I’ve had a few surreal moments in my life.
One of the most Dali-esque was meeting a bearded dragon called Nugget at this place.
This orange lizard was wearing a pink harness, and basking in the sun with his owner. I chucked him under his wattle and he seemed to enjoy it, as much as a reptile enjoys anything much beyond UV rays, rocks and insects.
He certainly liked sunbathing on the clipped lawn at historic Hospitalfield - the red sandstone Arts & Crafts house, believed to be Scotland's first school of art and with previous lecturers including Peter Blake and Joan Eardley.
It’s flanked by a new Garden Cafe that’s like a glasshouse (or Nugget’s terrarium), designed by architects Caruso St John, and built as phase one of a five-year £10 million restoration plan to continue to make the house and its surroundings a landmark cultural centre.
The friendly and enthusiastic visitor greeter, in one of their green Hospitalfield t-shirts, tipped us off that upcoming events include a bat rave. (Hannah Tuulikki’s Echoes in the Dark Silent Rave). I’ll have to brush up on my echolocation before then.
Their cafe is open Thursday to Sunday, from 10 to 5pm. We visited on the Sunday, so couldn’t do a house tour, as they run Thursday to Saturday, but the garden and fernery were open, for £6 admission. Beyond the lawn, on a site that was once a monastic garden established by Benedictine monks, there are paths lined by roses that have marbled petals like raspberry ripple ice-cream, rocketing lupins, lavender, and sculptural thistles.
There are also frilly lettuces, which will probably make it onto head chef Simon Brown’s menu.
We bagged a table on the terrace, under a parasol, since it was sweltering inside. The menu is classic art gallery cafe - a genre I love.
It seemed a bit sacrilegious not to go for the Arbroath Smokie tart (£10.95) but I fancied the hot smoked salmon instead (£10.95). It consisted of a thick and buttery potato rosti, the same colour as Nugget, that was topped with pickled carrot ribbons, a tangy spiced honey yoghurt and soft slippery fish segments. On the side was a thick cross section of turmeric-tinged cauliflower that was doused with a grassy green coriander oil. A dreamy alfresco lunch.
I also ordered the soup (£5.25) though some might think having it on a hot day is totally illegal.
Thankfully, I didn’t sweat more than my industrial application of Sure would allow, and I savoured the algae green and dilly courgette, pea and mint mixture. It came with two slices of springy sourdough on the side and a nice big wad of butter, in a ramekin, not a wrapper.
We also had a special salad plate (£10.95), aka a mosaic of shrubbery. There was a herby courgette, broad bean, chickpea and lemon salad; caraway-seed-dusted red cabbage slaw, a bouncy lettuce salad with seeds, as well as new potato salad with horseradish and chive.
That’s as well as three large crunchy croutons of sourdough, which had been slid between a couple of the salads like envelopes in a letter rack. We dipped these into the side dish - a smooth white bean dip with dill. Since our visit, we’ve recreated this at home and it’s going to be a lunchtime staple.
For pudding, I was worried that the strawberry, fennel and basil cake (£3.50) on the menu might not be available, since it didn’t appear on the counter inside. I asked for it anyway, and - hooray - it was in the fridge, since the cafe was so hot that it might have melted into a puddle otherwise.
That’s okay, I could’ve happily chugged this lovely cake, with its layers of sponge, jam and thick butter icing, like a milkshake.
Though, maybe not as well as my iced latte (£3.20), which was made with coffee from nearby roastery, Sacred Grounds. We also tried a stiff macchiato (£2.80) and a triangle of strawberry and orange Bakewell (£3.50) - super sweet, but lifted by a summery zesty tang, and with a suitably snappy crust.
At this point, they were trying to get the bearded dragon back into his pet carrier, and he was really fighting back.
It’s probably the most animated I’ve seen a reptile.
I know how you feel, Nugget. I really didn’t want to leave either.
(01241 656124, www.hospitalfield.org.uk)