When Ranald Macdonald, theyounger of Clanranald, brought his ‘taste’ of stunning Scotland to beautiful Belgravia, London got much more than it bargained for – fabulous food, tartan, jazz and cigars…
Ranald Macdonald is something of a conundrum. As the younger of Clanranald and eldest son of the 24th chief and captain of Clanranald, he sounds as though he belongs in some remote outpost in the Hebrides, sporting clan tartan, munching haggis and tossing a caber.
But Macdonald dispels the Highland stereotype and the restaurateur reveals that he is both a product of his ancestry and far removed from it.
He started the first of his Boisdale restaurants in Belgravia in 1986, based simply on his loves: “Scotland, whisky, cigars and jazz”. The basic formula has worked and, with the opening of Boisdale Canary Wharf in May this year, there are now three restaurants in London. Macdonald’s personality is stamped all over them with his Scottish roots and eclectic interests prominent throughout. The deep red walls covered in antlers and traditional paintings of Scottish hunting scenes are juxtaposed with photographs of jazz legends, while the clan tartan is evident in the form of cashmere rugs and plush carpet. “
We’re a welcoming home to anyone who’s Scottish, but we can’t fulfil everyone’s idea of what a Scottish restaurant should be. Some might say that we play on it too much, but I just do it as I like it.”
Despite his success, Macdonald says he has “never been strategic” and learnt more about wine and cigars at university than his intended academic subjects.
His various avocations extend far beyond the simple loves he has based his business on, ranging from a passion for mushroom foraging to an earnest adoration of Elvis Presley. He is also widely well informed when it comes to Scottish history and says he feels “duty bound to have an
interest because of being part of our clan.”
His interest in his country’s past extends beyond a sense of obligation though. Although he is able to reel off a condensed version of Scottish history from the Dark Ages to the modern day, he says he only has “a sense” of how things happened. “It’s not a profound or academic sense – it’s just an idea of the peaks and troughs,” he explains.
When it comes to his sense of identity as a Scotsman, Macdonald muses that Scottish celebrations of nationalism are at odds with the country’s history. One of his “things” is the national day of Scotland, for example, which he says is “juxtaposed between Burns Night and St Andrews Day”. Burns he describes as a “lowland poet of significant but not world-class talent” and St Andrew, who was Greek and also the patron saint of Turkey, “doesn’t quite work for me”. He cites the battle of Bannockburn on 22 June 1314 when “the Scots were a unified nation” as a more fitting testament to his country’s identity.
Because of his knowledge of history and his own upbringing in England, Macdonald understandably maintains that Scottish nationality is about more than cultural symbols. “Nationality is a very subjective reflection on what you are,” he says. “Being Scottish could simply be your blood line, wherever you are born in the world. I define myself as being Scottish but other people might not. I think different people define their nationality in different ways.”
Macdonald might not sound Scottish, or even have grown up there, but he is profoundly knowledgeable when it comes to his country’s heritage and is proud of belonging to his clan. He reflects this in his restaurants – and in his Scottish-sourced food especially. After all, he says gravely: “They say that haggis proves your intellectual prowess. The more you eat, the more intelligent you get.”
BRITAIN reviews Boisdale
The Boisdale restaurants in Belgravia and Canary Wharf follow a jazz-infused Scottish theme, but offer two very different dining experiences
Painted a deep blood red inside and out, Boisdale of Belgravia isn’t shy about proclaiming its masculine, self-confident personality in all its tartan-carpeted glory. But while the restaurant does have an obvious gentleman’s-club decor, it still manages to be warm and welcoming, while the attractive cigar terrace and courtyard garden prevent it from seeming old-fashioned.
For the best of the atmosphere at dinner, ask for a table in the Macdonald Bar where the nightly live jazz makes for a truly special dining experience. Whether you’re there for a romantic meal for two or with a big gathering of friends, the general vibe is appreciably good-natured and the service is impeccable.
The main draw of Boisdale’s menu is their ethos of sourcing the finest Scottish ingredients. The salmon and shellfish are from the Hebrides, the beef comes from Aberdeenshire on the east coast and there’s highland lamb when it comes into season in September. I paired a starter of award-winning wild salmon from Dunkeld on the Scottish west coast with a fabulous Sancerre to start and my main course of aged on-the-bone fillet steak was packed with flavour.
The menu is the same at the recently opened Boisdale Canary Wharf (BCW), as are the red walls, but the two venues offer very distinct dining experiences. Black-framed photographs of music and film stars cover the walls and are set off by floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking Canada Square. There’s a caviar and oyster bar, a large terrace and even a Cuban library and shop. And of course there’s the whisky bar, with one of the largest selections of malt whisky in the world.
Smack in the middle of Canary Wharf, BCW obviously serves the corporate market but owner Ranald Macdonald says they also cater for east-end locals, as well as providing an exciting live music venue. A mixture of blues, jazz and soul artists – including some big names – perform at the restaurant, which can seat 200 people. Jules Holland performed the night before we visited.
The sheer size of the space means the jazz here has nothing gentile about it – it’s loud and in your face and quite unlike the intimate Belgravia experience. But then where Boisdale Belgravia aims for the elegant style of a classic ‘40s jazz bar and restaurant, BCW just does everything on a much bigger scale. For good food, live music and a light-hearted atmosphere, both are well worth a visit.