Walking through Aberdeen one sunny Saturday lunchtime, I found Cafe 52 in a cobbled courtyard, just opening for lunch. The menu was full of delicious-sounding things such as cullen skink, hot smoked mackerel, and Normandy chicken casserole with leeks and tarragon. As I loitered by the door, something about the cafe’s name rang a bell, then, to my glee, I realised this was the place whose owner famously doesn’t like Guardian readers, and who earlier this year penned a job advert banning them. Perhaps I should have been offended, but there was a bread-and-butter pudding made with crumpets on the menu, plus, to quote Groucho Marx, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
No chef truly wants to see a restaurant critic waddle into view the moment they begin service, dip a finger in the 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 out his stall that he had no time for my ilk. This charming, long, narrow strip of a bistro has survived for more than 25 years without the likes of me, and is these days serving a sort of boho, rustic, French-Scottish, casual-elegant menu to a unending stream of walk-ins. Cafe 52 has no need for my pronouncements.
One of the very lovely servers squeezed me in ever so politely as a table for one and left me listening to Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow while trying to choose between the marinated herring with soured cream and walnuts and the portobello mushrooms cooked in cider. Could this really be the same controversial cafe? I popped to the ladies to wash my hands and found it freshly painted, a spotless sink, delightful hand soap and a large framed photograph of Mother Teresa bearing the words “Always wash your minge”. Yes, this must be the place.
I like Aberdeen a great deal, and spent three wonderful days there alone, talking to strangers and eating: at the vegan Cafe Bonobo, where the thinly sliced carrot “smoked salmon” bagels are delightful; at steakhouse Vovem Meat & Liquor for pulled brisket mac ’n’ cheese; before heading farther afield to The Silver Darling on Pocra Quay for tempura oyster with wasabi.
But Cafe 52 was my favourite. Proprietor Steve Bothwell might have little time for “liars” and “bullshitters”, as he says in that advert, but he has created a place where glorious food matters, and I can say beyond doubt that my restorative bowl of Normandy chicken casserole will be one of the greatest things I’ll eat all year. Chicken soup – or stew, in this case – does touch the soul, and a good one is as close to a cuddle from Mother T herself as you can get. This one featured five or six chunks of soft, stewed breast, thigh and leg in a clear tarragon broth with the very occasional chunk of soft potato or slice of garlicky mushroom, and was way more than the sum of its parts. This stew, topped with a vivid pink bundle of pickled red cabbage, was a wonder, with fragrant tarragon the hero ingredient. I ate it with a side of kale, deep fried and laced with chilli, which is the only way to treat it – that is, mercilessly, otherwise it’s really only good for hamster bedding.
Bothwell’s octogenarian mother makes all the puddings at Cafe 52, and just two spoons into her crumpet bread-and-butter pudding I felt the need to check with the staff if anyone had written down the recipes for her carrot and brandied fruit cake or her coffee cake with rum syllabub. The bread pudding is a fearsome, rib-sticking challenge of a dessert, with crumpet after crumpet smothered in sweet, eggy custard and served with vanilla ice-cream. It’s the sort of dish that makes guests at other tables wink and wish me luck, as if I was some sort of amateur at this game. The first four or five spoons were sublime, all sticky and compelling; I was living my best life. After that, however, the going got tough. It felt ungracious to loosen my bra at the table, so I swiftly pencilled in an afternoon nap.
It was at this point that the owner spotted me and made his way in the direction of my table. Oh dear, I thought, this is where things get even more tasty. “Yer stew all right?” he asked, semi-begrudgingly, as if he didn’t really care what the answer was going to be, but was curious anyway.
“Incredible,” I said. “I loved it.”
“Fine,” he said, and walked off without another glance in my direction. I have paved a way for all of us. Just don’t go in carrying this newspaper.