This meant starters of garlic and thyme meatballs with roast plum tomato sauce and parmesan-dressed rocket for me, Indian tapas (onion bhaji, mushroom pakora and vegetable samosa) for the young diners and half a dozen queenie scallops cooked in their shells with gruyere cheese and potato for Bea.
I’ve never been a particular fan of queenie scallops, but they were undoubtedly the star of the show and, combined with the molten cheese and velveteen mash, made for exceptionally fancy and enjoyable comfort food.
My three meatballs were also excellent: small, flaky and clearly made from decent steak mince, they were heart-warmingly far removed in flavour and texture from the dense, compacted, tasteless golf balls you sometimes get when you order meatballs.
The Indian tapas were fine, but no more. The scope for interesting dishes is enormous when it comes to tiffin, and while there was nothing wrong with the trio, when compared to the other two starters this was disappointingly pedestrian.
When our main courses arrived, Bea’s lamb shank with pearl barley casserole was so succulent it fell off the bone. It was, however, by no means the best of the main courses. That fell to my fussy daughter Ailsa’s Spanish-style chicken, which was cooked in a chorizo and black olive stew to produce a dish of real depth and perfectly matched flavours that was served with pesto mash. For once, there were no complaints.
he same could not be said of Ollie’s roast leg of lamb or my parmesan and herb crusted veal escalope with a nice white onion sauce.
While my veal was just about tender enough to make up for the lack of parmesan, the lamb was so tough it tasted as though it had been on the side for hours, a huge pity given how well the huge Yorkshire pudding and potatoes went down.
We rounded off on a high, with two superb crme brulees infused with a joyously deep vanilla flavour, plus mini mountains of profiteroles filled with coffee cream and smothered in a hot chocolate sauce.
From the informal atmosphere to the conspicuous support for artisan producers and sensible prices, there is an enormous amount to like about head chef and owner Ian Minto’s pub, but there are inevitably some gripes too.
To describe The Sun Inn as a victim of its own success would be going too far, but the number of people squeezed into the available space means you’re so close you can hear all the chat from neighbouring tables. And on the subject of tables, they’re too small, especially given the huge plates.
Finally, the service, which slickly passes you through and spits you out at the other end as soon as possible, can get a little patchy when the place is really busy – after our plates were removed almost the second we’d finished eating, our bill took an age to arrive.
Yet those are minor quibbles. I whinge constantly about the lack of decent gastropubs, yet The Sun Inn definitely fulfils that description and deserves the success that has come its way. n
The Sun Inn
Lothianbridge, Dalkeith (0131-663 2456, www.thesuninnedinburgh.co.uk)
Bill please: Sunday lunch (two courses) 12.95; (three courses 17.95) A la carte lunch: Starters 3.75-6.95; main courses 8.95-17.95; puddings 4.95 (cheese 5.95)
A la carte dinner: Starters 3.95-6.95; main courses 11.95-19.95; puddings 4.95 (cheese 5.95)
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 23 January, 2011