2 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1AD
0131 226 1888 www.ondinerestaurant.co.uk
Now, unless you have just returned from the planet Zog, it will not have escaped your notice that restaurants remain closed. Sadly, given this week's announcement which was as definitive as the predictions given by Punxtsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day, they are likely to do so for some time. My lovely guest reviewers have done great work, and I believe the delightful MH will be stepping into the breach again next week. So I've been raking through the back catalogue. This article was one of the earliest to appear in Tom Eats! I see it was written in October 2014, then upgraded in 2019. Where lists are written of fine dining places in Edinburgh, the name of Ondine will always appear. Bear in mind that prices will probably have changed.
Strange things happen in the simple elegance of Roy Brett’s domain, on a first floor overlooking Hew Lorimer’s sculptures on the facade of the National Library and the endless bustle of George IV Bridge. A good restaurant can do that to you but perhaps it has something to do with Ondine herself, the water nymph, weaving a spell or two. We all know that couples lunching together may not always have the closest of ties nor the purest of motives, in which case the male partner should beware. Naturally leery of men, Ondine put her trust in Palemon, only to be let down and abandoned after her beauty faded. After the vengeful curse she placed on him he could never sleep again.
In one corner table there is a group of ladies lunching. Elegant and shapely, but enjoying their food far too much to be conventional “ladies who lunch”. In another corner, a small table celebrating the quietest of weddings. The bride and groom have clearly been an item for some while – not enough billing and cooing for new love - but they and their friends are taking it seriously. Everyone is dressed up to at least the eights. The leading lady removes her jacket revealing a strapless top, then thinks the better of it and puts it back on. Here there is a table with author and publisher, over there a couple of young men in love and, seated next to me, a couple from Texas who arrived in Scotland for the first time an hour ago. All slowly falling under the spell.
You do need long pockets to eat here, but it is one of these places where you don’t go if you need to ask the price. Mr Brett once worked with Rick Stein. He has also been responsible for the development of many who worked for him, notably Richard Kirkwood of Wright Brothers fame. This, accordingly, is a fish restaurant. The menu has some token meat dishes. They do advertise “Sunday roast”, but theirs is roast fish and shellfish. You have been warned. And having issued the warning I no longer care about you non fish eaters. You simply don’t know what you are missing. Crab is dealt with in many and ingenious ways. Sometimes simply, in a salad, or baked. It may feature in a risotto or triumphantly in the centre of little arancini, the first time I have ever seen the point of rice balls. The great problem with running a fish restaurant is that the best produce, well cooked, can shout for itself, without too much addition. There is a fine line between adding and enlivening on the one hand, and unnecessary fiddling on the other. You will not be surprised to learn that this kitchen is always on the right side of the line. On a recent visit sole was enhanced with the classic combination of brown shrimp and herbs: on another occasion, with clams and chorizo. Cod was served on a bed of lentils with a lightly curried sauce. The star dish for me was a pearly white fillet of sea bass with a deconstructed ratatouille, the fish on a roasted pepper and tomato coulis with braised aubergines and courgettes on the side. Is there anything to criticise? Two things. On my last visit I splashed out on a lobster Thermidor. For 48 quid, I’m expecting the whole crustacean. I was served claw and leg meat only. Yellow card, chaps. And secondly, a peasant like me refuses to eat fish sans chips. Four quid a serving and, looking at the portion size, you are being charged about £3 per potato. In fairness, that price seems to have been held for some years now. It seemed more outlandish the first time.
Anyway, if you need to ask the cost… This is a temple to seafood, evidenced from the outset by the dazzling array of oysters and crustaceans which greets you at the same time as the warmest of welcomes from a charming homo sapiens. There is an oyster happy hour Mondays through Saturdays between 5.30 and 6.30. A great range of them at £1 a pop. This column usually ignores the wine list, but it is worthy of note that virtually all of the wines from an extensive list can be served in a 500ml carafe for those who do not wish a full bottle, but who still wish something more than the house selection. Innovative and welcome.
I suppose I have to mention desserts. These range from the merely very good to what the late Michael Winner would have described as “historic”. On our last visit a treacle tart (chefs all use the English terminology – for us Scots it’s golden syrup) fell into the former category. A chocolate délice on the other hand was firmly in the latter. A wondrous mousse was encased in a spherical perfection of tempered chocolate, both technically and gastronomically wonderful.
But let us return to the nymph and her magic. The ladies are ordering another bottle of fizz: the newly wed has shed her jacket with abandon: the lovers are holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. And me? I’m savouring the sunshine over Auld Reekie. Below me, the city teems in spring as it did once only in the Festival time. If you want to make an escape from the visitors, both the determined and the bewildered, who are streaming up George IV Bridge to find the birthplace of Harry Potter and to wear away Greyfriars Bobby’s nose, this is a perfect place of calm.
I order another glass of wine and sit back enjoying every second of the experience. And thereafter sleep did not escape me. Ondine and I are still on the best of terms.