Epoch

Princes Square, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

0141 261 0291

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Lunch/Dinner: £15-£25

Food rating: 9/10

FOR the greatest concentration of good restaurants in Glasgow you’d be well advised to head for the Finnieston strip. It’s home to a cluster of affordable eateries with intelligent menus, a fertile collective effort where each and every establishment ups its game to keep up with the Joneses.

But we can’t always head for Finnieston; sometimes we’re stuck in the centre where indie restaurateurs with ideas are crowded out by all the ubiquitous chains that suffocate city centres up and down the land. And where could be more central than Princes Square, the up-market mall? While UK-wide experience suggests that yesterday’s glitzy new shopping centre almost inevitably becomes today’s failing white elephant, Princes Square has aged well.

Shopping centres aren’t natural stomping grounds for serious chefs, although Princes Square started off with such aspirations. Back in the day when Geoff Smeddle, now chef-proprietor at the marvellous Michelin-starred Peat Inn, was behind the stove at Terence Conran’s restaurant on the top floor, Etain, the food was wonderful, a relaxed but nevertheless professionally accomplished brasserie serving classics. Most memorably it had a lavish cheese trolley where cheeses were kept at room temperature, just as they would be in France, but doubtless our over-zealous food police put an end to that.

Now, being downstairs in the basement at Epoch, which is near to the children’s play area, close enough to Pizza Express to lob a dough ball, does nothing to indicate that it’s anything other than a tapas outfit that hasn’t yet found its feet. A bit of this, a bit of that, we wonder to whom it’s pitching. So I order mechanically, nibbling on the warm roasted Valencia almonds, thinking, "Nice nuts", but expecting no great shakes. Then the dishes start rolling up, and I’m sitting up paying attention.

Pork "croquettes" are up first, a term I have come to dread as an indicator of greasy armoured objects I often regret eating, but these have a clean-fried, brittle, pungently mustardy batter hugging unctuous, gelatinous pork. They’re sat on warm yoghurt, drizzled with a salsa verde that sings out coriander.

OK, we got lucky I’m thinking, until the Gorgonzola and walnut gnocchi are set down. More like little potato rissoles, their texture is pleasantly elastic, the fusion of nut, cheese, and a whisper of truffle oil all in harmonious synergy. Fried sage leaves, immaculately flat and crisp, are dusted over these golden balls of wonderfulness, which sit on a purée of squash, referencing the Italian roots of the ensemble. No amateur cooked this up.

Cementing the emerging theory that there is some serious professional person-power in this kitchen, the pork and pistachio terrine arrives: emollient pink meat with just enough liver to deepen its flavour and adequate melting fat to enrich it, all wrapped in diaphanous cured ham. Beside this is a perfectly formed quenelle of fig jam, which tastes of fresh, ripe figs, not sugar. The toast – a decent loaf, cut in triangles, golden and friable – s a winning example of the joys of the Maillard reaction. We’re loving this chemistry.

Mussels as meaty as scallop corals are more casual, but there’s no sloppiness. Imagine Mediterranean fish soup mixed with cream, a good pinch of saffron on the end, and you’ve got the measure of their bouillon. A fillet of crisp-skinned sea bass on a bed of halved red cherry and yellow plum-shaped baby tomatoes, interspersed with very fine, mild shallot, pomegranate seeds, and paper-thin shavings of lemon, dressed (I’m guessing) in pomegranate molasses, is as restorative as it is beautiful.

And the pastry section maintains the high standard. Someone went to the bother of poaching in wine the pears sunk within an almondy marzipan tart: the pastry is a dream of shortness, a fresh cherry sorbet, not too sweet, cuts it. A statuesque hazelnut, chocolate and caramel eclair is a knee-knocking stunner, its dry, biscuity choux pastry perfection.

Turns out that the kitchen team has a CV that takes in One Devonshire Gardens, and other fine dining establishments further afield. We can see and taste the training, but this menu allows a flexible choice and won’t break the bank. Epoch is an impressive operation in an unlikely place.