Tom Eats!

SCORING SYSTEM

COOKING: 10 –  World class, unsurpassable; 9 –  highest standard, just short of 10; 7/8 –  expert cooking, top class ingredients, attention to detail; 5/6 – good cooking, either lower standard than 7/8 or lesser ingredients; 3/4 – OK but with flaws; 1/2 – oh dear

SERVICE: 5 – superb; 4 – very good; 3 – average; 2 – poor; 1 – dreadful

FLAVOUR: 5 – zings; 4 –  very good; 3 – average but acceptable; 2 – not a lot; 1- tasteless or worse

VALUE FOR MONEY: 5 – excellent; 4 – very good; 3 – average but acceptable; 2 – poor; 1– dreadful

 

Champeaux

La Canopée, Forum des Halles
Porte Rambuteau, 75001 Paris, France

+ 33 1 53 45 84 50   http://www.restaurant-champeaux.com

Champeaux

Alain Ducasse is one of the world’s most famous chefs. One of his more recent ventures is Champeaux, a large, pleasant space in a prominent position in the newly redeveloped Les Halles, Paris’s equivalent of  Covent Garden market. When the fruit and veg market closed in 1971, urban renewal of the worst kind ensued. (We in Edinburgh were not alone in foisting architectural monstrosities on to our citizenry in that era.) Some idiot thought it would be a good idea to build a subterranean shopping mall, and was probably surprised when no one wanted to visit the soulless, scary place he had created.

The latest version opened a couple of years ago. My guess is that Ducasse was given favourable terms to become a flagship tenant in order to attract others. Champeaux takes the name of a restaurant which stood on this site as long ago as 1800. **HISTORY ALERT** The earliest restaurants as we know them were set up by French chefs made unemployed by the unfortunate decapitation of their aristocratic employers during the Revolution. Parisian bye-laws had severe restrictions on the sale of food, so our enterprising, and no doubt starving, cooks began providing soups and bouillons which, they claimed, had restorative powers. Thus they became restaurateurs.

If the superstar chef of today has one quality, it is perfectionism. The Champeaux menu boasts of its aérien (light as air) soufflés. So when my lobster version arrives within two minutes of being ordered, lukewarm and with a hard crust, I have only one thing to say. Alain Ducasse, you are taking the piss. Yes, I know about twice baked soufflés – this bore no resemblance to such. A prawn and avocado salad had chunks of very chilly lettuce smeared with some attempt at a sauce (there was no accompanying Marie Rose), slices of dried at the edges orange (yes, orange) which clearly had been prepped early in the morning for dinner service, and smallish prawns which had been sliced down the middle to make the dish look bigger. Faced with food which would have failed a first year catering college exam, walking out was a serious option.

Thankfully, things improved significantly. A beautifully presented dish of cod and bitter endive had an interesting lemon and hazelnut sauce on the side. Salmon with a mixture of root veg was much a better constructed dish than I make it sound, including a fine squash purée and these tiny little pink turnips which I’ve encountered only in France. It came with a perfect Béarnaise, and was a very fine plate. Interestingly, browsing menus of other restaurants, I noticed the self-same dish on the menu of Benoit, one of Ducasse’s Michelin starred places.

The kitchen slipped backward a little with desserts, but only a little. A lemon tart had a good filling, but a solid biscuit base instead of crumbly short crust pastry. The accompanying lime sorbet had a slightly industrial flavour. One got the impression of things being brought in from outside and assembled. Of course, buying in patisserie is never a criticism in Paris, and I have no idea whether the Paris Les Halles was bought in or not. This is an individual version of a Paris Brest, a round of choux pastry split, and filled with praline cream. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop being picky and simply say that I enjoyed it.

The first problem with assessing this meal lies in its truly gruesome start. Another issue is value for money. With the sorry state of the pound at present, everything in central Paris seems expensive. I get round this by trying to pretend that the euro is worth 80p instead of the near one for one which we got. But in the final analysis, perhaps attendance figures speak more loudly. Les Halles are just to the east of the Louvre. Most other brasserie style restaurants in the area were full: Champeaux was two thirds empty. Nicolas, our waiter, was charming but neither he nor some well cooked fish can turn the memory of this evening into a positive one.

 

 

The Bill

(Euros)

Set Lunch

2 courses 28€

3 courses 34€

A la carte

Starters

8€ – 22€

Platters

14€ – 16€

Mains

18€ – 36 €

Desserts

6€ – 12 €

 

The Score

Cooking 5.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 16/25

 

The Scran & Scallie

1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge, Edinburgh

0131 332 6281     http://www.scranandscallie.com

 

Scran and Scallie

 

In France or Italy it would be a complete oxymoron to describe a restaurant as “child friendly”. And it would go without saying that the children who frequented it would know how to behave. Sadly that wasn’t our experience on our first, and until this week our only, visit to Tom Kitchin’s first pub venture. Not his fault of course, but enough to put us off. For us, yet again, a restaurant visit was prompted by the fact that a Christmas voucher from last year was close to its expiry date. Thank you again, McCalls.

Tidying some old computer files, I discover that this was the very first restaurant review I ever wrote, when I was preparing to launch the blog. An apprentice piece if you will, which never saw the light of day. My memory is of things which irritated, but I see that I wrote quite kindly of it then, as I plan to do again. But let’s get the irritations out of the way first.

I’ve mentioned the rampaging Stockbridge brats, and absolved the management from blame. I’ve even got used to the name – infinitely better than the cringeworthy The Bonnie Badger, as Mr Kitchin has renamed The Golf Tavern in Gullane. But I really can’t stand the hideously twee menu, featuring “yer mains” and “yer puddins”. Welcome to Edinburgh – you’ll have had yer tea.

Having got that out of my system I feel much better. I also felt much better after an excellent dinner here. The place was full to bursting on a Wednesday evening, when we dined with J & L, captains of industry and education respectively. Portions in the main are generous, though I couldn’t say the same for a fairly meagre helping of white crabmeat. This contrasted with a massive slab of a good game terrine which, interestingly, included cream. The most original starter from a menu which mostly contains gastropub crowd pleasers was Ox tongue, bone marrow, mushrooms & fried hen’s egg. The egg was atop a large split marrow bone, with cubes of tongue and some sautéed garlicky mushrooms. Unusual, and very tasty.

A fish pie would easily have served two, as would a “kedgeree” of smoked haddock and pearl barley. Both pronounced excellent. I recalled certain issues with the steak pie last time round, so decided to revisit. An elegant pie dish was presented, a rectangular crust with a criss cross pattern baked into it – how do they do that? – and a small section of hollow marrow bone in place of a pie funnel. My initial reaction on looking at the menu was that this was pricy. Dishes come unadorned, so steak pie with chips and a side veg will set you back £25.50. Having sampled the end product I’m recanting ever so slightly. This was as fine an example of that ubiquitous dish as you are ever likely to encounter. The plate was cleared. Even without “puddins” the restaurant wasn’t the only thing filled to bursting.

I suppose when you are being fed by a chef of Tom Kitchin’s renown you are paying to an extent for the name. This is very good pub food at restaurant prices. Running a Michelin star place means you may not make much profit on the food (because it’s so labour intensive) and you have to rely on the wine to make up for it. It is harder to justify that in a pub. There is virtually nothing on the list under thirty quid. A bottle of 2014 Cloudy Bay which I saw in Luvian’s last week for £19.50 would set you back £80 here. But no one forces you to drink wine – there’s a good selection of beers and cocktails too. Digestifs are included in the section entitled After Yer Dinner and the alcohol free section is, of course Nae Booze.

The place has been open for four years now and is an undoubted success. I certainly won’t leave it that long to visit the newly opened sister restaurant, Southside Scran in Bruntsfield; however, to paraphrase Tracey Macleod’s review when this place first opened, I hope there will be less kitsch in Mr Kitchin’s new kitchen.

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

(not December)

3 courses £17.50

A la carte

Starters

£8.50 – £18 .00

Mains

£12.50 – £21.50

Puddins (sic)

£8.00

 

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 18.5/25

 

 

Cadiz

77b George Street, Edinburgh EH2 3EE

0131 226 3000 http://www.cadizedinburgh.co.uk

Cadiz

 

What do I know of Cadiz? Well, as ever, my geography is rusty. A port, somewhere in the south west of Spain. I vaguely remember something about someone (Drake?) “singeing the King of Spain’s beard”. But not so badly that the Armada couldn’t be launched the next year. That, however, is rather more than I knew of Cadiz the restaurant, occupying an elegant little space on the first floor overlooking George Street.

Had I done my research, what would I have discovered? The dreaded C word (chain) – shock horror. Part of the DiMaggio’s Restaurant Group – not perhaps the best of names for a Spanish restaurant. And if, like me, you have been to, and been underwhelmed by, Café Andaluz, its sister downstairs, you might have been put off altogether. But read on – they also have the surprisingly good Amarone, a giant Italian joint on St Andrew Square, with one in Glasgow. Oh, and a French place or two. In summary, I would have been confused and might or might not have made the visit.

I think this experience proves that research can be a bad thing. I pass John Byrne lighting a rollup (unconnected but true), head up the stairs and enter a lovely, barbell shaped room adorned with posters of lobsters and with black and white photos which simply shout Spain. The lovely waiting staff don’t need to shout – they are Spanish through and through, with their quiet style and dignified good nature. Their one chance to make a first impression has you feeling contented and at home the second you settle into the (extremely comfortable) dining chairs.

The emphasis is on fish. While we’re thinking about things they bring us a little pot of boquerones. This usually means anchovies, but in this case fried whitebait, dusted with paprika and served with aioli. The table d’hote is pretty amazing. An excellent fish soup with the usual trimmings scores highly, and is followed by a generous fillet of sea bass with a smoky red pepper sauce. Broccoli comes with an accompaniment I’ve never seen before, a salsa of capers and shallots. Expect to find that on a plate coming from my kitchen some time soon. From the a la carte, a crab starter comprises two generous mounds of white meat with two dollops (there’s a word you don’t see being used on Masterchef) of a variation on a guacamole, with finely diced cucumber (I think) and a little chilli mixed in with the avocado. A couple of drizzles of gazpacho set things off very nicely. Pescado al horno was a baked fish dish, salmon, cod, mussels and potatoes in a saffron cream with a manchego crust.

In the interests of research we looked at the pudding list. With due respect to all my Spanish chums, the Iberian peninsula does not produce the world’s greatest desserts. Neither, however, does it produce hot chocolate brownie, praline cheesecake nor vanilla sponge pudding. After a lunch which had been as Spanish as the leg of jamon Iberico which was next to us, this was an odd ending.

Our meal, however, concluded differently. Alvaro, our charming waiter from Sevilla, brought two complimentary glasses of Pedro Ximenez sherry, thick, sweet and lovely. I’m sure that the George Street Christmas lights went on at the same moment. Atypically for us at lunchtime, we lingered with a coffee. There are some environments you just don’t want to leave, chain or no chain. Remember, these things also have strongest links.

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch/

Pre Theatre

2 courses

 £16.95

3 courses

£20.95

A la carte

Starters

£6 – £12

Mains

£11 – £48

Desserts

£5.75 – £5.95

 

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

 

Die Schule

Kastanienallee 82, Prenzlauer Berg

10435 Berlin, (030) 780 089 550

http://restaurant-die-schule.de/en/

Die Schule

 

Prenzlauer Berg was once a working class district of former East Berlin which has undergone extensive renovation.  The Saturday market on Kollwitzplatz, named after Käthe Kollwitz the famous expressionist artist, is a fun way to begin the weekend.

At first blush the notion of modern German tapas seems an oxymoron. German food is traditionally accompanied by descriptions such as “hearty”, “wholesome” or “gemütlich”.  Dinner at this restaurant demonstrates that German small plates are a delight.  The room is a joy: a small terrace to the front overlooking a bustling street, while inside the warm tones encourage relaxed dining.  White linen, silver cutlery and smart glasses dress large tables.  Service is faultless, relaxed but attentive.

On a warm balmy evening we found ourselves sitting outside, a family celebrating a birthday at the next table, an aunt and nephew at another. There was a real vibe of a local bistro frequented with regulars.

The menu is made up of small plates, as well as the standard menu of larger dishes. The food was sublime. A mix and match of six small plates and one large was more than adequate.

The large plate of cheese spätzle saw a generous portion of German pasta from Baden Württemberg, enrobed in a deeply flavoured and well seasoned gruyère based sauce, served with a generous side salad. A gift at €9.90.  Alsace (not Germany) is represented by a wide range of flammkuchen.  Veal schnitzel is one of the more expensive dishes at €18.50 but, at that price, 30% less expensive than a few blocks south.

The small plates were keenly priced and offered good value. Whether Königsberger Klopse (veal and beef meatballs) in a delicate light caper cream sauce with buttery mash, small pork schnitzel with lemon and caper berry, shrimp salad in a light mayonnaise dressing with the right hint of citrus or bouletten (not quite burgers but similar) with sauerkraut, all were delicious and moreish. Six small plates were €16; add another three for €6.50.

There was a decent offering of wine and beer. Again for the centre of Berlin keenly priced: €5 – €6.90 for a large (200 ml) glass of German Riesling, Weißburgunder (Pinot blanc) or Spätburgunder (Pinot noir). All very reasonable and appropriate companions to the dishes.

Berlin offers an enormous range of dining opportunities. As with any large city, the touristic centre has mixed offerings. Step a little outside and be treated to a fine and deeply enjoyable meal at this wonderful local restaurant.

About the reviewer

David Dickson is Distinguished Literary Editor of the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland. He has ably assisted my researches for numerous Tom Eats! columns. In real life he is a solicitor advocate, cook and baker extraordinaire, gourmet, raconteur and wit.

 

 

The Bill

(See text)

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

 

The Little Chartroom

30 – 31 Albert Place, Edinburgh EH7 5HN

0131 556 6600  http://www.thelittlechartroom.com

The Little Chartroom Exterior

 

What can one find to say about Leith Walk? Unless you are a Leither, when for you it is the high road home, the truthful answer is, not very much. It does, however, boast an eclectic mix of independently owned businesses, a rarity in the city centre. Within a block or so you can buy model ships, satsumas, saris and sex toys. Like the High Street, it is often misnamed, being a selection of streets before Leith Walk proper, Elm Row, Croall Place, and, below them, Albert Place. Our destination is about a third of the way down on the right hand side. Enter this tiny restaurant and your day and your world will improve immeasurably.

It’s a newish husband and wife establishment. This usually comes with a hipster bearded chef beavering away at the stove. A welcome role reversal here. Husband Shaun is front of house and his wife Roberta Hall McCarron runs the kitchen. She worked for Messrs Kitchin and Jack at The Kitchin and Castle Terrace, being head chef at the latter. Add to that her recent award – Young British Foodies Chef of the Year – and it’s reasonable to assume she can cook a bit.

But, like fine words, assumptions butter no parsnips. (Where on earth did that phrase come from?)* To the food. I’ve now eaten here twice, once with the Retired Captain of Industry, and once with L. It is indeed little. There are tables for a total of 14, plus 4 stools at the bar. So far as the kitchen is concerned, I have seen larger chest freezers, though you wouldn’t think it from the quality of the food which emanates. The art works on the walls are framed navigation charts with weather fronts, created by Roberta’s mother. Shaun tells me that the premises became available at short notice, so they chose the name to match the available decoration.

Soups are big production numbers. Celeriac and apple was a Sargasso Sea of a plate, topped with crispy apple, celeriac cubes and other goodies. Game broth turned out to be a consommé poured over some tiny dice of root vegetables and duck tartare. These came with a walnut crumpet and a raised duck pie respectively. On the first visit they ran out of venison, and substituted partridge. It did come with mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, pear and chicory tart, but seemed a bit pricey at £25. The same could not be said for a similarly priced fish and shellfish “bouillabaisse”. It was no such thing, being far superior to any Med stew. Large chunks of the freshest cod and salmon arrived on a plate with a generous helping of big prawns. They were then drowned in the most glorious shellfish bisque ever created on this earth, the basic shellfish stock lightly flavoured with fennel and a hint of brandy, balanced but not overpowered with just the right amount of cream.

Ah, cream. Regular readers know of the allergy issues we have and the varying reactions of restaurateurs. “Now,” said Shaun, handing us the menu. “the smoked mackerel pate has cream in it, but we made a batch without, just in case you fancy it.” It was as though we’d been invited to a friend’s house.

Like the place itself the menu, sensibly, is tiny. The set lunch offers no choice (though they will happily allow you to mix and match). At two courses for £16, it is astonishing value. Sausage cassoulet featured three (properly browned) herby pork sausages in a rich tomatoey bean stew with little nuggets of chorizo and black pudding. If you can even think about dessert after that, you’re a better man than I am. I did notice our neighbours tucking in; however, their cycle helmets suggested they had earned theirs. (Pear, ginger and white chocolate trifle, I think.) Other sweet offerings have included plum doughnuts or plum crumble, and the intriguing sounding vacherin with malt loaf, mead and hazelnuts.

I have no idea how the economics of such a small place stack up, but no corners are cut. There are plentiful supplies of excellent breads (sourdough and soda, homemade, I’m guessing) and good butter. Shaun’s service is gently charming. The whole Little Chartroom experience just feels good, every bit as good as Roberta’s splendid cooking.

 

No one knows exactly, but for an early example see

 John Taylor’s Epigrammes, (1651)

Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.

 

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £16

3 courses £19

A la carte

Starters

£7.50 – £8

Mains

£16 – £24

Desserts

£7.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20.5/25

 

 

Taisteal (Revisited)

1-3 Raeburn Place, Stockbridge,

Edinburgh EH4 1HU

0131 332 9977    http://www.taisteal.co.uk

Gordon Craig Pheasant Recipe

 

This is a reissue of the original review from January 2017, as a thank you to Gordon Craig for his guest recipe for the Tom Cooks! column. Nearly two years on there has been no significant change in the prices

Right. Let’s start with a rant about the only negative thing involving this restaurant. Why the **** do chefs in restaurants in Lowland Scotland feel it is a clever idea to give their restaurants Gaelic names? This one means travel or journey. Woop de doo. We have never spoken the language here, we can’t pronounce the name (I know how now, but I’m not going to help you), and we feel stupid trying to get a taxi driver to take us there. Until recently, this was Field Grill, interestingly under the same management. So please, guys, change it again, otherwise forever be known as that really great restaurant in Raeburn Place with the stupid sounding name.

But, do you know what? Change nothing else, because this is one of the finest new dining experiences in Edinburgh, or anywhere else for that matter. Chef proprietor Gordon Craig and his business partner went their separate ways recently, each retaining one site. Gordon decided to stop flipping steaks (on the night of our visit a fair few people thought they were coming in for griddled protein) and relaunched a couple of weeks ago. Oh my word. While a great steak is a wonderful thing, with this much talent, it’s like taking Michelangelo away from the artex ceilings and freeing him to work on the Sistine Chapel.

The food is, simply put, sensational. I had booked on a whim, passing by and glancing at a menu which on first glance reads like many others. That is not a criticism. Overly hyped descriptions are naff: on the other hand the terse lists of ingredients are usually harbingers of technical excellence which stimulate the palate but don’t encourage a return visit. The excellent Marina O’Loughlin recently suggested another criterion for a restaurant review – no matter how good the food, how likely are you to return?

I will be back here in a trice and, if you have any sense, so should you. A Thai Red Curry Fish Soup was authentically spiced and chock full of fishy goodness. Squid on a squid ink risotto is not an easy thing to pull off. The cephalopod can be rubbery or tasteless or both. This dish featured a whole baby squid plus tentacles of a larger relative, both tender and exceeding tasty. I was unable to place the seasoning of the risotto, but it was subtle and a perfect complement.

Duck breast was served with pak choi, edamame beans and a shitake samosa. Perhaps the world wide list of ingredients represents the travel or journey of the name? Kohlrabi is not a vegetable I have ever cooked. With a perfect piece of roast hake it came two ways. Baked chunks made an excellent potato substitute and the main event was surrounded by lightly pickled discs. Or so I thought. But not only was the fish on a bed of crabmeat, each of the discs was in fact a tiny and delectable crab sandwich. Clever, inventive cooking. We shared a chocolate and yuzu fondant with orange curd, powder and sorbet. That’s one heck of a lot of work for a pudding costing a mere £6.50. Yuzu, incidentally, is a citrus fruit from Japan. Don’t worry, I didn’t know either until informed by the lovely Katie.

We are now fortunate that decent service is the norm, but service here goes way beyond decent. This lady is a star in her own right. On a busy Saturday, nothing was too much trouble. We had a mix up with the wine. (Another great feature is that even the most expensive wines are available by the glass). She heard me grumbling about the quality of my glass. Nothing wrong with it, so I couldn’t send it back and was just writing it off to experience. Off her own bat she offered to replace it. Free of charge! It than transpired that the barman had poured me the wrong one, but she wasn’t to know that. Astonishing.

This was an evening which started well and just kept getting better. How long they can sustain these unfathomably low prices who can tell. Even at 50% more this would still have represented terrific value for money.

Taisteal’s score equals the highest mark from 2016. Look out, world, you have a very, very hard act to follow.

January 2017

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Starters

 £6 – £9

Main Courses

£13 – £17

Desserts

£6.50

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 23/25

 

SaSaZu

306 Holešovice, Bubenské nábřeží 306

Prague, Czech Republic

+420 284 097 455    http://www.sasazu.com

 

 DSC03543 DSC03535

 

Is it bad form to be nasty to someone on their birthday? I dined at SaSaZu on the weekend of the 100th birthday of the Czech Republic (well, of the old Czechoslovakia, if you’re splitting hairs). Anyway, SaSaZu isn’t Czech, nor does it proclaim to be. It does boast of being the best Asian restaurant in Prague: not only does it fail to deliver on that promise, its menu contains some of the worst culinary gobbledegook imaginable. Immediately after the Asian claim, the menu goes on to rhapsodise about the quality of its American beef.

It is fusion cooking, much of it Asian-lite. In one respect this is understandable. Not having our profusion of Indian restaurants, Czechs have little experience of, and taste for, spicy food. SaSaZu will not get too many black marks from me for being a bit on the bland side – but you have been warned.

It is the reviewer’s curse to have a thoroughly enjoyable night out while at work. I dined with Eldest Daughter and Her Young Man. You will note that the former (above, right) dressed to blend in with the surroundings. We discussed, among other things, pending grandparenthood (mine, that is, courtesy of said ED). If your pockets are deepish, it is actually fairly easy to have a good time here – a lively vibrant space, attractive and (mainly) efficient staff, food which is by no means unpleasant – but it fails to deliver what it promises.

Things started off pretty well. The various set menus promised on the website weren’t available, but they were happy enough to choose a selection for us to share. Hong Kong rolls were good. A Thai Papaya Salad and Coconut Corn Soup were both flavoursome, but lacked, and would have been improved by, the expected chilli kick.

Writing this I reread the menu. It claims to combine (and here I quote), the fusion cuisine of five Asian cooking techniques – Sambal, Otak Otak, Flame, Roti and Tai Tai Grill. Flame and grill apart, none of these is a  cooking technique. Sambal is a hot Malaysian paste or sauce and otak is a Malaysian fishcake made using tapioca. We all know that roti is bread – I struggle to find its definition of a stone oven, as the menu claims. (Roti, incidentally, is cooked on a griddle, not in an oven.) Flame is self explanatory, is it not? Well, no – the menu refers to the way the wok is used. Puzzled? Me too – more confusion than fusion.

Order Bombay Butter Chicken and you expect a curry, not grilled marinaded chicken in a flatbread sandwich. Vietnamese Bo is in reality a soup. Here it came from the TaiTai Grill section, and turned out to be  a dim sum allegedly containing fillet of beef and foie gras. There was some sort of braised beef – who would do that to fillet? – and I’ll take chef’s word for the foie gras. At about this point, the fusion took a lurch back to eastern Europe. Traditional Czech cuisine is, how shall I put this delicately, less refined than some, with dairy much in evidence. Cream came to the fore in odd ways, as a base for a sauce which accompanied the otherwise good Hanoi Shrimps, and swamped the Singapore Lamb, a stew which came, obviously, from the Roti chapter. This was no more the advertised “laksa sauce” than fly in the air.

It is very difficult to know how to assess this place. Apart from the cream lying heavily on the stomach towards the end of the proceedings, we enjoyed a series of tasty enough dishes, some of which gave more than a nod to south east Asia. Service was good, apart from an odd blip at the beginning. It’s a popular place – securing a table wasn’t easy. But if the Czech Parliament has passed an equivalent of our Trades Descriptions Act, then the owners of SaSaZu had better look out.

 

 

The Bill

 (£1 = 25Kč)

 

Land (Beef)

£18 – £31.60

Sambal

£7.40 – £14

Otak Otak

£11.80 – £19.80

Flame

£11.80 – £19.80

Roti

£12.40 – £18.20

Tai Tai Grill

£11.80 – £35.60

Desserts

£8.40

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 15/25

 

 

La Table de la Bastide

55 rue Aime Ramond, 11000 Carcassonne, France

+33 6 01 40 63 86 (No website)

Guest Reviewer: Michael Greenlaw

 

 La Table de Bastide  Ganghut2  Il Maestro 1

 

It was to be our last meal in Carcassonne. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from – but when it feels like a special occasion you want to get it right. The pressure’s on. The choice is made in conjunction with My Delightful Dining Companion (who has previously appeared in this column described as The Artist Known As I). La Table de la Bastide, a tiny place with only 12 covers, is to be found in a narrow street at the side entrance to Carcassonne’s market hall in the very centre of the city. There is a staff of one. Guillaume welcomes you, takes your order, advises you on your wine, cooks and serves your food, all the while exuding Gallic charm and bonhomie. I assume he also does the dishes at the end of the night.

As the first to arrive, we were offered our choice of La Table’s five tables. Decor is no-nonsense with grey formica the order of the day. The menu is hand written on a blackboard. We had a few language difficulties, beginning with the first item on the menu – oeuf marbre/ champignons/truffe. Marble eggs? Even MDDC’s vintage school girl French wasn’t cutting the mustard on this one, so Guillaume popped through to the kitchen and brought us back a bowl of red dyed, marbled hard boiled eggs – naturally.  Tempting, but MDDC chose the razor clams while I went for the mackerel.

Wishing to blend in like locals, we follow the advice of our Airbnb host and choose a rosé from Guillaume’s small and keenly priced wine list. We hope he approves. Shortly afterwards an English couple come in. They speak no French but Guillaume, wearing his sommelier’s hat, is just as charming and even offers them a chance to try two reds when they can’t decide which to order.

There are no fewer than twelve razor clams in the starter portion, covered in a cream sauce with aioli and parsley. They were ‘just caught’ fresh, succulent and plump, cooked to perfection and absolutely delicious. I was lucky to get one to try – then another couple just to make sure.

Being based in south west Ireland we have mackerel a-plenty. I was keen to compare with recent dishes I had enjoyed. Guillaume’s mackerel could not have been more different. There came a pair of them, large gleaming silver darlings, served with pureéd petit pois and pickled red onion. They were akin to soused herring in texture and the combination of tastes fairly danced on my tongue.

More language issues in discerning what pintade was. Guillaume’s English didn’t stretch to a translation either – but in a flash out comes his phone which gives the translation as guinea fowl.  The pintade came with lentils and girolles; again it was the combination wot did it – each of the flavours complementing the others.

MDDC went for the magret de canard with roast potatoes and figs. Her duck breast was immense, easily enough for two, and looked fantastic with its slashed skin and rich golden brown colour.  Following Guillaume’s advice, MDDC had asked for the duck to be cooked medium rare, but on reflection wished she’d asked for it well done – you can take the girl out of Fife …

It’s at this point that we both remembered that we’d forgotten to acknowledge – far less celebrate – our 35th anniversary the previous week. We’re not married but we do count anniversaries – an impetus to order pudding.

Two astonishing combinations arrived. Citron, basilic, sablé turned out to be a lemon and basil mousse on a shortbread base. Abricot, romarin, vanille was a panna cotta of sorts. I don’t mind declaring that I was a total dessert/herb virgin but both of these were out and out winners. An accompanying glass of ‘pudding’ wine, a terrific Muscat, made a perfect meal even perfecter.

Is this a successful business model? – a small number of covers, relatively small menu, do everything yourself but cut no corners on ingredients or cooking. On a Thursday evening at the end of summer, every table was taken. Guillaume’s energy knew no bounds – the last table was filled just half an hour before closing time, with the same grace and charm accorded to us. I hope he’s not tempted to expand to meet demand – so much of the wonderfulness of the evening was due to him.  Do visit. Carcassonne is a great place to spend a few days, especially if you do as we did and travel on to there from Bordeaux, where we also dined out in style – but that’s another story.

About the Reviewer

Michael Greenlaw (above right) is an artist of enormous talent. Originally from Edinburgh, he currently lives in Leap, County Cork. In theory he is restoring MDDC’s daughter’s steading. That’s the spare time job in between numerous community projects. He is well known in Leap as the designer of the dragon which greets you as you enter the village, and as a regular winner of the annual scarecrow competition.

In Edinburgh, one of his most celebrated works is the decoration of Lesley’s gang hut in Ormidale Terrace (above centre). Visiting by appointment. Admission Fee: a couple of bottles of good wine.

 

 

The Bill

(Euros)

Starters

9/10€

Mains

17/20€

Desserts

7€

 

 

The Score

Cooking 9/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 23/25

 

 

 

Jules Verne Brasserie Française & Café

13 Antigua Street, Edinburgh EH1 3NH

0131 629 2670    http://www.julesvernerestaurant.co.uk

jules-verne-edinburgh

 

Sometimes chance encounters can be the most delightful. Sometimes. Doors Open Day saw L and me stravaiging around the town. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, almost followed by the Museum Collection Centre (sorry, guided tours only, and we hadn’t booked), followed by Raimes Clark & Co in Leith. A trudge up Leith Walk put us in the mood for some sustenance. We nobly resisted the temptations of lots of pizza parlours and were heading towards Broughton Street when, simultaneously, our feet decided they had walked enough leagues, and we spied this newcomer. What harm could a wee French two course lunch ever do a person?

We were shown into a barnlike space at the rear. Bare boards and tables; bland beige walls; bars on the skylights. A few nondescript pieces of art trying, and failing, to break up the space. We were shown to a table and provided with menus. And left there, for 15 minutes. I timed it. No offer of drinks or even water. When we did place an order for something liquid, another 15 minutes elapsed.

The menu looked good. In best French tradition there is a soup, a fish dish and a special which change daily. In fairness to our waitress she did know what the soup was – butternut squash. Does it have cream? I’ll go and check. No, it didn’t. Excellent. What is the fish of the day? I’ll go and check. It was only when she returned that we noticed the possibility of the plat du jour. No, she didn’t know what that was either. We told her not to bother going to check. I gather the young lady may just have joined the staff. For me, that makes matters worse. She should have had it drilled into here that there are three daily specials, and that she has to know what they are. Or why not have them written down? Or on a blackboard, in fine French style?

It is customary to drizzle things on to soup these days. Done well, this can be elegant, sophisticated even. It is difficult to know if the artistic impression presented here was a primitive drawing of a leopard, or a depiction of a serious childhood illness. The end result had a strange, somewhat fusty flavour. A homemade terrine, on the other hand, was good, as were the two types of bread on offer, a baguette and a walnut loaf.

The fish of the day was haddock with rice and a fennel sauce. Can we have it minus the fennel sauce and possibly with some kind of veg? Well, we received a generous piece of grilled haddock (this, remember from the set menu) and a pile of plain rice. What sort of chef would send out a plate of food like that? Still, I was excited, having spied one of my brasserie favourites, confit duck leg. You are sharing my anticipation, are you not? The leg, long and slow cooked in fat (20 hours, the menu boasted), then the skin crisped up before service, with some potatoes on the side. And this comes with dauphinoise. Fever pitch hits Leith Walk.

Oh dear. What happened to the crisping bit? Flabby inedible skin covered with an unpleasantly sweet sauce. As big a let down as watching any Manchester United match this season. The dauphinoise were fine, if lacking in salt. It is easy to under season this dish – then again it shouldn’t be if you’re a professional.

And of course we got the wrong bill. And despite our best semaphore, it took five minutes to attract attention to get our own one. Which turned out to be incorrect, because they’d charged everything a la carte and ignored the set menu. We got a lot of fulsome apologies from the senior waitress; but there were three folk on duty and eight tables occupied. Why isn’t someone keeping an eye on the apprentice? As we were leaving, a couple came in with a five year old child. In an empty dining room, she sat the three of them at a table for two.

Now no one can question the work ethic of the owners. This place opens seven days from breakfast right through to dinner. According to my calculations, about 114 hours a week. I would suggest that some of those hours would be better spent refining the operation and training the staff. Interestingly the Trip Advisor reviews of this place were almost universally positive. Perhaps we were just unlucky. The key features of any restaurant are food, service and ambience. If only one of these had been below par, I might be giving a more positive report. Unfortunately, there were significant defects in all three.

 

 

The Bill

Set Menu

(1200 – 1900)

2 courses £12.90

3 course £15.50

A la carte

Entrées

£4.50 – £7.90

Mains

£12.50 – £22.50

Desserts

£4.20 – £5.40

 

The Score

Cooking 3/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 11/25

 

 

 

Crabshakk

1114 Argyle Street, Finnieston, Glasgow G3 8TD

0141 334 6127  http://www.crabshakk.com

 

Crabshakkjpg

 

It’s Thursday. For the second consecutive day I’m not only back in Glasgow, I’m back on The Strip, as I’m told this particular part of Finnieston is now known. Almost literally next door to Alchemilla, scene of last week’s nosebag scribblings. Compare to Alchemilla, Crabshakk is in line for its gold watch, having been here for almost 10 years. I would love to be a time traveller coming back here with a Finnieston resident of 30 years ago. My taxi driver tells me that there were a couple of pubs, and the rest was flats and single fronted shops. One of these has been ingeniously converted for today’s pleasures.

There is a bar area on the right as you enter, with half a dozen stools for bar food (remember that?). A rough wood and metal staircase takes you on high, where you can dine just a couple of feet below the ceiling. I assume the kitchen is in the basement. I don’t know if they have squeezed some tables down there too.

Yesterday’s lunch companion confessed to an aversion to this place; however, that was just that he doesn’t like guddling about with shells. I do – provided I have napkins the size of swaddling clothes – but trust me, it’s not necessary. In fact, today’s companion, an Art Star of Tomorrow, doesn’t much care for that stuff at all. I have wanted to come here for a long time and, bless her, after an online perusal of the menu she duly pitched up, scrubbed and eager for a feast, as is any student of my experience.

Arriving early, I was despatched to the eyrie, and kept happy with a glass of white. (My contentment levels are quite easily achieved). You find yourself on quite intimate terms with everyone, whether the lovely waiting staff or fellow diners. There is a blackboard with the daily specials The main menu, on the other hand, looks like a sheaf of old bills, but more appetising. It is full of standards for a sea food place. There. are chowders and scallops and langoustines and, of course crabs. Lobster is usually available. While the menu says market priced, the actual cost is on the white tiled walls as you come in. (I assume they sold fish or meat here in the original incarnation.) But if you think there’s no cooking involved, think again. Even I can grill a sardine or two, but here they came enhanced by a decent salsa verde. Another starter from the blackboard featured seared mackerel on a purée made of beetroot and cod roe. As stunning a fish combo as I’ve sampled in a long time. Like any starving student, the AST doesn’t get to access beef much, so I forgave her her choice of a good bavette. I ordered chips to go with my sole with brown shrimp and samphire. I was less forgiving of the fact that I got Macdonalds-esque skinny fries, pallid imitations of the twice cooked monsters on the plate opposite. Hey ho.

Our dining area filled up. I didn’t mind when that was just with people. I did, on the other hand dislike the couple of occasions when some blasts of fairly acrid cooking smells escaped the extractors and came to nestle beside us, just under the eaves.

There is a short selection of desserts. AST, with some assistance from me, assaulted the chocolate cake. A master baker, she found it heading towards a mousse like consistency. Flourless, perhaps? Very, very good, whatever it was. One of the many things I like about Crabshakk and its strapline Cracking Good Food is that they treat people like adults. The menu is a bill of fare. It is not a list of ingredients; it is not a boy’s own guide to allergies; and, for now, it doesn’t have to tell us how many calories our pleasures involve. We are grown up – actually the AST seems far more grown up than me – and can ask.

The purpose of this column is not to make comparisons; however, the eagle eyed among you may have spotted that the two Argyle Street neighbours have registered a score draw. Lucky indeed are the good residents of Finnieston.

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£5.75 – £10.25

Mains

£11.95 – £45

Desserts

£5.95 – £7.50

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

Alchemilla

1126 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8TD

0141 337 6060 http://www.thisisalchemilla.com

Alchemilla

 

This week saw the announcement of the 2019 Michelin stars. As usual there was very little movement in Scotland. And, as is becoming usual for me, I thought, who cares? The lack of transparency in the Michelin system makes it difficult to respect. In Scotland, there is still the feeling that too many points are awarded for the napery, or the quality of the loos. It seems to be different in London, where, having eaten a perfectly decent, but unremarkable lunch in a pub, I was astonished to learn that it had a star.

The world has, I think, moved on. I appreciate and enjoy food on which significant amounts of loving care have been bestowed; however, I don’t want to be eating in a cathedral like atmosphere, and I also think so called top chefs are now going completely over the top in their attempts to be different. If you agree with me, then come to Finnieston.

The bizarre street naming convention in Glasgow never ceases to amaze. The idea that a city centre shopping street can carry on for miles to the west is just odd. At least Argyle Street keeps its name, unlike Sauchiehall Street, which assumes various disguises, before reverting to its true identity when it hits Finnieston. No one I have met can explain this migration of casual dining places. Suffice it to say that if you are a foodie, Finnieston is a very fine place to be.

A sunny September lunchtime saw me meet up again with the PR Guru at Alchemilla, a relative newcomer. What it has in common with its neighbours is the sheer ingenuity of squeezing a kitchen and umpteen covers into what was a single fronted shop. I think the original Two Fat Ladies in Dumbarton Road was probably the first to do this. Designers probably now regard this as a very basic task.

From the diner’s point of view it can have its drawbacks. Really NOT a place if you want to be whispering sweet nothings – unless, of course, you’re something of an exhibitionist. If sitting in the window, the sun streaming onto your back through plate glass isn’t the most comfortable either. But the welcome is just as warm, so you can disregard such minor inconveniences. On its Instagram page (I hope you’re impressed, dear reader, that I know of such things) Alchemilla describes itself as offering simple fresh food for sharing with sustainably sourced natural wine. There’s a lot of that about these days. The influence of Mr Ottolenghi is spreading far and wide, most notably in nearby Ox and Finch and its Edinburgh cousin, Baba. The menu reinforces that impression. I’m not sure if the PRG is as used to sharing as I am, but as I munched half of his order, his choices were either to reciprocate or go hungry. A very good smoked aubergine and flat bread kicked things off. Cauliflower with tahini, yoghurt and pomegranate positively screamed Ottolenghi. Where was chef before she set up here, I enquired? Ottolenghi, came the unsurprising reply. In fact the great man apparently wanted her to head up a new venture, but the chef-patron, Rosie Healey, wanted to come home. Glasgow should be very grateful.

Food appears in the order it is cooked. This can be disconcerting, but worked well here, with the larger dishes coming out second. Hake with violet artichokes was a thing of wonder, with the quail dish coming a close second. A generous quantity of half quails came with kohlrabi and walnut tarator, the latter a new one on me. When you analyse it, it is similar in concept to so many Turkish style dishes, with tahini, garlic, bread, lemon and oil being added to the main ingredient.

Alchemilla is a plant normally called lady’s mantle. I neither know, nor am I much concerned, why Ms Healey chose the name. On the other hand I’m delighted she’s back in town. She has created a brilliant little space; she has selected some wonderful people to work for her; oh, and she can’t half cook.

September 2018

I am hugely obliged to the lovely Briony Cullin of @glasgow_food for her permission to use the image on this blog.

 

 

The Bill

Smaller Plates

£5.00 – £8.50

Larger Plates

£8.00 – £16.00

Desserts

£7

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

 

The Radhuni

93 Clerk Street, Loanhead, Midlothian EH20 9RE

0131 440 3566  http://www.theradhuni.co.uk

 

Radhuni

 

This is another winning recommendation from PR guru Scott Thornton. Winning in every sense. Chef Ashok Ram is the holder of the Chef of the Year title, won at this year’s Scottish Curry Awards. He was trained by his boss, owner Matin Kan, who won the same accolade in 2014, and who also has Itihaas in nearby Dalkeith.

Now with due respect to Loanhead, former mining towns tend not to be centres of culinary excellence, whether for Bangladeshi or any other cuisine. Nor would you expect too much simply from studying the exterior. In a mixed tenement of commercial and residential properties, The Radhuni looks like the teeniest of corner shops. Enter and it opens out into a pleasant bar area with tables beyond; then to a larger dining room; then to a big garden area where you can also dine, weather permitting. Our waitress Carole is from Birmingham. Welcome to the Loanhead Tardis, she laughs, noting our surprise. The decor is mixter-maxter. Large modern lamps are stylish and the colour scheme is attractive. I’m not sure if the Fyfestone front to the bar is intended to be ironic, or is just naff; however, it doesn’t matter a jot. When you get over your initial surprise you realise you are among friends. There are plenty of staff all keen to help, each one welcoming and hospitable.

Radhuni means passionate chef. Mr Ram is certainly a busy one. The a la carte menu is huge. What is surprising, given the slew of awards which this has won, is that it is virtually all standard stuff. While there are one or two hints of the Bangladeshi background, most of the dishes are ones we have all seen many times before. A big range of starters, both vegetarian and non-, tandooris, baltis and twelve standard curry house options from Korma to Vindaloo. A list of specialities contains no fewer than thirty choices. Choosing takes a long time.

But they bring you some excellent poppadoms, and are happy for you to take as much time as you need. The accompaniments provide the first clue that this place is a cut above the average. The sauces, mango, and mint with yoghurt, were a street ahead of standard offerings. To start, we tried the fishcake and aloo chatt, potatoes with tomato and cucumbers in a spicy sauce. The latter was fabulous. On reflection, I think the fishcake is one of a couple of dishes aimed at Europeans, and was nothing special. Our fault for an uninspired choice.

Things really turned award winning when we reached the mains. Saag Tiger Prawns are cooked with spinach and herbs. I cook a fair amount of sub-continent food. There is one flavour I can never identify – this dish contains it. Yet another reason to return, in search of the lost herb, as it were. The prawns, incidentally were medium sized and of a good texture and flavour. Shatkora Lamb is a Bangladeshi dish, shatkora being a citrus fruit native to that country (citrus macroptera, since you ask, sometimes known as wild orange). If you had told me it was lemon I would have believed you. The end result is a medium hot dish, the spicing nicely complemented by the fruit. A side dish, Aloo Gobi Massalam (more tatties, this time with cauliflower), good rice and an excellent naan completed a wonderful selection.

I’m sure there must have been a dessert menu somewhere, but after this amount of food – for a very reasonable outlay – there would have been no likelihood of our troubling it.

As with a good curry, it takes a lot of skill to get the balance right in a restaurant. A fine first impression; service which was suitably attentive without being intrusive; and a menu which we have all seen before, but raised to unaccustomed heights. Half an hour’s drive from central Edinburgh (and very handy if you have braved IKEA), there are very many reasons to make the trip to Midlothian.

September 2018

 

Tom Eats! will return in October

 

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £8.95

Sunday

Banquet

2 courses £12.95

Tapas Tuesday

Dishes from

£2.50 – £5.95

A la carte

Starters

£3.95 – £6.50

Mains

£7.50 – £14.95

 

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21.5/25

 

The Grouse and Claret

Heatheryford, Kinross KY13 0NQ

01577 864212   www.grouseandclaret.com

Grouse and Claret

 

It is increasingly common to have to comment on the transience of restaurants. In the cities this is no doubt due to those whom Mike Ashley would describe as “greedy landlords.” (I have yet to decide on a suitable adjective for billionaire store owners who want to increase their profits by slashing rents, but we digress.) This is in stark contrast to Vicky and David Fu Tong’s Grouse and Claret, which has been there forever.

Or so it seems. 26 years, Vicky tells me. Nearly half of that time has elapsed since I was last there, not since my dear mama went to the Great Restaurant in the Sky (preferably a table near the edge in case she makes a scene). It was handy for her home and, more importantly, she liked it. Such places were relatively few and far between. If you took her to one which did not fit that description it was never long before you, and most nearby diners, were aware of that fact. Thus this review starts with high praise, albeit from a source which is no longer extant.

The two most important members of the Retired Licensing Lawyers’ Society had agreed to convene there. Remarkably, virtually nothing had changed, but in a good way. Usually such a comment will mean that a place is tired and in need of a refurb. This is anything but. Coming from the south, you turn left off the M90 for Kinross, left at the roundabout, then left again. A narrow country track leads you half a mile or so to Heatheryford, home to a pretty trout fishery, and to the Grouse and Claret itself with its beautiful south facing outlook. They do events, they have an occasional art gallery and, of course they do food, lunch Tuesday to Sunday, and dinner Thursday to Saturday.

The emphasis is on modern Scottish, but as you might guess from the Fu Tong name, there are eastern influences, with oriental banquets from time to time. As you might also guess from a place which has been satisfying its customers in rural Scotland for quarter of a century, there are no surprises to be found on their good looking and very reasonably priced menus. At lunch, various dishes can be had either as small plates or main course size helpings. Unusually, dishes which find themselves on both menus are priced the same at night time as at lunch. Whatever adjective we may apply to landlords or billionaire retailers, it cannot be used here.

You catch the generous vibe as soon as you arrive. For years Vicky was a force of nature out front. These days she is in the kitchen at lunchtime (I think she is allowed out at night), and we were greeted by two charming young ladies. A party of 24 had arrived just before us. I loved them all – they made me feel very young. Significantly we had been warned about that when we booked, just in case it made a difference to our plans. Despite such activity at midday on a Wednesday, service was smooth, easy and efficient.

There is good bread with three different butters to choose from, and a short menu with ample choice. Their Famous Cheese Soufflé was, sensibly, of the twice baked variety, involving as much flavour but less stress than a traditional one. A gratinated crepe may seem to some to be old hat, but when it’s bursting with spinach, mushroom and goat’s cheese it is a very fine thing. The oriental influence came through with the Red Thai Chicken Curry. This has been on the menu here since long before every Harvester and every Hungry Horse chain featured a frozen or bottled version. If you’ve never had the real thing, come and try. Your taste buds get a strong jab of lemongrass swiftly followed by a right hook of chilli. A huge piece of chicken has been cooked in a piece, not reduced to little nuggets in gloop. Wonderful. The menu advertises three lamb cutlets. It lies. Four good sized specimens arrived. If they were a little less pink than I would have liked, they were still juicy and tender, flavoured with a spiky rosemary and redcurrant jus. Ratatouille was fine: the accompanying pommes dauphinoise rather less so.

The dessert section had a choice of about eight, including a good chocolate roulade with strawberries and vanilla ice cream. An expert hand had ensured this was not overly sweet. After two substantial courses, this helping defeated the combined might of the RLL Society.

The meeting was duly adjourned, the office bearers replete, and the treasurer’s coffers depleted much less than might have been anticipated. Here’s to the next decade.

 

 

The Bill

 

Lunch

Starters

£4.75 – £8

Mains

£12 – £16

Desserts

£6

Dinner

Starters

£4.75 – £8

Mains

£17 – £24

Desserts

£6

 

 

The Score

Cooking 5.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 18.5/25

 

 

Kanpai Sushi

8 – 10 Grindlay Street, Edinburgh EH3 9AS

0131 228 1602     http://www.kanpaisushiedinburgh.co.uk

Kanpai_octopus balls Kanpai_dragon roll Aubergine

 

Now I bet the lot of you out there think that this restaurant reviewing malarkey is a breeze, don’t you? Pah, how little you know. I can tell you, however, that it’s a lot less nerve wracking to go out to eat with a professional chef than it is to cook for one. My mouth has got me into trouble in the past, but never reduced me to quivering jelly more than when I stupidly invited the FA and his spouse, C The Lens, to dine at ours. Still, no one died, so the friendship and foodie chat has remained. Talk turned one day to Japan, a culture of whose cuisine I know little, one which L dislikes. Thus in the odd world of the Edinburgh Festival, in which I am a widower to the Festival Chorus, an assignation was made to meet, sans spouse, in Edinburgh’s Grindlay Street, fast becoming a foodie hub.

Do you feel any fear, you ask, in writing about a subject of which your ignorance is almost total? Pah, I say again, you little know your man. And anyway, FA will keep me right. We encountered each other as if by magic at the door, FA and CTL being accompanied by Yorkshire based rellies, G and S. They had come up, literally for the day, to catch a bit of the Festival. G & S at the Fringe? It’ll never catch on.

As a reviewer I have seldom been so relaxed. CTL decided to order for all of us. (The eagle eyed among you will have worked out that in addition to my general cluelessness, I have little idea what we selected.) But G established his credentials immediately by ordering some excellent Gewurztraminer. Fabulous on its own: perfect with this type of food. What are the different names, I enquired of FA, of the things that have rice on the outside and those which have rice in the middle? Well, they’re just different, he replied. And the man is a bloody professional. You begin to see why he has been given these initials.

Anyway, there were nice things with salmon, rice and avocado. Even nicer things with soft shell crab (but not so soft that you didn’t get a wee bit of crunch). What do Japan and England have in common? They each produce one of the stupidest condiments known to man. Body swerve wasabi as much as you would English mustard. Instruments of torture both, designed to cover up flaws in the kitchen. Of which there seemed to be very few here. Another roll had very crunchy things on the outside and was warm. Tuna of the highest quality had been barely seared and coated in a little sesame. Tempura is just deep frying with a very light batter, but it is a fine benchmark of any kitchen. Both the squid rings and the butterfly prawns were exemplary. By request, the sirloin steak was served rare. Lovely beef, just needing a wee kick of soy sauce as a salt substitute.

In this galaxy of good things, a couple of stars shone brightest. Aubergine had been finely scored and roasted, then napped with a wonderful sweet miso coating. What is this? asked G. Gloop, I replied. I was really getting the hang of this oriental stuff by now. G seemed impressed by my insight. So much so that he ordered another bottle of Gewurtz and told a very good story about shooting two teal while in a state of some déshabille. (Please don’t get the wrong impression of the man. To avoid any ambiguity, I can confirm that as he told this tale he was correctly zipped up.) But G, if you’re reading this, remember that the lovely S is far too good for the likes of you. The second superstar was the dish of octopus balls. Crispy on the outside, hollow in the centre and filled with a concoction as unidentifiable as it was wonderful. We ordered more of both. A taxi was then commissioned to take my new best chums to their show on the other side of town. I looked at their tickets and pointed out they should be on this side of town, five minutes’ walk away. Did they just ask the restaurant to tell the cab to go away? No, FA popped out and slipped the man a fiver for his trouble. He has class even if he knows FA about Japanese food.

While I lack the experience to make insightful comparisons in this field, good food is good food. And this was way beyond good: truly excellent. We gorged ourselves on the best of everything and the bill, excluding wine and service, was about £30 a head. You could get away with a lot less: terrific value in anyone’s book.

Photos by Caroline Trotter, L to R 

Octopus Balls; Dragon Roll; Aubergine with Sweet Miso

 

August 2018

 

 

The Bill

 

See below

 

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21.5/25

 

 

The Light House

3 Pier Place, Newhaven, Edinburgh EH6 4LP

0131 552 1457 http://www.thelighthouseedinburgh.co.uk

Interior

 

For many years, discussion of eating by the water in the capital has centred on Leith. Many eateries of varying standards have been established there. Some have lasted for years and continue to thrive. We have the flagships of Messrs Kitchin and Wishart. Many hostelries which were once upon a time places where no lady would have been seen, save in a professional capacity, have reinvented themselves as gastropubs. Yet the middle end continues to prove difficult. I was sad to read that Giuliano’s on the Shore, a child-friendly favourite of my kids when they were wee, has closed its doors.

But when it comes to food production, Leith has much less of a heritage than neighbouring Newhaven. Herring and other fish, oysters in profusion. Moving forward in time. The Peacock Inn, latterly upgraded to The Famous Peacock Inn, stood proudly overlooking the river. It fought bitterly with Harry Ramsdens when the latter opened up in the old fish market. Both now gone.

After that discouraging news, it’s good to see some positive signs. A few weeks ago I reviewed The Fish Market. Just across the road we have an attractive little space housing The Light House.

Now quality chefs, it must be said, are a pretty strange breed. That’s hardly surprising. You are as good as your last plate of food. Let something sub standard go out, and you can bet it’ll go to the food critic’s table. Add to the necessary levels of obsession the ludicrously long hours, and the permanent struggle to make an honest bob, and you can but wonder why anyone does the job. That was what made it so refreshing to encounter chef Stuart Thrumble and his partner Vanessa Milne. Stuart has a passion for the job, but wanted to see his kids grow up – so when they were small he worked for AEGON and the like, for a more sensible life style. Take the plunge to open your own place? Well, be sensible and keep it small. The only staff member is Don, Stuart’s right hand man. Keep the menu simple.

But most of all make sure that the food tastes great, which it most certainly does. There is a leaning towards fish, which to me seems sensible given the location. It’s not quite an open plan kitchen, but there is a hatch to the dining room. The absence of obvious stress contributes to the warm and calm ambience, though much of that is down to Vanessa’s admirable talents out front. We ate crab and fishcakes and sole and monkfish. They were all just as you would wish.

This is fine food, flavour without frills, served up in a terrific location and sold for very reasonable prices. Three cheers for Vanessa, Stuart and Don. I just wish I had somewhere like this in my neighbourhood.

*The £40 is for a whole lobster. The next most expensive main is £19.

July 2018

 

 

The Bill

 

Set Lunch

(2 courses)

£15

Set Dinner

(2 courses)

£25

A la carte

Starters

£6 – £7

Mains

£12 – £40*

Desserts

£6 – £7

 

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20.5/25

 

Les Viviers

Rue du Port de Larros, 33470 Gujan Mestras

Bordeaux, France

+33 556 66 0104  http://www.restaurant-lesviviers.com/

Les Viviers Exterior Fruits de Mer Les Viviers Exterior Les Viviers Exterior Dessert

 

For every yin there should be an equal yang. After last week’s horror review from Bordeaux, it would be unfair to leave you thinking that the Tom Eats! French experience ended badly. The honour of the region was more than restored at a Sunday lunch by the sea. Or, to be slightly more accurate, by the Arcachon Basin, a huge saltwater tidal gulf, filled with oyster farms and teeming with wildlife. The area is one of those quintessentially French places, where there are many holidaymakers, but very few non French speakers.

The recommendation came, as these things do, from a Parisian whose table we shared at lunch at Chateau Prieuré-Lichine, but that’s another story.

A slow train took us, not to Arcachon itself, but to Gujan Mestras, a few miles east. This is oyster country. Walk round the port and every shack belongs to an oyster fisherman, many with waterside platforms selling the wares. That’s probably how the building which houses Les Viviers began life. Hard on the water’s edge, with disused and crumbling jetties still protruding. We managed to secure the last outside table and settled down under a canopy inches from the water.

Had I had any stress in my life, it would have drained from my body. Simply being at Les Viviers is good for the soul. It feels as though you are among friends: or in fact among family – a lot of the staff looked very like each other. People who were apparently unhurried, yet who ensured everyone had everything they wanted, when they wanted it.

The menu runs to seven pages. Be warned: there is a small selection for meat eaters, but virtually nothing for vegetarians. Oysters, crustaceans or plateaux de fruits de mer; set menus or a la carte. Take your pick. The menu de pecheur (30€) included fish soup, oysters, grilled sole or mussels any way you fancied. The fish soup, unusually, was white, but had all the intensity of flavour you would expect from roasted lobster or prawn shells. It had the usual accompaniments, but the rouille had a strong kick of mustard. Unusual and effective. Mussels (a kilo of them) were exemplary, the marinière sauce containing a whiff of thyme. The pineapple carpaccio (pictured) was a masterclass in how to take some fairly simple ingredients, and assemble them so that the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Some bits of fruit, a couple of drizzles of coulis and a ball of sorbet.

Is this haute cuisine? No, nor is it attempting to be so. Is it the best possible aftermath to the unpleasant pretentiousness of Le Chapon Fin? You bet. Simple, flavoursome, friendly. The French can do Sunday lunch on all levels, but one would wish for no better than this.

Also in Bordeaux

Le Café Francais, 5 Place Pey Berland, 33000 Bordeaux

lecafefrancaisbx@gmail.com

As is our wont we searched for the perfect spot for aperitif-sipping and people-watching. We found this place six days too late. Once upon a time the brasserie of the Hotel Pey Berland, the Café Francais has been here since the end of the 19th century, proudly overlooking the cathedral. Come here for a drink as the sun is going down, and watch the soaring spire change colour. As mesmerising as any son et lumière display. Their food is pretty decent too, clearly attracting a regular local clientele despite the touristy location. We ate a couple of salads, French style with a lot of protein. Salade de Cabecon du Périgord featured three crottins (individual goat’s cheeses) wrapped in bacon and baked.  Salade du Sud Ouest was a variation on another local favourite, Salade Landaise. The latter features duck gizzards (sounds disgusting, but delicious – mushroom-like, bizarrely), foie gras and duck confit. The former had cured magret of duck in place of the confit. A so called morceau of cheese turned out to be half a camembert. Hard to keep cheese in prime condition when the mercury is hitting 40˚C: they managed it. Sheer gluttony is the only possible reason for attacking a baba au rhum after that. The size of a boxer’s fist, this was the real McCoy. A yeast based confection soaked in rum – with a generous glass of boozy syrup served on the side to top it up. Great service, keen prices.

I would also commend Saveurs D’Aquitaine, not least for heroism. On the day of our visit they opened for business to discover they had no power, which restricted the offering. Much of the local flavour comes from the truffle. We shared platters of truffled salami and of cooked ham with generously gratings of the stuff. Add a baguette and a glass or two of red, and Robert est ton oncle.

Saveurs D’Aquitaine, 16 Place des Quinconces, 33000 Bordeaux

(no website that I could find)

The Bill

(Euros)

 

Set Menus

15€ – 49€

A la carte

Starters

8.90€ – 11.50€

Mains

15€ – 49€

Fruits de Mer

Platters

25€ – 52.50€

Desserts

5€ – 9.50€

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

 

Le Chapon Fin

5 Rue Montesquieu, 33000 Bordeaux, France

+33 556 791 010  http://www.chapon-fin.com

Le Chapon Fin Interior

 

A trip to the great culinary centre of Bordeaux deserves, nay demands, a dinner of quality as its crowning glory. A little research is done about The Refined Capon. The normally reliable Dorling Kindersley praises its remarkable Belle Époque decor and refined modern cuisine. Trip Advisor scores seem fine. On the website a smiling chef Nicola Nguyen Van Hai describes himself as tout gourmand.

The place was established in 1825. The dining room, remodelled in 1901, is remarkable. Huge chunks of limestone and mirrors, with rococo features, make a room quite unlike any other. First impressions (of the room) are jaw dropping. They are, however, very brief, as we are immediately thrown out. Our reservation is for 19.30. We arrive at 19.28. No one is on duty in the narrow reception corridor, so we go into the dining room, and find ourselves back out faster than you can say your name’s not on the list, guv. We are graciously readmitted two minutes later. The place does not seem to have changed, but my mood sure has. And suddenly the pace accelerates to that of a Benny Hill sequence. A leisurely glass of house fizz (well, as leisurely as an 18€ glass can be) should have been time for meditation and forgiveness. Instead, we were bombarded with constant chatter introducing bits of very ordinary food. NOT amuse-bouche: of that more anon.

Two skinny and unremarkable cheese straws were presented vertically, held aloft in a glass of dried lentils. A square of stale black toast was topped with something fishy. A bowl of brown and black stone like things appeared. Difficult to know what to put in one’s gob. We guessed correctly with a couple of black breadcrumbed fried prawns. The menu also featured black gnocchi. Chef must have been offered a job lot of squid ink. A tiny flan with chorizo was OK, but a melon ball in a shot glass with a spit of indeterminate foam ain’t my definition of refined modern cuisine.

The service was split into two camps. The men dealt mainly with the wine, in particular two charming sommeliers from Montreal and California respectively. Then we had the rest. The lady bouncer double checked which of us had the cream allergy. Two minutes later, the amuse bouche proper arrived, some crayfish smothered in a potato mousse – utterly delicious, but about 50:50 potato and cream. L had the first forkful down her neck before we realised. The dish was whipped away with a mumbled apology. Some bread and butter appeared. There was, as one might expect in an establishment of this alleged quality, a butter knife; however, the absence of side knives for the convenience of diners seemed odd. Had the kitchen perchance developed self-spreading butter? Un couteau? we timidly enquired of our charming hostess. You want ANOTHER one? she snapped. No, dear, we want two, as neither of us has been graced with one. Had we been so gauche as to use your butter knife, we know that you and your black skirted chums would have been sneering and sniggering at the dining habits of les rosbifs. There was no sign of an alternative amusement for L’s bouche, but she was provided with a fork and knife. I’ve never eaten ice cream thus, but those were the implements deemed appropriate for a savoury ice cream with onions and tiny squares of tuna. By this time we were far too frightened to ask if they could spare a spoon.

To the main event. Before being subjected to the full delights of service, we had ordered one of the three tasting menus, described as Confiances (Trust). Ah, if only we knew then… The first of five courses was foie gras. If you disapprove, good for you, but we love it. Indeed we had had a very fine free sample at a food fair outside the station the day before. Significantly better than the sweating, slightly slimy specimen placed before us. L had to pick a vein out of her portion. There was a foam (refined kitchens in Bordeaux apparently use a lot of foam) based on some sort of liquorice type plant. Deeply unpleasant. Foie gras needs pickle or chutney, but preferably not one which is so vinegary you could use it to clean the silver. It needs toasted brioche, not a cracker made of tapioca and, you guessed it, squid ink. I made no complaint, but when the waitress asked what I thought, I told her what I’ve just told you. By this stage we really, really hated one another.

Sea bass came with a beurre montée. Those of you who know about these things will know that this is quite creamy in appearance. The fish was beautifully fresh, perfectly cooked, but, alas, unseasoned. Concerned by our cream experience, I gently sought some reassurance. The response could not have been more vitriolic had  I just made an indecent proposal. So we took their word for it and L made her second of three unwanted inspections of the ladies’.

Filet mignon of veal was tasteless and unseasoned. It came with a well made jus, which mixed strangely with a strip of spicy tomato ketchup and three dots of red pepper coulis. An extensive cheese selection was pretty decent. A culinary first for me – a French cheese board featuring an English cheese. I didn’t come to Bordeaux to eat Stilton, but one black mark deducted. They saved the best to last with a rather good raspberry dessert.

We passed on coffee. L was feeling ill and just wanted out. Relations had thawed a little over my appreciation of the cheese board – truly this waitress is a magnanimous lady – so we were brought some petit fours. A couple of bits of preserved watermelon. Hmm. A very good mini lemon pie for me, and some over ripe strawberries dunked in chocolate of average quality. I recall making these with my daughter when she was 8. That wasn’t refined cooking then, and it’s not now.

As recompense for poisoning L, they kindly comped the champagne. Negotiations regarding the remaining 324€ are ongoing.

July 2018

PS. Since this review was written, we lodged a complaint and have been given a full refund. Nothing, however, could compensate for service of this quality.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill (Euros)

Lunch

Set Lunch 35€

Dinner

Set Menus

69€ – 99€

A la carte

Starters

29€ – 33€

Mains

37€- 55€

Desserts

16€

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service

Sommeliers 5/5

Waitresses 0/5

Average 2.5/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 2/5

TOTAL 12.5/25

 

The Dhabba

44 Candleriggs, Merchant City, Glasgow G1 1LD

0141 553 1249   http://www.thedhabba.com

The Dhabba

 

Well, this had to happen in Glasgow, didn’t it? A glorious collection of synchronicity and happenstance, bordering upon the surreal. I am very tempted to try to write it in the style of Damon Runyon: his breathless narrative, in the minute, making the absurd sound normal, would be on the money. The tale goes something like this.

I have a new best friend called Scott. He is a big shot (some say the biggest shot of all – careful, sub editor) in PR for hotels and restaurants. Now Scott has been at me to write up a couple of Indian places, one in Glasgow. My schedule has been packed for some weeks, World Cup, sunshine, you know the sort of thing. So Scott’s restaurants remain unreviewed. Now when I say, best friend, I may be stretching the use of language a little. In fact, Scott and I have never met. We arrange to remedy this by making acquaintance at the Indian Food Bazaar, scheduled to kick off in The Briggait at noon.

So L and I find ourselves strolling along Clyde Street, taking evasive action from wedding guests spilling out of a church. We bump into Malcolm and Denise, who have better claim to BF status as we have known them for thirty years. Through them we acquire another new chum, Frank. Hearing we are going to eat Indian food, Frank tells us that the best Indian restaurant in Glasgow is The Dhabba in Candleriggs.

Now, by 1.00 The Briggait appears to have no power, which is not conducive to preparing any type of food, never mind Indian. At 1.30 we give up and wander into the Merchant City in search of lunch. Suddenly we stumble on The Dhabba: it also dawns on me that this is the one on Scott’s list. Lordy, Lordy.

The word dhabba meant a roadside diner in North India. These gradually became more sophisticated eateries in cities and in hotels. Glasgow acquired this gem in 2002, at a time when the variations of Indian regional cooking were not well known. Even now most of us will need a little guidance through the menu, which extends to a four sheet newspaper. This is cheerfully given. A drink is brought without delay. I pause to survey the surroundings. The place isn’t much to look at, wood lined walls, veneer floors and bare tables and chairs. BUT you get a large cloth napkin to keep the dreaded turmeric stains at bay. Other Indian restaurants, please take note.

Anyway, back to the service. From the very very young laddie who saw us to our table and took a drink order in double quick time, to the lovely waiting staff, to the helpful manager who aided our food choice without a hint of impatience or condescension, everyone we encountered was a delight.

In addition to an a la carte choice there are four set menus for groups, priced from £20 per head for the Firoza (Turquoise) to £40 for the Maanik (Ruby). I really want to return to try the lot.

We shared a Shuruvaati Thal for two, comprising king prawns, lamb, chicken, stuffed mushrooms, and potato patties. Each one a winner. We eyed up the monkfish dishes. We were warned off one because of the old cream allergy and pointed towards the tandoor. Now in this year’s unseasonably hot summer many of you will be realising that not everyone is capable of barbecuing food. The same is true of tandoori cooking. If you have only experienced dryish tandoori food from your local takeaway, you may not realise the skill which is involved in mastering a clay oven whose temperatures rival only those encountered on a NASA launch pad. Macchi Tikka comprised large chunks of wonderfully succulent monkfish, whose delicate spicing and natural flavour survived the furnace. We were offered an accompanying Salan sauce, a marriage as happy as the one down the road in Clyde Street. Bhuna Gosht was as tasty a stew as you can get, the lamb meltingly tender. In addition to rice we eyed the bread section. I don’t usually go for Aloo Paratha, but who can resist a dish which is described on a menu as a large superior tattie scone?

Puddings will have to wait for another dining companion. The Dhabba, on the other hand, won’t have to wait long for our return. Only one thing might delay us. The same team own Dakhim, just up the road at number 89. That will take you to the delights of South India. We may have to go there first.

 PS. Scott and I did eventually meet up. If all his restaurant tips are of this standard then, to quote Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£4.95 – £7.95

Mains

£10.95 – £29.95

Desserts

£3.95 – £6.95

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20.5/25

 

YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

or

THE HOW LIKELY WOULD I BE TO RETURN HERE AWARDS

Some years ago I read an article by Marina O’Loughlin, restaurant reviewer, then of The Guardian, now of The Sunday Times. One of the many reasons I admire her work is that she is capable of assessing foods of all types, at all levels, and judging places by their own aspirations, not by some central standard of perfection. A question she posed, one which might be addressed in every restaurant critique, is, how likely would I be to return here?

I loved this criterion so much that I was tempted to add it to my Tom Eats! scoring system. I then decided that as I could resolutely defend my assessment scheme, it would be a shame to weaken it. Some, of course, (including the lovely Marina and the estimable Jay) give no scores at all. Others will give a mark out of 20 for each plate. Too hard for me. Fools will score food plus one, eg atmosphere, ambience or some such nonsense. And mountebanks such as Coren, no doubt to show what free spirits they are, will add or subtract for such pieces of nonsense as water, attractiveness of staff, or, on one notorious occasion, random factor to bring the score down a bit. It’s not easy being as scrupulously fair as me.

But then you remember that your review was like a balance sheet: a snapshot at a particular date, not an assessment of performance over a year or more. I wrote recently of how seldom I return to places, with a few exceptions. Not, to echo the Thomas Wolfe inspired title, that I can’t go back. I have never written a review which I would be frightened to discuss, face to face, with the chef concerned. Indeed, I have eaten pretty awful meals which I have decided simply to ignore without comment, especially in some wee family run places. Generally though, life is too short – but exceptions are of course more interesting than rules.

Value for money is one of my markers. When out and about, I try to look to the middle of the carte, to avoid anything which will distort my vaguely, not at all statistical, system. Is this correct, I wonder? On a recent return to Brasserie Prince, I ordered a dressed crab, one of my all time favourite dishes. I read that the minimum permitted landing size for a brown crab is 150mm. I can only guess that this one shrank in the cooking. Or perhaps they used a tiny shell to pack with some white meat – no brown to be seen. I have paid the same amount – £21 – in Richard Corrigan’s Bentleys in London – but that was for a full sized beast stuffed with all of its good bits, perfectly treated and reassembled. Rip off points for Brasserie Prince.

And even more for Ondine, which I have praised to the skies in the past. With the trouble and strife having gone for a girls’ weekend I decided to treat myself. Lobster thermidor at Ondine, what could be better, even at 45 quid? Now, in fairness, the sauce was lovely, and the claw meat was nicely sliced into it. Yes, that’s it. Not an ounce of the body meat was included. I don’t know if that was Mr Brett ripping me off, or if chef was just keeping it back for his tea; however, somebody saw that crossing the pass and did nothing.

 Other places to which I have returned have sent me away gladder by far the second time round. Galvin at The Pompadour restored its reputation, thanks to its inspired appointment of Dan Ashmore as head chef. To my great pleasure, Stuart Muir’s Dine has rediscovered its mojo and is delighting all comers. I love success stories. But perhaps most of all, I love the places which were good first the time round, and the second and on subsequent visits. I bang on lots about The Wee Restaurant and the lovely Wood family, serving dependable, quality food in Edinburgh and North Queensferry. The last time I mentioned Fishers in the City, it had had a couple of service issues. I am delighted to report that these seem to be in the past, and this is back to being an unalloyed pleasure.

And, in finale, Otro, to which I returned very day of writing this. I have no idea how they produce food at these prices. The value was astonishing when I first reviewed. Clearly they weren’t kicking off at loss leading prices, as they’re still going strong at the same levels. The menu is different, and quirkily so, every time. Some things work stunningly well: others are merely good. But you are marvelling at the flavour and the inventiveness, not complaining about them. Most importantly, standards have not slipped one millimetre.  They win the Tom Johnston  How Likely Would I be to Return Here Award for July 2018.

Supreme Champion

Otro

  http://www.otrorestaurant.co.uk/

Winners

Galvin at The Pompadour

http://www.galvinedinburgh.com/s/3/restaurants-edinburgh

Dine

http://www.dineedinburgh.co.uk

The Wee Restaurant

http://www.theweerestaurant.co.uk/

Fishers in the City

http://www.fishersrestaurants.co.uk/fishers-in-the-city

 

The Fishmarket

23A Pier Place, Newhaven

Edinburgh EH6 4LP

0131 552 8262         http://www.thefishmarketnewhaven.co.uk

The Fishmarket

 

The Devil makes work for idle hands, they say. Now hands are seldom idle here at Chateau Johnston. The experimental kitchens bubble day and night; food tastings and retastings border upon the incessant; and the world’s food publications are scanned hourly to bring you the finest of fare, and tales of fare. All of this useless information doesn’t just come to you by accident, let me tell you. But, come the Edinburgh trades fortnight, you wouldn’t recognise the place. The minions are off, three weeks’ pay burning a hole in their pockets, and peace will often reign. How dull.

This year, torpor has been kept at bay by the World Cup. There has been dancing in the streets of St Peter, England have won the odd match, and the chatelaine and I have thus been spared having to talk to each other. Until today, that is. Some demented scheduler has decreed there should be 48 hours sans football. Thus it was that we found ourselves marching down to Newhaven, a wee six mile stroll along one of the many former railway lines which criss cross the town.

Lunch seldom tastes better than when you’ve earned it, and it can be even finer when it’s spontaneous. We didn’t plan to visit, but just stumbled in at journey’s end. I’d known about this place for some time, a joint venture between Roy Brett of Ondine on George IV Bridge, and Welch’s who have been fish merchants in the city for yonks. I’d read good things, but I was concerned about potential prices. I am a fan of Ondine for high days and holidays, but Mr Brett, as befits someone who worked with Rick Stein, certainly knows how to charge. It turned out we needn’t have worried.

The building is part of the old fish market at Newhaven Harbour. The lighthouse has been adapted as the motif for the restaurant. The space is simply but effectively fitted out with tiles and artwork which proves, as everyone knew, that Newhaven is in fact built on the back of a great whale. Almost as great as the Great Michael, Scotland’s largest ever warship, built in a specially commissioned dock in Newhaven and launched in 1511. I would tell you more, but the story is too sad, and we were enjoying a day which was anything but.

There is a single door leading to the traditional fish and chip shop on the right, and, through a slightly screened entrance on the left, to the dining room. On a day such as this you could easily compromise by taking a carry out and eating on the bench tables outside. I don’t think the gulls have cottoned on yet. Since returning from lunch, I’ve been pondering on what type of an eating establishment I was really in. You can start with oysters, with langoustines, with scallops or with chowder. In other words, all the things you could hope for in a great fish restaurant. Hot mains on the other hand are, with one or two exceptions, a variation on the chip fryer’s art. If this is to be rated as a fish and chip shop, it is very fine indeed. A starter of crab claws was generous, battered and deep fried and served with a pleasant if unspectacular Vietnamese dipping sauce. The crabs were of varying sizes – I certainly wouldn’t have cared to come face to face with the last one – a real monster. The deep frying, incidentally, was exemplary.

L is not the greatest fan of fried food and ordered her haddock grilled. I have sometimes failed to see the point of haddock, but when you get something this fresh and of this quality your faith is restored. Being quite full with crab, I ordered goujons of sole, expecting a smaller portion. Usually from the caterer’s side that’s one of the ways of making things look bigger – like grating cheese for a sandwich. Not here. Each goujon was nearly the length of a decent fillet, and the were five of them. Wow. And the chips were great – real chip shop specimens.

There is a dessert list which is short, simple and appropriate. The selection of about a dozen wines has something for all pockets. I also noticed a list of cocktails on offer at the small bar, and an unfairly slim lady drinking pints of good looking beer.

I pondered a while whether they could offer more. A month or two ago I reviewed Quinlan’s in Cork. It too was at heart a chippie, but had extended its repertoire further without being over swanky. After all, if you can grill a piece of fish you can pan fry it, and put a few new tatties on the side, as opposed to some chips. I came to the conclusion that I was trying to judge a place for failing to be that which it never aspired to. The Fishmarket does the basics well, at a terrific price. Haddock and chips for a tenner (that’s £8.33 before VAT), served with charm in a stylish harbour side location. I certainly don’t grudge an extra £1 for tartare sauce, relatively smooth, but with a nice aroma of dill. They even have bottles of vinegar on the table in case Fifers and Glaswegians come to visit.

This isn’t entirely what I expected, but better, so much better, than many which have gone before. And if that’s inspired you to get your fish recipe books out, nip into Welch’s lovely shop next door for some sashimi grade tuna, a lobster or two, or just a couple of bits of haddock. Bravo!

July 2018

*It occurs to me that I should clarify the value for money, since a simple reading of the price ranges may be misleading. For example, most starters are in the £8- £10 range, not bad at all when these can include squid, monkfish and scampi. In many cases things are priced by the unit, eg, langoustines at £4 or oysters for the very reasonable £2.50. I have taken a plate of half a dozen oysters at the top end of the starter prices. Yes, you can pay £36 for a whole lobster, but for fish and chips you will be charged Medium 10 Large 11 Whale 12.

 

 

 

The Bill*

Starters

£8 – £15

Mains

£10 – £36

Desserts

£5

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 17/25

 

 

Tom’s Half Term Report 2018

Auguste Escoffier

 

In 2016 and 2017, you got Tom Eats! at an average rate of one a fortnight. This year you have been on a weekly diet, so let me hear no complaints from your overfed review stomachs. Having nothing in the can for this week, I pause to consider some trends. As always these are viewed mostly from Edinburgh and the eastern part of the central belt. Apologies, Glasgow I haven’t been through as often as I would wish.

The capital seems to have an insatiable appetite for new places. One closes, another is in its place before you can say Auguste Escoffier (that’s him up there). Actually, that’s not a great metaphor. We haven’t seen much of new wunderkind chefs boasting complicated fine dining. Now that’s no disrespect to the very fine talents on display at Jérôme Henry’s Le Roi Fou or at Fhior, the latest venture for Scott Smith (recently of the splendid but short lived Norn). I do believe it is part of the backlash against the influence of Masterchef. You seem to stand no chance of getting beyond round one unless your dish contains at least ten ingredients, preferably cooked in three different ways. One reads frequent reports from down south of young hopeful start up chefs being forced to scale down menus to provide a bill of fare which is simpler, with more emphasis on substance than style.

That’s not to say that there doesn’t remain a demand at the top end. Try getting a dinner reservation at the likes of The Kitchin in the next couple of months. There are some tables available mid week, but your choice is usually 6.00 or 9.15. Weekends? Not a hope. Tom Kitchin is in expansionist mode, but, interestingly, not at the high end level. His pub Scran and Scallie, which I dislike, is regularly packed. He will soon be opening in Bruntsfield, and has just acquired The Golf Inn in Gullane which is to be renamed, wait for it, The Bonnie Badger. Astonishing as it may seem to many who have forked out Michelin starred prices, many of these places make little or no money on their food, largely because it is so labour intensive. That is why so many of them have brasseries or pubs to make some profit.

Not that that is an easy thing to do, even in the more affluent areas. The restaurant trade is currently in the middle of a perfect storm. Wages are rising, with pressure to pay the Living, as opposed to the Minimum, Wage. The latest round of rates increases has treated the licensed trade shamefully as ever. Food prices have soared, and it is only a matter of time before interest rates start to rise. These factors, plus a lack of flexibility with centrally set menus, explain the difficulties faced by many large groups. Jamie’s Italian, Strada, Prezzo and Byron have all had to restructure to remain in business. One reads of similar problems facing other chains. The costs of establishing a restaurant space which will please the fickle public are breathtaking. Many viewers of BBC’s The Restaurant will, I’m sure, have been gobsmacked by the figures being quoted.

We are told that it cost £2m to fit out Fazenda, the new Brazilian place in George Street. I haven’t visited yet though I’ve eaten in its outlets down south. Great fun if you’re a serious carnivore. So while many chains struggle, others can prosper. Dishoom in St Andrew Square seems to be a well deserved success story. Critically, individual units seem to have quite a bit of autonomy. Just along the road, The Ivy on the Square has that group spreading like, well, ivy. And while city centre openings, for obvious reasons, tend to be dominated by those with deep pockets (the Forte/Roux partnership at Brasserie Prince being the latest example), there are those hardy souls bucking the trend. Good luck to Nico Simeone bringing his successful Finnieston formula Six by Nico to Hanover Street on the site of the former Passorn. (The original version of the latter is still alive and well in Brougham Place.) And good luck, too, to Juan Jose Castillo Castro, sometime restaurant manager at Gleneagles, who has opened his first restaurant, the South American inspired 83 Hanover Street. You can guess the address.

Three cheers for independents. Brave people in a tough market. I intend to support them and relate to you the joys they offer. I urge you all to do likewise.

 

 

Brasserie Prince

by Alain Roux

1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2EQ

0131 557 5000 https://bit.ly/2I3U3w8

Brasserie Prince

 

If Socrates were a restaurant critic, the dialogue might go something like this-

-So why does Edinburgh need a new restaurant? Hundreds of them already.

-It’s to replace Hadrian’s in the Balmoral Hotel. And it’s not a restaurant. It’s a brasserie.

-You mean one of these things that they brought to Paris from Alsace? Sell a lot of beer do they?

-No, not that sort of brasserie.

-Oh, no, not like that overpriced effort they have in the Caley at the other end of the road?

 Me (interjecting). Shut up you two. The Parisian equivalents moved on from beer a long time ago. And if anyone should know how to carry this off, it will be someone called Roux.

The celebrated Roux brothers, Albert and Michel have been described as the godfathers of culinary Britain. Albert himself has a couple of places north of the border, in Inverness and Gullane. Michel Roux, Jr, is now probably the best known member of the dynasty, thanks to his TV work. Confusingly, he is the son of Albert. The name above the door here is that of his cousin, Alain, proprietor of the Waterside Inn at Bray, the longest holder of three Michelin stars in the UK. As those two prattling idiots above remarked, this is not the first time that one of Edinburgh’s five-star places has dipped its toe into the “luxury brasserie” water: but after a lunch here this week, I will wager that it will be the most successful.

The menu is extensive. As can be seen from the price ranges, there is something for most pockets. You will find a long list of favourites, plus the daily (or grand-mère’s) classic specials, ranging from Tripes de Saint-Mandé  on Monday through to Boeuf Bourgignon  on the Sabbath. It took the four of us, (the Former Media Mogul and His Gorgeous Wife, L and me) a long time to make our minds up. We shared a couple of sharing platters (which, I suppose, is why they’re so called). The charcuterie board was very much what you would expect, with good terrines and salamis. The second was a less obvious collation. More country pȃté came on a board with squares of slow cooked pork belly, and chicken wings with bois boudran sauce. The latter is an invention of Alain’s dad, Michel, Sr, giving a lovely barbecue glaze to the chunkiest chicken wings I’ve ever encountered. There was also a jug of Thai dipping sauce. Eclectic indeed, and very enjoyable.

Mains included rump steak with excellent chips, keenly priced at £19.50, and coq au vin served with pasta. This was less of a runny chicken, mushroom and onion stew than anticipated. Two plump thighs had been marinaded and cooked in an intense winey/meaty sauce, and won much approval. A chunk of monkfish was cooked on the “bone” and served with wild Camargue rice. But the star of the show was probably the rack of lamb, two perfectly cooked chops served on a bed of white beans a la Portuguaise, the latter slowly cooked with tomatoes, onion and garlic.

Desserts maintained the high standard. A vanilla mille-feuille was as good as they get, while a rum baba bouchon was in an individual pud, drenched with just the right quantities of sugar syrup and booze.

This was a Wednesday lunchtime symphony with not a single wrong note. Normally in a five-star place you expect to be rooked by the wine prices. Not the case here – plenty of selection below the thirty pound mark (and that’s not the case a mile along the road, let me tell you).

I believe this is the first collaboration between the celebrated Roux and Forte families. Both sides should be very proud of their debut. Fit to grace any grand boulevard.

June 2018

 

 

 

The Bill

 

Raw Bar

£12 – £24

Bites &

Sharing Platters

£4 – £25

Salads

£9 – £13.50

Starters

£7.50 – £15

Grand-mère’s

Specials

£17.50

Main Courses

£16.50 – £49

Desserts

£6- £8

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

 

Navadhanya

88 Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh EH12 5LQ

0131 281 7187  http://www.navadhanya-scotland.co.uk

Navadhanya

 

What constitutes a good day? Probably none of us can answer that, though we know one when we’ve had it. For my own part, a day is always enhanced if, in its course, I acquire a new piece of information, the more abstruse the better. Our dinner at Navadhanya therefore started well…and carried on improving.

I learn that the restaurant name means nine grains or crops, representing food security.  That in turn refers to an Indian NGO of the same title which promotes farming, with particular reference to biodiversity, seed saving and conservation. Since its inception in 1984 it has set up 54 community seed banks in India, and helped train over half a million farmers.

Our informative waiter was as helpful with this as he was in guiding us through the menu. Consider the average Indian restaurant in Scotland. (I use this in the broadest sense – we are all aware that many such establishments have their origins in other parts of the sub-continent.) While flock wallpaper may have disappeared, and standards of cooking risen, menus haven’t changed all that much. Equally they remain so cheap/good value for money that it is hard to see how many of them turn a profit. At my wonderful local takeaway, our standard order of one main, one side dish and one rice brings change from fifteen pounds and would easily feed three hungry people. But change is a’comin’. One reads of developments from down south, with particularly mouth watering reviews of new upmarket Indian places in London.

Perhaps Navadhanya is the advance guard. It has a sister restaurant in Cambridge, and it is reported that the Edinburgh chef has cooked in a Michelin starred place. That wouldn’t surprise me. I dined there a few weeks back with the GB, my eldest. Sunhari Jongha is a dish of good quality prawns cooked with mustard and cumin and served with a coriander chutney. Hiran Seekh Kebab is a taste-the-difference version of a standard, made with venison, rather than the ghastly on the way home from the pub version. For mains, more obscure info. Railway Chicken Curry (more traditionally a mutton dish, which in India means goat) apparently comes from an encounter in a train dining car between a British officer and a very hot curry. The soldier asked for it to be toned down. The chef added yoghurt and cashew nut paste, and the recipe stuck. Or so the story goes. Tawa Macchi seems almost European in comparison, featuring sea bass fillets, shallots and asparagus. The eastern origins come via the green chilli, ginger, coconut milk and lotus stem. You can choose from two types of dhal, and five of naan, the latter as far away from the hard sole-your-shoe job as you can get.

Puddings were beyond us, but in addition to the usual kulfis you could try Gajarela (carrot fudge) or Gulab Jamun, a saffron and cardamom infused doughnut, soaked in sugar syrup.

This elegant little place is next to the Apex Hotel just west of Haymarket. At present it is slightly hidden behind the extensive roadworks; however, when they come to an end, and the nearby Donaldson’s School redevelopment comes on line, it should be opened up to the wider audience it so richly deserves. Don’t judge the prices by the standards of your average Indian outlet: instead, compare it to other establishments providing high quality food, in a great setting, with terrific staff.

This was a very fine meal. Even if I’ve already added to your stack of useless information, go and experience for yourself some new flavours and a wonderful eating experience.

May 2018

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £9.99

3 courses £12.99

A la carte

Starters

£6.25 – £13.95

Mains

£13.95 – £29.95

In-House

Special Desserts

(their phrase)

£4.50 – £9.99

Tasting Menu

7 courses £39.99

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

 

Pilgrim’s

6 South Square, Rosscarbery, Co Cork, Ireland

+353 (023) 88 31796  http://www.pilgrims.ie

Pilgrim Interior

 

Now in this food scribbling lark (the current Mrs Johnston, who keeps my feet bolted to the floor, refuses to allow me to call myself a reviewer), it’s often difficult to make the distinction between pleasure and work. OW! Sorry, dear, of course I meant pleasure and vanity project.

In other words, you can have a very nice day or night out with friends while suffering bad food (eg Citation a few weeks ago) or eat good food and have it spoiled by other circumstances (eg Mark Greenaway). More often the two good experiences conjoin, making a detailed analysis of the food more difficult. I really should write, food and service. Without exception, all of the truly memorable meals have been those with great service. The food I ate will often slip my mind after time, but the faces and smiles of many great waiting staff are still etched in my memory, Chefs, take note. You are NOT the most important people in your restaurants.

May saw us on a jaunt to south west Ireland, the prime purpose being to visit M and I, artists both. The second last evening found us in the pretty as a picture little village of Rosscarbery, or, as the restaurant’s website would have it, Ros Ó gCairbre. (Logic suggests that that g must be superfluous, but, hey, it’s Ireland, so what do I know?) Arriving early after a tour of one of the county’s fascinating churches, we sat in the square at a table outside Pilgrim’s in dappled sunshine. Sorry we’re early – is it OK if we sit here? Of course. Can we have a drink while we’re waiting? No problem. And faster than a leprechaun could offer you three wishes we were sipping prosecco, wondering if life could get better. If we thought that it couldn’t we were seriously wrong. Oh, my word, yes. For a Pilgrim’s dinner awaited.

Why is it called Pilgrim’s, I wanted to know? Because it used to be the Pilgrim café apparently. And the answer to the supplementary question is that prior to that it used to be the Pilgrim bookshop. There the trail went cold. Who cares? Pilgrim’s is run by chef Mark Jennings and his partner Sadie Pearce who is front of house.  All the front of house ladies (no men involved that I can recall) were stylish, confident and charming. I had to ask which one was Sadie.It was impossible to guess which was the chatelaine.

Mark spent some years at Café Paradiso, Cork’s finest, vegetarian restaurant. Note the use of the comma. It’s not merely the best of Cork’s vegetarian eateries, but the top place in town.  He has been at few other restaurants, with some time in Australia. He did go to college, but he laughingly tells me he didn’t learn much from that. The menu changes daily. It contains three each of Nibbles, Small and Large, a couple of ices and a couple of puddings. With the ambience of the place you can easily deduce that mix and match is the order of the day. After the welcome, the next thing to gain top marks is an act of omission. No one tries to tell us how we should order. They reckon that we are aware of the unspoken pact between restaurateur and customer. They cook, they serve: we eat, we pay. Any of you who allow your waiters to explain the concept should travel to Pilgrim’s and learn.

Actually, anyone who cares about food should go to Pilgrim’s. This was one of the best meals I’ve eaten. EVER. ANYWHERE. We sampled all of the nibbles. The marriage of mackerel, potato and onion is hardly original, but I’ve never tasted it better, the potatoes new, the mackerel lightly pickled. The bewildering sounding Tatsuta age, ponzu is a Japanese recipe for fried chicken, the poultry first marinated, then coated in potato starch and fried. As far removed from KFC as you could get. The best spiced carrot dip in the known universe accompanied the largest and pepperiest of radishes, so fresh you could happily eat the whole plant, greens and all. There were other things on the plate; however, I was late to the party and they’d been snarfed before I got there.

The artist known as I asked if she could have two starters. Well of course she could, the only question being in what order would she like them. More Japanese influence in the nettle dashi which accompanied a bit of turbot. The bowl also contained asparagus, shitake, fish crisp and Tokyo turnip. The latter is new to me. A small, radish like member of the turnip family. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what came with the dip earlier.

Tandoori cauliflower pakora are probably a staple from a good veggie menu. I guess in this case the Tandoori must refer to the spicing. You can’t both fry food, as with a pakora, and cook it in a tandoor oven. Mind you, if you told me chef Michael could fly I’d believe you. He can do everything else. The pakora were served on top of some truly amazing cauliflower gloop. Great stuff.

What else? There were West Cork snails with lardons and garlic and asparagus. 12-hour cooked boar belly far transcended all previous versions of that ubiquitous pork dish. Slip soles were cooked to perfection. Speaking of perfection, I must have acquired a small gift of second sight when I decided to order not one but two portions of oak smoked potatoes. I thought I had sampled all the divine ways in which one can eat the humble spud. Wrong. Two most unappetising looking plates of black balls topped with wild garlic mayo. They bake them, then smoke them then fry them. Or maybe it’s smoke, bake, fry? It was getting late by the time I asked and we had sampled well from their eclectic, eccentrically wonderful wine list. Either way, my execution on Death Row will be seriously delayed while a portion of these is sent for.

With a kitchen of this quality there was no way we were going to miss out on pudding. Some foraging in evidence with a gorse and honey ice cream. (Earlier in our trip we had sampled an Irish gin which included gorse among its botanicals.) Carrageen (otherwise known as Irish moss) was used to flavour the cream which was one of the components of a dish described as Chocolate cremeaux and hazelnut crumble. Be still my beating heart. Strawberries came with buttermilk sorbet, meringue, mint and beach rose, whatever that is. Rhubarb was turned into a sorbet – with rosé wine, of course.

Having reprised this evening of joy, I’m almost exhausted. The kitchen staff, on the other hand, seemed fresh as daisies at the end of service, proving tomorrow’s sour dough, happy to chat.

I ponder how to define a non secular pilgrimage. A journey, nay a quest, in search of something very special? That seems about right. One hears of people making an eight hour round trip from Dublin to eat here. We would have considered our own journey from Scotland to County Cork a success had we eaten but  this one meal.

May 2018

 

Tom Eats! is now on a diet.

Appearances over the summer will be intermittent

 

 

The Bill

(in Euros)

Nibbles

5.50€ – 6€

Small Plates

8.50€ -9 €

Large Plates

21€ – 24€

Ices/Puddings

3.50€ – 8.50€

Oak Smoked

Potatoes

5€

 

The Score

Cooking 9.5/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 24.5/25

 

 

 

Market Lane

5 – 6 Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork City, Ireland

+353 21 427 4710  http://www.marketlane.ie

 Market lane  Quinlans Cork
 

 

The premises of Market Lane are squeezed into Cork’s bustling Oliver Plunkett Street, next to those of sister restaurant, Elbow Lane Brew and Smoke House The trend for craft beer and micro brewing is as strong here as back home. The list of beers is presented with the same respect as that of the wines. We’ve come a long way from the days when the choice was Guinness or fizzy lager.

The street name should be Saint Oliver Plunkett Street. The great man was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Executed by the English in 1681, he became, in 1975, Ireland’s first saint for 700 years. Now it’s one of the busiest of the streets of the island which is the central part of Cork. Like many major cities, Cork was founded on a river, the Lee, which split (whether by design or chance, I’m unsure) to form a harbour and quays upon which the city’s prosperity was based.

Ireland suffered worse than many from the 2007 crash. In Dublin, however, the Celtic tiger is roaring again, and word on the street here in Cork is that the good times are trickling out to other parts. Certainly, at 7.15 on a wet Monday evening, Market Lane was stowed to capacity. They don’t take bookings for tables of less than six, but promise to call you when one becomes available. We were dispatched to the pub round the corner (first pint of Guinness in Ireland for a decade, the hardship). We had been advised to expect a wait of about 35 minutes: we were called in 20. The front of house lady keeps her cool under a lot of pressure. She passed us on to the care of the finest waitresses to come out of the fair city of Toronto.

Tables are packed together. Don’t come for a quiet evening of sweet nothings. Instead stay and admire the views. The quiet efficiency of chefs churning out dishes by the dozen from a compact open kitchen; the agile manoeuvrings of the hard working staff; a menu from which you would happily choose everything. If anything, the Irish are even further ahead than us in coping with allergies and the like. We could have had a whole lactose intolerant menu had we wished, and I believe there are other options.

Glenbeigh mussels were cooked with coconut cream, lemongrass and chilli. Not everyone attempting this dish can get the balance just right: they can.  Smoked haddock risotto had the unusual and effective addition of shallots and capers, though I failed to detect the advertised “moray gratinate”. Also missing in action were the sobrassada (a type of Balearic sausage) and braised leeks which were due to accompany the hake. The potato and kale gratin were out of bounds because of cream and were replaced with a portion of steamed greens. Brownie points for the diner who chose the healthy option in the face of temptation – chips were on offer as an alternative. And very good they looked too, alongside giant Irish steaks being served at the next table. We exchanged bets that the trim transatlantic ladies who had ordered them would be unable to clear their plates. We both lost. Finally, a fish pie was a variation on a theme. The main part comprised a generous helping of prawns and salmon in a prawn bisque, nicely perfumed (dill, I think, though it could have been tarragon). Instead of a mashed potato top, there was a slice of a cheddar and potato cake which melted gently into the broth, topped with some excellent al dente greens.

While the range of desserts is fairly run of the mill, you could go back to childhood by opting for a bag of sweets, bullseyes, apple drops or clove rock. There are a lot of sweetie shops in Cork.

The people behind Market Lane run four outlets, all different. We visited three. Each combined character and flavour with a bit of Irish panache and personality.

Elsewhere

Quinlan’s Seafood Bar is not the first chip shop to go upmarket, but the eponymous family really must deserve awards for effort. They have four restaurants and five fish shops; they have a wholesale business; they smoke their own salmon and, wait for it, they even have their own trawlers. Ye puny ones out there who boast of nature to plate, put that in your net and smoke it.

In their Cork venue you eat in a bright modern room on Princes Street. This is not some sort of jumped up chippy which will give you buttered bread and a cup of tea on the side with your fish supper. Rather it’s a slick dining space,  many tables occupied by people who are clearly out for dinner. Yes, the menu features all the chip shop standards, but there is much more besides. It is possible to dine without a fried potato crossing one’s lips. Service started a little stiffly but soon warmed up. Our waiter was much amused by my choice of starter. Gentlemen, how often has your dearly beloved decided to skip a course, only to decide to help you eat yours because it looks good/too much for one etc etc? At my dinner table I can forestall that by ordering squid, loathed by the current Mrs Johnston. This caused much merriment in the waiting ranks. It came crispy and deep fried as you would expect, but with no hint of grease, pepped up by an excellent chilli dipping sauce served in an oyster shell. Pan fried seabass came with salsa verde and good chips. The star of the evening, however, was the terracotta dish of Sizzling Deep Water Atlantic Prawns. Leaving aside the fact that I didn’t know that the Atlantic had any shallow fishing grounds, it could be proud of this generous crop. Over a dozen generous sized prawns arrived, duly sizzling, firm but as fresh as a very fresh thing, cooked in olive oil, chilli and garlic, with plenty of sour dough to mop up the juices. Desserts were mostly homemade, including lemon tart and cheesecake.

The celebrated English Market lived up to its billing, selling a fine range of meat, fish, veg and all manner of delicacies. Being a tourist in such an environment is deeply frustrating, as you have no opportunity to buy most of the fresh produce. I do, however, strongly recommend Tom Durcan’s spiced beef. All that window shopping gives one an appetite and a thirst. We dealt with the latter sitting in the sun just outside the market at The Oyster Tavern, a fine pub in a narrow entrance lane from Grand Parade. For the former we went upstairs in the market itself to Farmgate. This is in two parts, a cafe and a conventional restaurant. Being on a quest, not it must be said one of those undertaken with maximum excitement, we went for the sit down. Another way of ensuring that your starter isn’t snaffled is to sample the Irish delicacy of tripe and onions with drisheen. (This was the quest, believe it or not.) I’d never eaten tripe before, and shan’t again. Not because it was disgusting – merely tasteless. A friend later suggested that this had been prepared as it would have been back in the day, when Irish food was as much of a joke as British. It came in a creamy onion sauce, unencumbered with seasoning of any kind, apart from a small pat of butter on top. Sadly, not even lavish doses of salt and pepper could render it palatable. The drisheen, on the other hand, was actively unpleasant. It’s a variation on a black pud, but with a slimy texture. The visual impact of dirty brown blobs on snow white sauce is as you would expect, and that pretty much summed up this plate of food. All was forgiven by the cured fish plate which we shared. Smoked mackerel and salmon were two of the best parts: most unusual and equally welcome were some plump mussels in a grain mustard dressing. There was more, but I forget what, washed down with an Albariño of stunning quality and value.

I’ll not blame Farmgate for the tripe. It’s ticked a box for me. Our waitress, bless her, warned me in advance. They keep it on the menu because it’s traditional and many still enjoy it. There is a plenitude of other good things to eat, at good prices. I shall choose more wisely when next we visit, as we surely shall.

 

 

Quinlan’s Seafood Bar

14 Princes Street, Cork City, Ireland

+353 21 241 8222   www.seafoodbar.ie

 

Farmgate

English Market, Princes Street, Cork City

+353 21 427 8134   www,farmgate.ie

 

 

 

 

The Bill

(in Euros)

Starters

6.30€ – 8.90€

Mains

12.50€ – 27.50€

Desserts

2.00€ – 6.90€

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

Café Modern Two

Museum Modern Two

73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DS

0131 624 6273

www.heritageportfolio.co.uk/cafes/our-cafes/cafe-modern-two/

bit.ly/2m2LUCt

 modern-two-interior Modern 2 clock

 

Museums? Well, everyone knows that the food  is rubbish, but you do  get a bit of kultur. Right? Perhaps not. Read on.

When the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art across the road became a bit crowded, the estimable National Galleries of Scotland took this building over. With imagination fitting for the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment, they renamed them Modern One and Modern Two. Nothing wrong with that. We like concise. (Yes, really. Well, OK, sometimes.)

This eating establishment was clearly once known as Café Newton. One can tell from the clock which has pride of place over the counter at the west end of the room. I will wager there will be a café here for as long as it remains a museum: and I will wager even more that this clock will not outlive that which stands above the entrance (see picture above right). The building dates from 1833, a relative stripling by Edinburgh standards. The architect was Thomas Hamilton, better known for the old Royal High School on Regent Road. As with so many of Edinburgh’s grander buildings this was originally a “hospital” (ie a boarding school) for orphans. The Dean Orphanage became the Dean Nursing College became the Dean Education Centre became the Dean Gallery. The clock on the other hand came from the old Netherbow Port which formed the eastern boundary between the City of Edinburgh and the adjoining Burgh of Canongate, on the side of what is now St Mary’s Street. I suspect nobody knows how old the clock itself is, but the Netherbow was  demolished in 1764. The clock works perfectly to this day.

All galleries have cafes do they not? Coffee of varying quality, so-so “home” baking, watery soup? If that is your impression, come here and think again. Yes, there is coffee (excellent) and baking (a good range of professional looking stuff). But after a wander round any of the permanent or temporary exhibits, why not give yourself the unexpected treat of stopping for lunch. There are two bright airy rooms, one with ceilings at least 4 metres high (the orphans must have frozen in the winter). The other is dominated by Eduardo Paolozzi’s Vulcan which rises the height of the building. Don’t sit there if you are of a paranoid disposition. In stark contrast to the café in another well loved Edinburgh place (yes, Royal Botanical Gardens, we DO mean you), the service is faultless. Presided over by the calm and super efficient Sarah, the young international brigade go about their business in a manner which would please even a Michelin inspector. Queries about the menu (and, in our case a request to the kitchen to settle a bet about a component of one dish) were dealt with easily and with a smile. The soup of the day was butternut squash and roasted red pepper. No one needed to consult chef to check whether or not it contained cream. What came was a giant, steaming hot portion with two generous chunks of bread, which may or may not have been home made. Both the sage roasted butter nut squash risotto and the fishcakes of smoked salmon and haddock came with “seasonal side salad”. Not, as you would so often find, a bit of lettuce and half a tomato. This was a good portion of well dressed mixed leaves, some heritage tomato, and more roasted squash. The sort of thing which would add a couple of quid on to the bill elsewhere. Risotto as a main can be dull. This one was livened up with chestnuts and pumpkin seeds. The fishcakes were as good as they come, zinging with herbs and livened up with a terrific home made tartare sauce which was much less cloying than the average. That was the subject of the bet. L thought it was made with only yoghurt as a base: I reckoned a mixture of yoghurt and mayo. It would be ungallant to tell you who won – suffice it to say she hasn’t paid up yet. That is how I dress a potato salad. I’m certainly going to pinch the idea for future use. (Yes, I know I can’t pinch it for past use. Kindly leave at once – there is room for only one pedant in this column.)

We inspected the cakes close up before choosing an alarming looking green specimen, spinach and hazelnut apparently. Given the close inspection I am at a loss to explain how we came to miss the layers of cream nestling between strata of sponge and intense raspberry. Noble to a fault I had to scoff it myself, and still leave room for very good coffee.

Prices are astonishing value and if you are a Friend of the Gallery you are entitled to a ten percent discount. I’ll finish with a quick plug. I have a Duo membership, which covers me and any guest. The annual cost is £50. We went to A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900 – 1950 to which we were entitled free entry. Full ticket price is £10 a head. We parked free at the gallery and saved about £3.50 on lunch. That’s half your subscription on a single visit. If you enjoy art and live anywhere within easy travelling distance of Edinburgh, sign up now.

Back to the food. Don’t be put off by the low score for cooking. The offering is limited in scope and they cater only for lunch. If Heritage Portfolio, who run the catering at this and many other venues in and around Edinburgh, ever wanted to scale up they could put many established operators to shame. Perhaps the best compliment I can give is to say that it would be worth coming to this gallery for the lunch alone, plus, of course, the wonderful service.

March 2018

Tom Eats! will be back in two weeks.

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Lunch Only

Soup £5

Sandwiches

£6.95 – £7.95

Salads/

Light Bites

£6.00 – £7.75

Mains

£7.50 – £10.95

Cakes

From £1.50

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

Bellamy’s

18 Bruton Place, Mayfair, London W1J 6LY

020 7491 2727 http://www.bellamysrestaurant.co.uk

Bellamys2

 

In the morning before I lunched here, during one of our fairly regular visits to the metropolis, I had taken a trip to Notting Hill. More specifically to Books for Cooks, the lovely wee sells-what-it-says-on-the-tin shop in Blenheim Crescent. It is actually more than it says. There is a small café/restaurant in the back where the books are put into practice; however, I digress. I bought a book of essays on the life and times of the legendary Egon Ronay, who died just a decade or so ago. The contributors all seem to agree that he did not approve of modern gastronomic trends, where the prettiness of the picture on the plate is sometimes deemed more important than the titillation of the taste buds.

I suspect the management of Bellamy’s are in the same camp. It was founded in 2004 by Gavin Rankin, former managing director of Annabel’s nightclub. He seems to have brought his team with him, head chef Stéphane Pacoud, and the charming but villainous looking Sicilian general manager, Luigi Burgio. The website tells us it was modelled on the Franco Belgian tradition of the brasserie, though with rather less beer and rather more wine. (The wine list, incidentally, is entirely French). Don’t be confused. This is a very high end brasserie, if indeed that is an appropriate appellation. It is reported (not, I hasten to add, by the discreet management) that this is one of the few public restaurants in London in which Her Majesty the Queen has dined. Before settling down to start this review I clicked on the telly. HMQ was spending her birthday being “entertained” by, inter alia, Shaggy, and the George Formby Appreciation Society, featuring Harry Hill, Frank Skinner and Ed Balls. Bet she wished she was in Bellamy’s.

In fact it is a very good place to be at any time. It’s in a broad mews lane just east of Berkeley Square. The entrance is modest: the interior precisely what you would expect from an upmarket brasserie. Yes, there is crisp napery and sparkling glass, but none of the stuffiness which one might associate with a place which has hosted royalty. We were looked after by Paulina from Poland, one of these mini forces of nature who radiate cheerfulness. Enter Bellamy’s feeling low, and Paulina will soon raise your spirits.

Mr Ronay would have approved of the food. A fairly simple menu was stuffed full of good things, many of them classics. We are told that those in red ink are never off the menu. If I tell you that the redliners include whitebait, iced lobster soufflé, steak tartare, and Dover sole, you get the picture. Sometimes it’s harder to impress with simple things done well, but a crab salad and avocado with prawns to start proceedings showed how it can be done. Haddock en papillote turned out to be smoked haddock, giving extra flavour to a wonderful baked combination of fish and veg. Too much farmed salmon of rather iffy quality has slightly put me off that noble fish. I expected something better here and got it. A fillet with sorrel sauce was sublime, simply served with some plain potatoes and three little lozenges of peeled, turned cucumber lightly warmed. You seldom see turned veg these days – few train long enough to acquire all the necessary commis chef skills. Gavin’s mother Maria is apparently the source of the recipes for the chocolate cake and the Tunisian orange and almond cake. The latter was a triumph, soaked in spicy orangey goodness.

I wasn’t always a fan of the late A A Gill, but I find it impossible to dissent from his opinion when he wrote, you could eat here once a week for the rest of your life.

 

PS.  I sent a preview to Gavin Rankin. It transpires I am due his mum a serious apology. She not only provides the cake recipes, but she makes the cakes herself. And demands prompt payment. What a lady.

April 2018

 

For more information on Books for Cooks, see their website at http://www.booksforcooks.com

 

 

The Bill

Table d’Hote

2 courses £25

3 courses £29.50

A la carte

Starters

£9 – £250

Mains

£18.50 – £36

Desserts

£8.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

Noble Rot Wine Bar & Restaurant
51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
0207 242 8963 www.noblerot.co.uk

 Noble Rot  Noble Rot grapes

 

Why name your restaurant after something mouldy? Well, as wine geeks will know, Botrytis cinerea is responsible for some of the world’s most expensive dessert wines. It’s a type of fungus (see above right) which, in good years, affects certain varieties of grape late in the growing cycle. It has the effect of shrivelling the grapes, thus concentrating the natural sugars. If you are fortunate enough to have tasted Chateau d’Yquem (and believe me you should experience it once), you will have encountered its benefits. The French christened it la pourriture noble, which we translate as noble rot.

Having a weakness for imparting pieces of information of doubtful usefulness, I was delighted to share this arcane intelligence with our lunch chum, the Sometime Brewing Giant. We meet on most of our jaunts to the capital. His large network of agents (the SBG Irregulars?) keep him informed of interesting places to dine. They haven’t let us down yet.

Wine bars. What goes around…  I remember them fondly from their first incarnation in the early 1980s. At their best, they were very good indeed, but none so fine as this place. There has been a wine bar on this site for a very long time. The owners, Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling, founded NR a couple of years ago. Andrew was in the wine trade – seems obvious: Keeling, on the other hand was MD of Island Records – less so. On the food side there was a happy friendship with Stephen Harris, owner of The Sportsman in Kent, winner of a Restaurant of the Year award for the last couple of years. Harris (who is entirely self taught, and who has a weekly column in the Saturday Telegraph) has come on board as a consultant. Head chef Paul Weaver himself is an alumnus (as chefs would say) of The Sportsman.

The wine list extends to 22 pages. Most of the prices are remarkable by London standards – for their value for money. But we were here for the food (well, that’s all this column writes about anyway). On the hottest April day for years we were welcomed into the cool interior through a series of narrow, dark, wood panelled rooms. I wouldn’t have been surprised had a Hobbit popped out and asked what we were doing in his house.

The website describes the menu as franglaise. I find it difficult to provide an adequate summary. The dishes all seem as though they are incredibly simple. When you start to consider them in more detail you realise they are anything but. Think of any activity which you have seen carried out by a master craftsman and then tried to emulate. It takes a great deal of skill to make something look this effortless.

Two beef starter dishes kicked things off in very fine style. From the set menu, salt beef, chicory and mustard salad: from the carte, raw Hereford beef and pickled walnuts. Both wonderful: neither one complex, but I wouldn’t have a clue how to recreate either. I could manage smoked eel, Jersey Royals and horseradish. Indeed, I would have added a grain or two of salt to the spuds – but would I have had the vision to conjure up such a perfect seasonal combination?

I am guessing chef has some Alsatian connections beyond a pet. I have never seen Alsace bacon listed as a feature before. It accompanied baked cod and watercress sauce. And Alsace too was the provenance of the vin jaune, which formed the base of the velouté which napped the chicken and morels. This dish actually caused a slight problem. Coming from a Fife mining town, I pondered long and hard on whether or not  I was allowed to eat Black Leg Chicken. 34 years after the strike, I reckoned I could get away with it. The kitchen here is as seasonal as the Tom Cooks! column. The set menu featured grilled sea trout with wild garlic and capers. Expecting a huge bill after all the wine consumed, bad jokes were going round my head about a King’s Ramson*, but it may have been drink related.

Desserts might have included, inter alia, fresh strawberry ice cream, spring Darjeeling panna cotta with gariguette strawberries or custard tart and rhubarb. And no, that last entry doesn’t have the words transposed. When something is as elusively indefinable and as good as this, there is only one thing to do. Book your table. Now.

(*This is a pathetic attempt at humour. If you don’t get it, you could read this week’s Tom Cooks! at https://bit.ly/1qegiGj, where all will be revealed,  but I wouldn’t bother. Sorry about that. And the bill was anything but.)

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

(no choice)

2 courses £16

3 courses £20

A la Carte

Starters

£8 – £17

Mains

£18 – £28

Desserts

£8 – £9

 

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

 

Cuco Bistro

Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco, 6/4,

Pelhourinho, Salvador, Brazil

www.cucobistro.com.br

Guest Reviewer: Fiona Garwood

 

Cuco1 Cuco interior Cuco2

 

About the reviewer

Fiona Garwood is a neighbour, friend, bon viveur and gourmet. She is a major supporter of the Jo Cox Foundation, and co-organised one of its most successful street parties in 2017. This year she set off on a world cruise which had to be cut short  when Richard, her husband, was taken ill. Despite this set back she still managed to contribute a guest review.

A Cunard cruise of a life time around South America, curtailed by a pulmonary embolism, DVT, hospital admission and medical repatriation to the UK, doesn’t sound a likely recipe for an interesting gastronomic experience; but here goes. We found ourselves in Salvador, 1600 kilometres north east of Rio de Janeiro. Richard was on the mend and we were in search of a good dinner.

This restaurant was recommended by one of the delightful English speaking receptionists in the nearby hotel, where we had our post hospital recuperation. We were literally in the midst of South America’s largest and noisiest carnaval, their extended musical version of our Shrove Tuesday. We had to weave our way past performers, floats and their followers to reach the restaurant, which also has a well used cafe.

It’s a small restaurant with some eight tables, all of which were filled, emptied and refilled during our evening there, with locals and tourists. An entire wall was given over to the wine display, though the white wines were kept chilled in fridges below. The English speaking son of the owner, a student by day, attended to us very promptly and efficiently, along with an English menu. Many menu translations can seem somewhat alarming, and this was no exception, featuring such delights as Cowgirl of the Cuckoo, Caprese Salad Pudding and Special Mucus Mucus. I am pleased to report that the food tasted much better than it sounded in English.

We had been recommended to try moqueca (that’s mucus mucus to you), the famous fish stew, from this Bahia region of Brazil. But before that, the starters. We shared the Cuco salad and the Caprese salad, the latter featuring a cashew nut pesto. Both were fresh, colourful and tasty.

As the restaurant was busy and the Moqueca for two, which we’d chosen, is freshly cooked and served, we had a bit of a wait for the main course. But it was well worth it when the still bubbling dish was brought to our table. This exquisite fish stew belies its rather ordinary description. The local seafood, spices, lemon juice, and vegetables mixed with coconut milk provided a wonderfully balanced taste and a quite substantial texture. We cleared the dish.

If we hadn’t chosen the signature dish, there were other delights. Shrimps are another specialty of the region. Shrimp bobo, for example, sees the seafood stewed with cream of cassava, coriander, onion, garlic and coconut milk. For meat eaters there is, as you would expect in Brazil, a range of steaks of different cuts and sizes.

So what about the desserts? Any room to fit in one? Yes of course!  A chocolate brownie with home made ice cream and two spoons closed the proceedings. (Folia, in case you’re wondering, is Portuguese for merry making.) All guest reviewers struggle with Tom’s idiosyncratic scoring system, but for us this was expert cooking with top class ingredients and zingy flavours. We enjoyed very good service and found the whole thing to be excellent value for money.

 

February 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

(Based on a conversion rate of  4.5 to the £)

Starters

£4 – £9.50

Mains

£11 – £17.50

Desserts

£3.50 – £5

 

 

 

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 22/25

 

 

 

Citation Taverne & Restaurant

40 Wilson Street, Merchant City, Glasgow G1 1HD

0141 559 6799  http://www.citation-glasgow.com

Citation

 

Don’t you just love Glasgow? I can never get over the fact that although it’s only 50 miles to the west of my home in the capital, it might be a different country. And anyone who says that the Scots can’t do restaurant service properly has never eaten here. Thankfully, poor service is a rarity these days, but I have never had anything other than great experiences in the town. I’m not through as often as I would like these days, but I always look forward to our annual anniversary meal with J and C, the in-laws who are based in Bearsden. They treat us in Glasgow for the celebrations of our nuptials, and six months or so later we reciprocate through here.

It’s a great chance to try new places, These lunches are long and seldom wise, but they are always fun. Thus it was that we found ourselves stravaiging through the Merchant City heading for what many will remember as the old Sheriff Court, hence the name Citation. Quite where the Taverne comes from has not been disclosed. It takes up a hefty chunk of space on two levels. It’s bright, bustling and by 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon it was hotching. Enquiring of the history of the establishment, I asked how long have you been here?  and fully deserved the answer, since about quarter past eleven. As J said, you’re in Glasgow.

With staff like this and a fixed price menu which on the face of it looks great value you can see why the place is busy. The observant among you will have noticed the wee phrase on the face of it. Let’s start with the house wine which is included. The red isn’t actually too bad at all, reminiscent of what you would expect in a cheap French café. The white on the other hand made one think that a little drop of instant wine essence had been plopped into some cold water. Fortunately, C, our host, ordered some pinot noir. Romanian, as it turned out. Very drinkable and incredible value. Who knew such things came from Transylvania?

To the food. Where there isn’t a reviewer in the household, sharing is not a thing that comes naturally. Both the crayfish cocktail and the parfait of chicken livers were consumed without comment, positive or otherwise, but I had no personal experience of either. Creamed goat’s cheese was advertised as coming with hazelnut, beetroot, radish and broad beans. It was cheese smothered with some sort of sweet jam, a few peas and radishes alongside. I am fond of a fishcake; however, call me old fashioned, but I do prefer some fish in beside the potato. The promised smoked salmon content was nigh on impossible to detect.

Fish and chips can be an excellent bellwether for a restaurant. The chips were soggy and the fish tasteless. I went for the sirloin steak (a perfectly reasonable £10 supplement). It came with the same quality of chips. Of the sauces, I chose a red wine jus, which was very nice, as was the mushroom. A whole tomato must have been boiled, which was odd. To eat the steak, one would have needed not only one’s own teeth, but those of a friend, then a spare set to finish the job. I gave up pretty early – and bear in mind this was supposed to be sirloin. In fairness one of the waitresses alerted the manager who wiped it off the bill. With this quality of the service it would have been impossible to get cross. I ate one of the poorer meals I have had in recent times, yet had a perfectly nice afternoon. Which just goes to show that a good lunch doesn’t have to be about the food. (Although it does help.)

Another mark of the tolerance of Glasgow servers: we toddled along the street a little, in the interests of research you understand, into some sort of trendy joint where we were about three times the age of the average customer. Requesting a wine list, we were instead shown the only three bottles they stocked. Everyone else was drinking cocktails from goldfish bowls. (I am being literal.) One of our number fancied trying this. As our middle names are Moderation and Self Restraint, wiser counsels prevailed, and an excellent Rioja was quaffed, once again at moderate cost. We tipped generously, largely to say thank you to the young  for not sneering, offering zimmers or the like. Bless their hearts, they came back to check we hadn’t left too much by mistake. Don’t you just love Glasgow?

 

 

The Bill

 

Fixed Price

Menu

Mon to Fri

12 –7

Sat 12 – 4.45

2 courses £14.95

3 courses £17.95

(drink included)

A la carte

Starters

£4.50 – £13

Mains

£9.50 – £28

Desserts

£5

 

The Score

Cooking 3/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 2.5/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 13/25

 

 

 

The Pompadour by Galvin

Waldorf Astoria Hotel (The Caledonian)

Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB

0131 222 8975

www.thepompadourbygalvin.com

 

Dan Ashmore3

 

It is rare for this column to review the same place twice: it is even rarer for me to return at all to a place which has scored so badly in the past. Two years ago it scored a miserable 14.5/25, the third lowest mark in 2016, a year which had more than its fair share of duds. So why this unaccustomed leniency? Firstly, I heard some good feedback from LTJK, whose opinion I value. Secondly Dan Ashmore (pictured) took over as head chef last year. I made his acquaintance during an eventful day spent in the kitchen of Number One at The Balmoral where with infinite patience he guided me through attempts at bread making and chocolate tempering. The Good Food Guide always reassesses when there is a change in chef. If it’s good enough for them…

The structure of the menu has changed a bit. Lunch is served only on a Sunday, with a choice of three starters, mains and desserts. Dinner is served Wednesday to Sunday. In the evening there is a menu offering five choices per course, at a set £65 for three courses. As always in such places you will find a tasting menu. My problem with these is that there is generally too much food. Seven courses, often with an amuse bouche or two and a pre dessert. They solve that problem here by having not one tasting menu, but two. The Discovery has five courses: The Prestige has seven. We went for the former which had an emphasis on fish. While there were a few additional bits, overall we felt the quantity of food was about right. Neither stuffed, nor looking for a chip shop on the way home.

To emphasise the difference in two years I’ve reprinted the last review below. Apart from the rococo dining room and the stunning views, it’s hard to credit it’s the same establishment. In a restaurant world dominated by very young staff, it was a surprise to encounter some waiting staff who were obviously senior, in every sense of the word. The young ones too were impressive. All in all a real international brigade. Not sure if that applies to Dan himself, all the way from Yorkshire, but he came out to greet us, bearing some amazing nibbles featuring something cheesy on doll’s house size oatcakes. The amuse bouche proper was a ceviche of scallops. Citrus can be a bit harsh on such a delicate thing: these were treated with pomegranate. Genius.

Next, cod, purple broccoli, leeks. How does that make it up to this standard? Well, add a little bagna cauda, a wee drizzle involving garlic and anchovies, and it becomes quite magical. Then another example of fish which was unfashionable 10 years ago, monkfish cheeks, with the unlikely sounding combination of macaroni, smoked marrow and red wine vinaigrette. Wonderful. Do they eat a lot of magic mushrooms in this kitchen?

The one meaty component was smoked venison (the smoke billowing as they remove the cloche). Served with turnip, another unlikely sounding but effective combination and a blob which claimed to be burnt pear, but which I would have sworn was horseradish. For me the star of the savoury show was some wild sea trout with celeriac, seaweed and a sauce made of the cooking juices and seaweed. Wow.

It’s Yorkshire rhubarb season, so we knew what was coming, just not the form. An exquisite plate had a swirl of rhubarb gel, some sticks of the poached stuff, a beautiful looking rhubarb and ginger parfait, a sorbet and a dried rhubarb crisp.  I wish I’d broken my usual vow and taken a photo. But, alas and alack, misfortune struck. They knew about the cream allergy. We knew they knew because they asked on arrival which was the afflicted party. And when this creamy looking thing arrived I asked, once again, if the dish contained the C word. No, we were told authoritatively. Oh, b****y h***, yes, we were told two minutes later as two aghast waiters raced to snatch it from L’s place. And it had all been going so well until then. Now, they grovelled and they comped us a few things and they took the service charge off the bill. (I tipped generously instead as most of the service had been terrific.) But you can’t undo that and you can’t undo the after effects of eating something to which one is allergic. I’ve deducted a mark from the service score.

So close to being historic. It shows how easily one mistake can undo three hours of fabulous food and otherwise great service.

April 2018

Just to show how far they have come under Dan’s stewardship, I reproduce the review from two years ago

 

What a curious meal. I have never ever had a dinner so infuriatingly inconsistent. Awful to sublime in the course of two hours or so, fortunately in that order.

But to begin at the beginning. What is a Pompadour? Who is Galvin? How are they related? Do you care? If so, read on. Madame de Pompadour was the 18th century mistress of Louis XV, King of France. The trained hair stylists among you will know that this was a hair style designed for her, featuring the hair swept upwards from the face and worn high over the forehead, the most notable male wearer being a young Elvis Presley. Now to Galvin. Actually, there are two of them, brothers Jeff and Chris from London, who blew into Edinburgh some years ago with a stellar pedigree, with head chefships under their belts working for the likes of Nico Ladenis, Antony Worrall-Thompson, Marco Pierre White, and Corbyn and King.

In 2005 they set up their first venture, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. Sundry others soon followed. Perhaps their best known is Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton, awarded a Michelin star in 2010. Two years later they were lured to Scotland to revive the tired food offerings available at The Caledonian Hotel on Princes Street, one of the two grandes dames who flank Edinburgh’s principal thoroughfare. (The management may call it a Waldorf Astoria as much as they like and for as long as they like, but to Edinburgh folk it will always be The Caley.)

Fifty years ago The Pompadour was the place to dine in Edinburgh if money was no object. It declined with the fall of the British Railways hotel brand (incredible to think that the name British Railways was once synonymous with luxury). It reflowered briefly and spectacularly in the 1980s then spent some time in hibernation until the arrival of our heroes. L and I went to celebrate a special occasion, wearing best bib and tucker and in the mood to be swept off our feet.

You can’t always get what you want. I generally love amuse bouches, the chef’s chance to show off both flavour and technique and get the palette excited about what is to come. We were presented with two tiny cheese scones/puffs which tasted as though they’d been stored for a while. Next to them were two lukewarm things with the appearance of small flaccid chips. Tomato something, we were told. We were lied to. Flaccid lukewarm chips would have been more welcome. To the main event. L had a terrine of ham hock, chicken and foie gras. Unusually it came as thin shavings rather than a tranche, but tasted fine. I went for a Galvin signature dish, crab lasagne with beurre Nantaise. The latter is a variation on a beurre blanc. The addition of cream makes it more stable. Not so in this case. The sauce had split and was deeply unpleasant. At this point I sought additional bread from one of the seven waiting staff (approximately one for every three tables). I attracted attention at the seventh time of asking. While I admired the symmetry, the bread, alas, arrived too late.

We shared a wonderfully good chateaubriand, crusted on the outside, perfect in the middle. This came with potato millefeuilles, a rather underdone shallot and an allegedly confit garlic clove which tasted almost raw. Had we passed on pudding as we generally do, this review would have been damning. It is much lifted, as were our spirits, by two of the finest desserts I have ever eaten. Ever. Anywhere. L’s cheesecake of Yorkshire rhubarb with rhubarb and ginger beer sorbet was sublime, but was transcended by my chocolate pavé. I forget the exact detail but it was rich and gooey and wonderful and had something crunchy and chocolate on the base and….but you get the picture.

Get out while you’re ahead, Johnston. But no. We chatted with the amiable maitre d’ for a little and decided to finish the celebration with a wee digéstif. Our new chum said he would send a man with a trolley. Said man duly arrived some time later, just as the last dregs of a very hot coffee had been drained. Not good anywhere, but completely unacceptable in a place which describes itself as “Edinburgh’s finest best French restaurant in Scotland…”

In the interests of my dear reader I have agonised on how to score this food. As we had to do at school I will show working. Out of 10: amuse bouche 2; starters 4.5; mains 7 and desserts 10. That averages 5.875. As it’s Saturday, I’ll round it up.

The sad thing is that this place could be very good indeed. There is clearly talent in the kitchen, but laziness at the top allowing substandard dishes to leave. The staff whom we encountered were lovely, but clearly not sufficiently well trained, nor adequately supervised. Given the competition from other places with a much better claim to be Edinburgh’s finest best restaurant, Messrs Galvin have some work to do.

April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

(Sunday Only)

3 courses £29.50

Dinner

3 courses £65

Discovery

Tasting Menu

(5 courses)

£55

Prestige

Tasting Menu

(7 courses)

£75

 

The Score

Cooking 8.5/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 21.5/25

 

 

 

Dine

Saltire Court, 10 (1F) Cambridge Street,

Edinburgh EH1 2ED

0131 218 1818

http://www.dineedinburgh.co.uk

Dine

 

Two and a quarter years have passed since Dine opened its elegant door, and more or less the same time has passed since I first ate there. Why the delay in the review? Read on. Stuart Muir presided over the restaurant at the Forth Floor (no, that’s not a typo) at Harvey Nicks in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square. With the sun either shining or setting over New Town chimneys, and the hills of Fife gleaming in the distance, that’s a view to take a bit of beating; however, I have to say it was often eclipsed by the quality and value of the food which streamed from the kitchen during our regular visits.

I was therefore excited about the prospect of Stuart let loose to do his own thing. Although the address of Dine is given as Saltire Court, it is perched on top of the Traverse Theatre. You enter from Cambridge Street, the main door tucked just around the corner from the Usher Hall.

I went just before Christmas 2016 and ate a seasonably excellent lunch, the most memorable part of which was a stunning partridge. You can’t, of course, base a review on a single meal. I returned a little later with L, having hyped the evening up to high expectation levels. And then there was one of those things which can happen to any restaurant – the kitchen had a completely off night. Had I not been a fan of Stuart Muir’s food for years there would have been a sad and forgotten, indifferent little review and that would have been that. So I decided to erase that aberration from the memory banks and to return one fine day. That day came following an invitation from the (now retired) Captain of Industry to break bread.

The decor is elegant and relaxed, a lot of traditional furnishings blending well in a modern space with an apple tree apparently growing in the centre. There is a cocktail lounge, which offers The Martini Experience should you wish to learn to make your own. There are so many drinking and dining permutations available at different times that I do recommend that you check out the details for yourself. Anyway, first impressions suggest that the place lives up to its website’s boast that it epitomises relaxed luxury.

At lunch on Mondays to Fridays there is the choice of a set lunch or a la carte. The a la carte isn’t available in the daytime on Saturdays and Sundays as there are various Dine with Wine and Dine with Fizz options. It’s complicated, but, believe me, it’s worth your while. We lunched on a Thursday. The market menu, as they call the set lunch, looked very attractive. Nothing we wouldn’t happily have scoffed – mains included ox cheeks, sea bream and breast of chicken; however, in the interests of research we turned our attention to the carte.

Ricotta ravioli with avocado and garlic cream and a tomato and sweetcorn salsa was the only slightly weak link. It’s easy to under season pasta and I did have to call for a salt cellar. A plus mark to the service. It was brought without demur or condescension, which is not always the case when the cuisine is at this level. Salmon tartare, on the other hand, was a triumph. Lovely sweet, unfatty fish, with salmon eggs, chopped capers and a tartare sauce with more capers. It also came with a salutary lesson – read the menu carefully. The presence of wasabi was clearly signposted; however, a blob of the green stuff, mistaken for some sort of veg purée, caused a temporary lull in proceedings during which RCI managed to start breathing again. Mains were equally wonderful. “Jumbo” quail came in ballontine form. No idea what else was involved, but darn fine. The plate was elevated by the slow cooked veg. Centre stage was chicory, which I mistook for fennel. Even slower cooked must have been the shallots in the tart. I had expected a tart tatin sort of thing. In fact, the pastry must have been cooked on top of the tart, then upended with the shallots served on its base. The decorative work on the pastry shell was lovely – and that for something served upside down which most diners will never see. It’s a bit like the stone work on inaccessible parts of medieval cathedrals. Created to be perfect, because God could see it. Now I make no connection between the Almighty and the saddle of rabbit, but I’m sure adjectives could be found to suit both – celestial, or some such. (On second thoughts, that may well get me an entry in Pseuds’ Corner.) In addition to pancetta wrapped fillets there was a schnitzel made, I think, of the belly. Mr Muir doesn’t indulge in the stupidity of smears and foams. If he and his team have laboured to produce something, they want you to appreciate it. I could happily have tasted more of the black garlic purée. Strong enough to let you know what it was: subtle enough to be a perfect accompaniment.

This isn’t food which screams see how clever I am, but it really is worth your while taking time to savour the component parts, seasonal, well selected and complementary. At Dine you will enjoy serious food at very competitive prices. And the emphasis will be on enjoyment.

*    Prices and availability of set lunch, pre-theatre and early evening menus vary during the week. Check the website for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

 Set Lunch/

Pre Theatre*

 2 courses £14.50

3 courses £19.50

Early Evening*

 2 courses £16.50

3 courses £21.50

A la carte

 Starters £7 – £14

Mains

 £15.00 – £25.50

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

 

 

The Score

 Cooking 8/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 22/25

 

 

 

 

 Forgan’s

110 Market Street, St Andrews KY16 9PB

01334 466973

http://www.forgans.co.uk/st-andrews

forgans04

 

The seasons move differently in St Andrews, especially if you are involved in the hospitality industry, as we seem to call it these days. Thus, for many hostelry owners in the town, Christmas and New Year are the quiet season, all the students dispersed to the four corners. I have spent many a happy weekend in this most charming of Fife towns, and there is no doubt it has a different vibe during student vacations. I exclude from that the summer time, when once again it bursts to capacity with tourists and those attending the multitude of conferences and seminars from which the university derives a healthy income. But prices soar and I avoid it.

Forgan’s opened five years ago. It is next door to, and a sister establishment of, Mitchells Deli. The latter was once a butcher’s shop. Both were acquired by Stefan King’s G1 Group, and very attractively designed by Jim Hamilton of Graven Images, who was also responsible for Glasgow’s Corinthian and Edinburgh’s Tigerlily. I ate there once or twice in its early years, loved the décor, and remembered the food as being quite decent. Just prior to our dinner we had visited the Grumpy Old Surgeon who lives down the coast and told him of our forthcoming appointment. His response was less than encouraging.

Undaunted we wandered up the deserted streets, along Market Street and up the wynd which leads to Forgan’s. I had popped in at lunchtime to book and was cheerfully and efficiently accommodated by a genial manager. Sadly he and anyone else of managerial level were off duty that evening, and the couple of cool hipster boys front of house hadn’t yet completed the Smile At The Customer module from the staff training handbook. Despite the vacation and the fact that it was Monday, the place was nearly half full. Along one wall there are booths which can each hold about a dozen folk, ideal for small private parties. One of them was full of people in waistcoats, having a jolly time and making speeches. You don’t get that in too many other parts of the world.

We were soon settled at our table with some bread, oil and vinegar. I have no problem with a charge for bread, and have occasionally ranted at fellow diners who object to that, but £3.95 is a bit on the steep side. Olives, should you wish them, would set you back the same again.

We were then turned over to the care of two young ladies, both of whom had scored top marks in the SATC module. A smile is good, but there is, sadly, rather more to customer service than that. I had had a quick glance at the wine list, fancied something around the forty quid mark (we were on holiday) and simply ordered a bottle of the Malbec. It was brought, opened and poured by one of the Unsmilers, without any chance of inspection. It was pretty thin, inferior stuff, worth a max of £21.95 even allowing for usual restaurant mark ups. When the bill ultimately arrived we saw that we had been charged £21.95. There were two Malbecs on the list. I hadn’t noticed, and no one had thought to ask the obvious supplementary question. Looking round, I began to have serious doubts that this place had previously been a butcher’s. It just didn’t look right. I asked Smiler Number 2 about the history. It’s my first day, came the reply. And that was that. No problems that she didn’t know the answer, but how hard is it to ask someone else? (The answer, by the way, was Forgan’s Golf Factory.)

I suppose you want to know about the food. The 3 cheese puff roulade was fine, two small crispy disks of puff pastry with a slightly spicy relish. They were canapé size, but you can’t expect a feast for £5.95, I suppose. A quinoa, pomegranate, roasted squash and spinach salad had some flavour – but only after it had been liberally doused with salt, pepper and some of the oil and balsamic which had come with the bread. (Incidentally, they try to nick the bread back off you if you haven’t finished it by the time you’ve finished your starter.) Venison stovies comprised mince, presumably venison, though it was hard to tell from the colour or flavour, cubes of potato and some crispy veg on top. The menu says they were leeks and I’ll take their word for it. Oh, and salt, lots and lots of salt.

It’s very hard to resist a menu entry of pan seared duck, sauté potatoes, buttered kale with crispy pancetta, onion and red wine jus. It gets all the juices going, with the promise of the skin crisped in the pan, then roasted in the oven to leave melting pink flesh. Extra crunch to come from the spuds and a rich warming jus. Alas, alas. The skin was flabby and the last traces of pink  disappeared just as the plate hit the table. Any crunch which the potatoes might once have had (very little, I suspect) couldn’t compete with being smothered by a thin gravy featuring a good two rashers’ worth of bacon. The kale was nice and the component parts were tasty enough.

It may have been Monday night, but we weren’t being charged any less. On that day you can bring your own wine and pay only £5 corkage. I wish we had. We left in search of a drink, partly to alleviate the effects of too much salt, and partly to be in licensed premises where you felt that someone gave a damn.

March 2018

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£4.95 – £9.95

Mains

£10.95 – £31.95

Puddings

£5.45 – £6.45

 

The Score

Cooking 4/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 12/25

 

 

 

The Outsider

15 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EE

0131 226 3131

http://www.theoutsiderrestaurant .com

outsider

 

It’s rare these days to speak to someone in advance of a restaurant meal. And in the past the process of booking by phone could often be a frustrating experience. Overall, I like the cold efficiency of online reservations, even though some make it impossible to book for any time other than on the half hour. You can’t do this for The Outsider, so I reached for the old dog and bone. (For the benefit of younger readers, we still have something called a land line. Look it up in the history books.) After phoning up to reserve a Friday lunchtime tryst with L I felt decidedly cheery, as though I’d just had a chat with a good pal. First impressions and all that.

Actually, were I ever sufficiently deranged to open a restaurant, I think I would like it to be like this. Well located, quite hip (no I don’t need you to tell me it is not in my image, thank you), bustling and fun. And, it goes without saying, featuring excellent food, great service, and a fish head on the floor. We’ll come to the latter in a minute.

The Outsider is on the west side of George IV, just down from the Carnegie Library. The building is mid Victorian (architect R Thornton Shiells since you ask). It was once home to Bauermeister’s Booksellers, and has some interesting architectural features. It has been converted into a good size split level eatery. Fairly early on a Friday lunchtime service the place was busy, and really started to buzz over the next hour. On arrival I got a big grin from the pourer of two glasses of champagne, then was swept to my table by the lovely Laura, from Madrid. She speaks better English than most locals.

I loved the menu. A huge choice. The lunch section, available from 12 – 5, has nine dishes and there are always another three specials, changing daily. In addition to the a la carte there is a section of CHL splits, chunky healthy lines (their phrase, not mine) of skewers served with pitta bread and apple, beetroot and raisin coleslaw.

Squash soup can be pretty dreary stuff, but if you roast the squash and add chilli and lemon grass you get a pretty spectacular result. Can they omit the advertised cream from the mussels? No problem. I’m not sure that the broth of bacon, pine nuts and parmesan would have been improved by it anyway. This huge bowlful was from the lunch menu and left change from eight pounds. And it came with a giant portion of skinny chips. Zounds! You are not going to leave here hungry.

While we weren’t in any way unhappy about the speed of the service, don’t come in here expecting an express turnaround. While waiting, we attacked a couple of fist sized hunks of bread, a treacly brown, and a good white, served with quality butter. Terrific. A portion of whitebait was twice the size of the norm. Being picky, I would have preferred them a little crispier. Then to the fish head. When it arrived at the table it was still attached to a baked bream. It was entirely due to my own clumsiness that it ended up on the floor. Fortunately the remaining parts stayed on the plate, stuffed with preserved lemon, fennel and courgette. This was the best piece of fish I have eaten in a long time, firm but sufficiently juicy to make the accompanying lime yoghurt unnecessary. There was a side of bombay potatoes (mustard seed and garam masala, I think) for which there was barely space, either on the plate or in my stomach.

As for pudding, not a chance, but a wee glass of a very keenly priced dessert wine nobly stepped into the breach. There is a generosity and warmth about this place which permeates the cooking, the pricing and the service. You will note that the most expensive item on the menu costs £22.60. That is for a WHOLE lobster, with fries and a salad. That’s less than half of what you would be charged in the near neighbourhood. When we left, sometime after 2, the place was hotching, and deservedly so. I’d eaten here before and enjoyed it, but it’s upped its game significantly in my absence. Highly recommended.

March 2018

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

£4.40 – £7.80

A la carte

Small Plates

£5.20 – £6.40

Mains

£13.60 – £22.60

Puddings

£3.90 – £5.80

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

Howies Waterloo

29 Waterloo Place, Edinburgh EH1 3BQ

0131 556 5766  http://www.howies.uk.com

 Howies Waterloo Place

 

Regular readers of this column will recall the Emeritus WS, well read, generous, and infuriating in equal measures. You may also have noticed the infrequency of his mention over the past year or two. This was due to illness. Sadly, in November he popped up to the great dining room in the sky. He was a leap year baby. Last month his sister J had the inspired idea of inviting some chums and fellow trencherfolk to convene to mark the occasion.

We braved the snow and blizzards to congregate in the Calton Convening Rooms, as this elegant space was once known. I’m not sure if David Howie Scott and his team are aware that they should be celebrating the bicentenary of their building. Far too many people walk east along Edinburgh’s Princes Street without fully appreciating what they are seeing. By the early part of the 19th century, the development of the New Town (as Edinburghers still call it 250 years on) was in full swing. The country was returning to prosperity following the Napoleonic Wars, and national pride was swollen after the defeat of Bony. Waterloo Place was built to form an eastern approach to Edinburgh and to do it in style. The etching above shows the grand colonnaded buildings (which are still there) marking its approach. The building on the right hand side with the porch was the old Theatre Royal on Shakespeare Square, demolished to make room for the GPO building. The city fathers ensured that the front  line of the latter was well back to preserve the vista of the two facades. A lesser known fact is that a chunk of the Old Calton Cemetery had to be moved to make way for this triumphal street, the graves being moved to the New Calton Cemetery a little further along Regent Road. When next in town, pause at the base of the Wellington statue in front of Register House, and admire the 180 degree views.

And if peckish stroll a couple of hundred yards along Waterloo Place, where you will find Howies on your left. I hadn’t eaten in a Howies for ages, but I had the impression they’d been in the town for ever. Almost right. The first restaurant was established in 1990. There are two in the capital (here and Victoria Street), a sister establishment, Scott’s Kitchen, in Victoria Terrace and one in Aberdeen. It’s not being disrespectful to say that the menu is what you would expect from a place established in the 1990s. At lunch and dinner the menu is more or less the same, the only change being based on the expectation  that more people will opt for steak at night. Lunchtime prices are a steal. The set menu offers 2 courses for £11.95, and, going a la carte, you won’t pay that much more. Soup of the day was leek and potato, which delivered what it said on the menu. J’s other half was happy with his Cullen Skink. Calamari were correctly fried, but the vinegar ratio in the dipping sauce had gone a little awry. A cold parsnip purée was an unexpected and welcome companion to seared pigeon breast and black pudding. On to mains. We had a couple of unexpected takers for the Super Salad – quinoa, carrot, beetroot, you know the sort of thing. It actually scored quite well. Party organiser J is unfamiliar with the unpleasant sharing habits of the average reviewer, so I didn’t get to taste the gnocchi. The puy lentil “cassoulet” which came with the chicken breast was lovely, and went very well with the creamed cabbage alongside, making up for the fact that you definitely needed your own teeth for the chicken. The casserole of the day was a generous helping of beef stew. Sadly it was dreary and half of it was left.

Despite the gathering storm, only one of the crew, the Balkan Doctor, went for a sugar hit, never having seen a combination such as chocolate and beetroot torte. This time I manged to snaffle a taste. It was VERY, VERY good.

How to assess this place? For an informal lunch, where you’re more concerned about the company and the craic than the food it’s fine. Were I paying evening prices I would probably judge it a little more harshly. But I wasn’t, so I won’t. Head up Calton Hill for the finest panorama in Edinburgh. Enjoy a range of monuments, to Dugald Stewart the philosopher, and to John Playfair (astronomer, uncle to William) and of course the Observatory itself, currently being redeveloped. Marvel close up at the scale and folly of Playfair’s homage to the Parthenon, “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”, watch the ball ascend the Nelson Monument about quarter to one, to fall as the one o’clock gun fires from the castle. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that all the ships in the River Forth have been able to set their chronometers. You will have absorbed a shed load of history. You will have enjoyed great views. All of that should give you an appetite to stroll down the hill to Howies for a bite.

March 2018

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £11.95

3 courses £14.95

 

A la carte

Lunch

Starters

£3.95 – £5.95

Mains

£8.25 – £16.95

Desserts

£3.25 – £4.95

Dinner

Starters

£5.75 – £6.95

Mains

£12.95 – £27.95

Desserts

£3.95 – £5.95

 

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value

Lunch 4.5/5

Dinner 3.5/5

Average 4/5

TOTAL 16.5/25

 

 

Dishoom

3A St Andrew Square, Edinburgh EH2 2BD

0131 202 6406

http://www.dishoom.com/edinburgh/

 Dishoom

 

This is the first Scottish outpost of a small chain of Indian outlets. I use the word outlet to be deliberately vague. The founders say that these are based on cafes founded in Bombay (now Mumbai) by Iranian immigrants a century or so back. These would cater for all, rich businessmen, sweaty taxi-wallahs and courting couples. The blurb continues, students had breakfast, families dined, lawyers read their briefs and writers found their characters.

The format of the London versions has been continued here, in a space which was once the warehouse for R W Forsyth’s department store. There are photographs and there are advertisements. There is old wood and distressed mirrors. There are quirky signs. It is either nicely eccentric to our modern eyes or, to a more critical observer like Jay Rayner, looks as though it was bought by the yard. I am in the former camp. The first impressions on my visit, with L, P, the island dominie, and J, an architectural superstar, were good, aided in no small measure by the crowds of cheerful, helpful and highly efficient staff.

It is important to remember that this is based on a café culture, rather than a restaurant. Don’t go looking for your chicken tikka masala or lamb rogan josh. The vast majority of the food is cooked on the huge charcoal grills which greet you at ground floor level. Dishoom opens at 0800 during the week and 0900 at weekends. Breakfast is served until 1145 every day – I gather the bacon naan rolls are acquiring legendary status. After breakfast, the all day menu takes over. In best Indian tradition the style is of a selection of dishes for sharing. In best make-life-easy-for-chefs-at-the-pass tradition, these come to the table as and when they’re cooked. We ordered four from the Small Plates section, three from the Grills, a biryani and a couple of sides, and were well pleased with the quantity. And also, by and large, with the quality. Away from the Dishooms of this world and its imitators, the other trend in Indian restaurants is for very high end, Michelin standard food: this place is at the other end of the spectrum and must be judged accordingly.

That doesn’t excuse the samosas, probably the poorest of the fare we were offered, thick and chewy as opposed to thin and crisp. Crunchy fried calamari, on the other hand, really got the tastebuds going. The Dishoom drizzle which accompanied the perfectly fried squid had both heat and citrus. Prawn Koliwada were also crispy, served with date and tamarind chutney, the latter by far the best of the three chutneys on offer. A problem with any marinade, no matter how carefully prepared, is that it comes a very poor second to the intense heat of a charcoal grill. One or two of the dishes therefore tasted a little same-y, but nonetheless taste-y. More prawns came along under the simple title of Masala Prawns. This was a generous helping of good sized crustacea, marinated and grilled, and of sufficiently good quality to taste of prawn. (Don’t laugh. That ain’t necessarily so, and the large frozen examples we often get can have the consistency and flavour of squash balls.) Lamb Boti Kebab was a plate of chunks of lamb of varying degree of tenderness. These had been marinated with chilli, garlic and ginger, which can never be a bad thing. We are told that this is a top-notch Bademiya style classic. I have now learned that Bademiya is an iconic food stall and restaurant chain in Mumbai. The research I do for you, dear reader – a little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.

Where were we? I had high hopes of the lamb biryani, in its individual pot, whose lid had been properly sealed during the cooking. Sadly, it had been opened before it reached the table. One of the great delights of a biryani is the astonishing aroma when the seal is broken. The contents were fine, but an opportunity missed. A previous visitor had told the dominie under no circumstances to miss the Gunpowder Potatoes or the House Black Daal. The former is not a testament to India’s armed struggles over the years, gunpowder being a spice powder containing, amongst other things, ground lentils, chillies and asafoetida. The daal was just a delight. It did contain cream, which was a surprise, but fortunately it comes in a large and generous helping to avoid fisticuffs among those sharing it.

Each branch of Dishoom has its own special dish, and its unique historical link. The Edinburgh special is Sali Boti, a braised lamb dish, one of the very few served in a sauce. I’ll try it next time. The historical link is to Patrick Geddes, one of Edinburgh’s lesser known heroes. Amongst other things he was an early town planner and conservationist. Without him large swathes of Edinburgh’s Old Town would almost certainly have been demolished. In 1915 he accepted an invitation to travel to India, where he wrote a series of exhaustive reports on at least 18 Indian cities. He held the chair of Sociology and Civics at Bombay University from 1919 to 1925 before turning his attention to Palestine, now modern day Israel. The core of Tel Aviv was set out entirely in accordance with a Geddes plan. I knew of Geddes, but nothing of his eastern connections. Education thrown in for free along with the food.

When modern day doom sayers – you know, the ones who say that Edinburgh is sinking because its tourist industry is so successful – bemoan developments in St Andrew Square, their ultimate dirty word is chain. Yes, Dishoom is part of a chain – but so are all the Montpelier outfits, and they haven’t stopped the earth revolving. Taken on its own terms, for me it hits the mark and then some. Is it haute cuisine? No, nor does it pretend to be. But does it provide good food, in interesting surroundings with great staff? Absolutely. Do give it a go.

February 2018

 

 

The Bill

 

Small Plates

£2.50 – £6.20

Grills,

Biryanis and

Specials

£6.50 – £16.50

Desserts

£3.50 – £6.90

 

The Score

Cooking 5.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

 

 

Castle Terrace Restaurant

33 – 35 Castle Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2EL

0131 229 1222

 www.castleterracerestaurant.com

 

Castle Terrace

 

A problem which has been faced in Scotland by chefs providing so called fine dining has been to attract diners who are not out to celebrate a special occasion. Many have quietly closed their doors and retreated, often south of the border. (Think Gordon Ramsay at Amaryllis or Michael Caines at Abode.) This issue doesn’t seem to have affected Dominic Jack, whose stylish dining room in the lea of Edinburgh Castle fairly bustled on a Wednesday afternoon in February. It’s reassuring to see what just seems to be an out and out success story, and deservedly so.

Astonishingly, some eight years have passed since Mr Jack and Tom Kitchin set up Castle Terrace. They worked together with Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, then reunited at The Kitchin in Leith. From nature to plate is the mantra. While this sounds suspiciously like a marketing manager’s phrase, the boast (a proud one in today’s rather precious kitchens) is that meaningless gimmicks such as foams and smears have no place on the diner’s plate.

But how do you keep up your standards of a lunchtime for those too frugal or just too mean to pay out seventy quid for a three course a la carte or eighty for a surprise tasting menu? L and I pitched up along with The Former Media Mogul and His Gorgeous Wife to find out. The first things to strike you are the cool clean lines of the dining space, refitted just over a year ago. Mrs Kitchin was apparently part of the design team. Very good it looks too, dominated by a Nichol Wheatley mural, a line drawing of Edinburgh Castle. The smooth and smiling transition to the table is guaranteed to start proceedings well, as is the treatment of The Awkward Customer, aka L with her cream intolerance. Not only is this not perceived as a problem, TAC is given her own special menu. (Vegetarians going a la carte are accorded the same treatment.)

The table d’hote lunch is £33 for three courses. I say three courses, but that would be to overlook the selection of amuse-bouche. I recall a liquid filled blob billed as a “Caesar Salad”, something else that looked like a fried egg but wasn’t and a tiny, crunchy fried ravioli. These, technically, were the pre-amuse-bouche, as they were followed by a savoury panna cotta, which somehow contained smoked haddock and mango, while looking like a thumbnail sized boiled egg. Virtuoso stuff.

Each plate looked stunning, but with no extraneous detail. Pressed shin of Wagyu beef was a terrine in a thin blanket of wasabi mayonnaise, served on some lightly pickled vegetables. A tartare of venison was enlivened with mustard and topped with something crunchy. Hake came on a bed of crushed pink fir apple potatoes and other good things. A dish of “Ayrshire pork with bacon and onion” was a deceptively simple sell. Pork is rarely this well treated – and rarely yields such good flavour. Gressingham duck leg brought out the whimsy from the kitchen again. Braised meat was wrapped in glazed duck skin, and served with the leg bone aloft, looking for all the world like a toffee apple. This came with longest-cooked braised red onion ever.

Come dessert, we were nothing if not seasonal, and all chose the rhubarb option, featuring the first of the Yorkshire crop. The fruit was perfectly judged, a small pie being the perfect balance of sweet and sour, counterpointed by a slightly sweet sorbet and dotted on the side with tiny, tart sour dots of gel.

There is a lot of service. Anyone who thinks that places of this standard are expensive should count the number of mouths they have to feed – and remember that for every one you can see there will be at least another behind the scenes. And these were staff for whom nothing was a problem, who were happy to provide the basic information and answer any questions without clucking around like intrusive mother hens. That’s not an easy balance to get right.

I loved every part of this lunch, and will go back in a flash. Perhaps my marking is on the generous side, based as it is on the set lunch. Yet, with the virtuosity and generosity that were on offer, I wouldn’t bet against a similar score even at the upper price levels.

February 2018

 

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

3 courses £33

A la carte

3 courses £70

Tasting menu

7 courses £80

 

 

The Score

Cooking 8.5/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

Restaurante Pier 19

Calle Joaquin Blanco Torrent, 59

Muelle Deportivo de Las Palmas

35005 Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

Spain

http://www.pier19.es

 

Pier 19

 

It had been a while since I’d been in Spain, and I’d forgotten how good honest, local, Spanish food can be. Choosing a place near a marina is by no means the best of indicators. For starters marinas are a natural magnet for every sort of tourist staying in a place. Secondly, by their very nature, they are arrival and departure points for thousands – hardly the best way to build up a loyal clientele. In truth I have eaten very badly, and very expensively, in such venues, but we did have some local advice, and very fine advice it turned out to be.

We visited a couple of times. One thing which hasn’t changed is the size of portions offered, generous or ridiculous depending on your point of view. Unless you are on expenses or are prepared to waste a lot of food (neither of which applies to us), the reviewer’s job is a hard one. The first night saw us on one course each. Grilled vegetables on a bed of hummus may not sound much, but was a very lovely thing, the hummus sufficiently garlicky to rebuff many types of unwanted attention. Ravioli may not be Spanish, but this ricotta and spinach stuffed version was a triumph. That’s not new either, but the saffron cream sauce was bejewelled with little tomatoes and contained taste explosions in the form of the sweetest baby prawns imaginable.

Starters included black pudding (morcilla de Burgos) served simply with a tomato compote, almost gazpacho like in flavour. The other first course was described on the English menu as chickpea soup with Iberican meats. Fortunately we were warned that a half portion would suffice. I have since learned that Garbanzada de Ibéricos is a Canary Islands classic, a chickpea stuffed variation on a minestrone, more of a stew than a soup. Everyone no doubt has their own recipe. This came with giant lardons of smoked pork, tomato, pepper and topped (most unfortunately from an aesthetic point of view) with a short section of thin black pudding.

Had we been hopping on a dinghy after that, I am by no means certain it would have floated. And even without a starter there is no way I could have hoped to finish a giant risotto nero. Risotto can be a very dull dish, and I’m not entirely sure what was in this giant black bowlful. There was mushroom and, probably, squid, and probably more besides, though not a particularly fishy version. The whole was complemented by a dramatic yellow coating of a good aioli. Anything but boring. Feeling carnivorous, L tried the hamburger, the only disappointment of the night. The downside was that it came a little underdone, with average chips; the plus side is that the burgers are obviously home made and cooked to order.

I was last in the Canaries about thirty years ago. One thing that has not changed is the easy charm of the people. Smooth service with a smile and more. By the end of the second night we felt among friends. I would like to say that they too fell for our charms and that was why they pressed upon us a red rose, but to uphold standards of journalistic ethics I should point out it was Valentine’s Day. We reciprocated by giving the rose to the delightful receptionist at our hotel.

One final word about the prices. As ever, I have quoted the full range of a la carte prices; however, there are only one or two plates at the higher end. None of the dishes we ate cost more than 11€.

February 2018

 

 

The Bill

Set Menus

(3 courses)

23€ – 36€

A la carte

Starters

4.90€ – 20.50€

Mains

9.50€ – 22.50€

Desserts

1.50€ – 6.00€

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20.5/25

 

 

Browns Edinburgh

131 – 133 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4JS

0131 225 4442 

http://www.browns-restaurants.co.uk

Browns

 

Tell me, trivia lovers. What is the connection between Browns, a 45 year old restaurant chain, and Rules, London’s oldest eating place (established 1798)? What? You give up so soon? For shame.

In 1973, Jeremy Mogford borrowed £2500 from his folks. His chum John Mayhew did likewise. Together they borrowed £5000 from NatWest (remember the days when banks lent money to people who needed it?) and co founded Browns. Together they acquired Rules, before deciding to go their separate ways. Mayhew retained Rules, which he owns to this day, and Mogford took the three Browns restaurants. He expanded the group to seven, before selling to Bass Brewery in 1996. It is now part of the Mitchells & Butlers Group.

The Edinburgh unit will post date that original septet, but, if memory serves me correctly, not by much. This means it is now part of what is referred to in hushed tones in foodie circles as the C word, (whisper it, a chain). Recent developments in St Andrew Square have focussed the debate on this topic. Whatever my own views, this column remains more or less neutral on most things apart from food quality, service and value. Can a restaurant which is part of a chain tick these boxes? Well, most of you may have heard of a chap called Ramsay. His company runs 31 restaurants. As they hold quite a few Michelin stars among them, only a fool would answer the question in the negative – but how does this relate to Browns?

I’ve eaten here off and on over the years, my off-ing and on-ing generally coinciding with the state of the kitchen. It occupies a prime site at the west end of George Street. Even if fashion is taking more people east, it is a handsome space with a good something for everyone menu, and should be more than capable of holding its own. It was therefore a little surprising and depressing to see only six tables occupied at one o’clock on a beautiful Friday afternoon. I stood, alone, at the reception desk. An unoccupied member of staff set a table, went to the back of the room to pick up a napkin, finished laying the table, then deigned to come and speak. Our lunch companion was a sometime doyenne of the licensed trade, WP. As her knees are even more rickety than my own (no shame – they can give mine 30 years of a start), we had ordered a table on the flat level. She had arrived first – and was shown to a place up the stairs. At the third attempt we attracted the attention of someone for a drinks order. You are, I think, beginning to get the service picture.

It’s a good brasserie menu, full of crowd pleasers. Devon crab with avocado did everything right. The avocado (I nearly showed my age by describing it as a “pear”) was ripe, and the crab fresh tasting. L nicked a bit and got the only piece of shell. There’s a moral there somewhere. The accompanying mayo was made with brown crab meat, and was served with decent sourdough toast. Fish and chips scored above average, the fish having flavour, and the chips crunch. Fish pie on the other hand was not so well received. No point whatever in including a scallop – it’s bound to be horribly over cooked. The bulk of the fish was farmed salmon with an unpleasant layer of fat. I suspect a chef patron would have rejected it – perhaps in a chain the accountant does the ordering. Coffee was good. Incidentally, when the question from the script, is everything all right with your meal, was asked and elicited the response that half of the fish was inedible, answer came there none, and life went on as normal.

The last word on the service was when I paid with cash and the only question to me was whether or not I wanted change! There is more to good service than being pretty, and that hurdle wasn’t crossed.

Overall, this was OK, but in the current market that’s not really good enough. I thought the prices a little on the high side, but, having checked, I see they’ll be paying two and a half grand a week in rates, and Lord knows how much in rent. Markets find their own level. When the food is good in Browns, as it has been over the years, it’s more than a third full on a Friday. Every picture tells a story.

 February 2018

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Fixed Price

(1200 – 1900)

2 courses

£10.95

3 courses

£14.95

A la carte

Starters

£5.95 – £9.95

Mains

£9.95 – £22.95

Desserts

£5.95 – £6.25

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 3.5/5

TOTAL 14/25

 

 

TOM EATS BITES

Contrary to what you might believe, L and I don’t eat out all that much, at least not much for someone who has the conceit to call himself a food writer of sorts. And sometimes we just want to go somewhere reliable where we don’t have to concentrate too hard, and where it doesn’t matter if we both want to eat exactly the same. I’m often asked to recommend places. As I wrote in my first ever article in this column, that’s really an impossible question because of varying tastes in style, price and general vibe. At the moment we have two or three regular places which we visit where we are guaranteed food which is reliable, honest and, of course, tasty. That may be pared down to two soon, for reasons I’ll mention.

The first has to be The Wee Restaurant. Craig and Vikki Wood have been plying their trade from North Queensferry for about 12 or 13 years now, but simple geography means we are more likely to be found in the branch in Frederick Street in Edinburgh, (Shock, horror! Does that make them a chain? This year’s culinary version of the N word.) No, it doesn’t. They claim to serve good, simple food. I’m not so sure about the simple, but the good is guaranteed, at terrific value. I’ve never had a bad plate there, never mind a bad meal. The service is like visiting the house of a good friend, the same ethos applying regardless of whether or not Craig and Vikki are on the premises.

L’Escargot Blanc, run by the energetic Fred Berkmiller, is another favourite. If you don’t fancy a full meal, you will get no finer plates of charcuterie and/or cheese anywhere than in the wine bar downstairs. French bistro fare, devoid of pretension.

If you are in a mood for fish, it’s very hard to go past Fishers in the City. Feeling unadventurous? (That’s not a criticism – food is for how you feel at the time.) Stick with the fish soups, fish and chips or fishcakes from the ever presents. But if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, feast your eyes (then your stomach) on the ever changing fixed price and a la carte menus. L will not go past their fish curries, as good as anything you will eat in Kerala or Goa. One caveat: the last two occasions I was there the service was really, really poor. So much so that had either of these been my first visit, I wouldn’t have returned. You’re on strike two, boys and girls.

Moving on, there are places which I have visited either alone, or with L at times when we wanted only one course each. You cannot write a full balanced review based on such a small sample. In some cases I have some material stored up from a year back, awaiting a second or third visit. These may or may not develop into full blown reviews, but here are a few snippets.

A newcomer is Black Ivy. This is the latest project of the charming and indefatigable Billy Lowe. I’m not going to dub him a veteran, as he’s younger than me.  This is the former Links Hotel in Bruntsfield, on the east side of the links. We had the pleasure of being shown round by the man himself. The real pros in the licensed trade understand their market and make their pitch accordingly. Firstly, the place, like the man, has a certain style. Decorative touches include a collection of vintage chandeliers, one floor made from the timbers of 100 year old railway carriages, and another covered with vintage quarters (25 cent coins), including one each with the birthdates of his kids. Tank beer is served from gleaming copper canisters, and is no doubt used for the batter for the excellent fish. The menu is primarily standards (that’s what people want) but with enough twists to keep the foodies happy. Smiley and slick service. Bar room disputes can be settled in the table tennis room.

L has been waxing lyrical of late about the food in Tigerlily. Ever watchful of the bawbees, she and some girl chums have been enjoying their half price food in January offer. There is truly something for everyone, though not all is as it seems. On our joint visit L ordered chicken with apple and cashew shredded salad with mandarin and ponzu dip. From that description we both expected a nice Asian salad, not half of a decent sized chicken with salad and dip on the side. Were we downhearted? Not a bit. I would have offered to help, but I was wrestling with a giant veal escalope with an equivalent sized helping of potatoes with lardons, tarragon, peas and cream. At 50% off this is a steal. Hurry – only a few days left.

Finally, for now, one which I promise faithfully to review this year, is Ducks Inn, Aberlady.  It is so rare to find a hotel and restaurant where the personality of the owner is stamped all over the place (in a good way). Malcolm Duck ran wonderful restaurants in Edinburgh for years before heading to East Lothian to take over the slightly tired Kilspindie Inn. There you will be welcomed whoever you are. Been walking the dog on the beach? No problem. Want to bring the mutt with you? Come on in. Just a drink and a snack? No problem – but when you see the full menus you will be very tempted. The bar is stuffed with genuine golf memorabilia (not bought by the yard from some retro shop). The food is wonderful, whether in the bar or the restaurant. I remember in particular visiting on the second day of the year when everyone was in recovery mode. The kitchen was cranking back up and the menu was a little patchy. I recall having to “settle” for some of yesterday’s oxtail ravioli. Then this just getting into second gear chef produced a stone bass with an orange hollandaise. May not sound good, but it was one of the best fish dishes I’ve eaten. Lord knows what he can do when he’s at full throttle.  If you are in lovely East Lothian, don’t miss it.

The Wee Restaurant, 61 Frederick Street, Edinburgh EH2 1LH. 0131 225 7983 www.theweerestaurant.co.uk

L’Escargot Blanc, 17 Queensferry Street, Edinburgh EH2 4QW. 0131 226 1890    www.lescargotblanc.co.uk

Fishers in the City, 58 Thistle Street, Edinburgh EH2 1EN. 0131 225 5109   www.fishersrestaurants.co.uk

Black Ivy, 4 Alvanley Terrace, Edinburgh EH9 1DU. 0131 564 1901

 weareblackivy.com

Tigerlily, 125 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4JN. 0131 225 5005 http://www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk

Ducks Inn, Main Street, Aberlady EH32 0RE. 01875 870682

http://www.ducks.co.uk

 

 

Baba

130 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4JZ

0131 527 4999 http://baba.restaurant/

photo

The sound of much contented purring was to be heard emanating from Casa Johnston on Friday afternoon. The causes? A full Waterstone’s bag following the cashing of a Christmas voucher – that helps. Or the arrival of a pack of books to review, sent by the Distinguished Literary Editor? Never a bad thing.  But the principal reason for the extended feelings of wellbeing and bonhomie was undoubtedly the after effects of lunch at Baba, another of Edinburgh’s newcomers.

Baba occupies what has for decades been one of the capital’s most criminally underused spaces. It is part of what is now The Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square, formerly the Roxburgh. The dining room looks out on to Robert Adam’s masterpiece, Charlotte Square. Or, rather it would were it not for the screens which block most of the view. I suppose these are to maintain the more intimate middle eastern style of décor, but it does seem a bit of a waste. And there you have my only criticism of this whole operation.

Regular readers of this column (they do exist, apparently) may remember high praise being lavished on Glasgow’s Ox and Finch. The same culinary team is behind Baba. When you analyse Ox and Finch’s menu, much of it is middle eastern in origin. Here, 40 miles east, they are making that the cornerstone. Their website boasts that they are inspired by the flavours of the Levant. Inspired is certainly the mot juste, if you’ll forgive me a little clashing of cultures.

In addition to some snacks (including the Scoto-Lebanese classic haggis and harissa kibbeh – two can play this culture clash game) starter options comprise a selection of eight dips in the four to five pound range. L and I opted to sample all of them for a knock down £17 for two. For the arithmetically challenged that’s £8.50 each, or just over seven pounds when you deduct the VAT. Yet one Glasgow based reviewer expressed the view that this was expensive! I despair of my profession, I really do. And I used to think that lawyers were right eejits.

Anyway, to the food. This paltry sum bought a myriad of dishes of aroma, colour and flavour. Muhammara, one of my favourites, comprising roasted pepper, walnuts, chilli and pomegranate molasses, had the kick of some extra chilli garnish. A baba ganoush had the proper smokiness which is often lacking. Hummus was well made, with the crunch of pine nuts for extra texture. Another dip of squash with tahini and za’atar had an almost toffee like sweetness, tasting much nicer than I have made it sound. There were no duds, but the star, by common consensus, was the goat’s cheese with pistachio, lemon and courgette. The stardom tag must be shared by the delightful staff who showed no impatience at all in dealing with our endless requests to be reminded precisely what we had just consumed.

The starter would have represented an adequate meal in itself, but in the interests of research we carried on. A generous chunk of gleamingly white monkfish was cooked with chickpeas, tomato and saffron, and was very good. My choice was an intriguing dish of squid, merguez sausage and salmorejo sauce. I was told this latter was based on gazpacho. It struck me more as a romesco style sauce. Either way it was a splendid companion to crispy squid and some of the best merguez ever. Home made, I later discovered.

Dessert was beyond us, but an intriguing list includes a pomegranate sorbet with mint, and poached quince, hibiscus and cardamom rice pudding. I also saw a waiter struggling with the weight of what I took to be the Baba sundae. It was about the size of a child’s head.

From the warmth of the welcome and the décor, through the quiet efficiency of the open plan kitchen to the freshness and vibrancy of their food, there is nothing to dislike about Baba, and everything to admire. Fantastic cooking at very reasonable prices, served by lovely people. I for one can ask for no more.

January 2018

 The Bill

 Snacks

£2.75 – £3.75

 Dips

£4.00 – £5.25

 Mains

£8.00 – £12

 Desserts

£4.50 – £6.00

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Score

 Cooking 7/10

 Service 5/5

 Flavour 5/5

 Value 5/5

 Total 22/25

 

Max und Moritz

Wirsthaus und Buehne:

Oranienstrasse 162, 10969 Berlin (Kreuzberg)

 +49 30 6951 5911; www.maxundmoritzberlin.de

Guest Reviewer: David Dickson

MaxundMoritz

 

“Ah, how oft we read or hear of

Boys we almost stand in fear of!

For example, take these stories

Of two youths, named Max and Moritz,

Who, instead of early turning

Their young minds to useful learning,

Often leered with horrid features

At their lessons and their teachers.”

So begins the first of seven tales of the two rascals for whom this establishment is named, written and illustrated by Wilhelm Busch, published in 1865.

Kreuzberg is the highest of the hills in Berlin.  To the south it is bordered by Tempelhof, most famous for the location of Speer’s airport which, between 1948 and 49 saw 11.5 m tons of food flown in day and night to relieve the 2.25m inhabitants of Berlin from Stalin’s blockade. To the north the old imperial centre of Berlin (Mitte) with Unter den Linden and the astonishing Gendarnmarkt are to be found.  Mitte lay in the former East Berlin while Kreuzberg was an overlooked and poor part of West Berlin.  It remains a fascinating mix of cultures but is now home to a busy and hedonistic counter cultural scene in the effervescent life of Berlin.

Part of the joy of this restaurant is its retention of the use of the word Wirsthaus (inn) in the title reflecting its opening in 1902.  Indeed just inside the front door is the traditional Stammtisch, or table for regulars.  To the rear of the ground floor is a barn of a room which, when not full of happy diners, is transformed into an area for plays and music: tango dancing each Sunday.  Upstairs is a charming and gemütlich dining room.

Solid German fare is on offer, whether Berlin potato soup, Schnitzel, Konigsberger Klopse (veal and beef meatballs) with salted boiled potatoes in a light caper cream,  Hoppel Poppel (traditional breakfast omelette incorporating smoked bacon),  pork knuckle with sauerkraut,  roulade (beef rolled around pickled gherkin, bacon and onion) served with red cabbage and boiled potatoes or Sauerbraten (beef braised in red wine and vinegar for many a long hour) and served with dumpling and red cabbage with apple.

All have been tried and tested and, in an extensive survey of both the potato soup and Schnitzel undertaken on your behalf, dear reader, the Schniztel was deemed the best tasted so far in Berlin with the soup coming a very close second.

The Konigsberger Klopse were spiced but not overly so and delicate.  The accompanying caper (or sometimes Riesling) cream was light and flavoursome.  The beef roulade was heaven on a plate: deeply flavoured red wine sauce, melt in the mouth beef cut through with the pickled veg.

There may be an occasional wait if the place is particularly busy but they will warn you.  That tells us more: it is all freshly made to order.  That shows in the flavours and quality of the food which stands out in a marketplace jammed with places claiming to serve “authentic fare”.

Vegetarians are catered for with salad, Spätzle (noodles), ravioli and pumpkin strudel.  Perhaps not a lot for a city which offers food of every nation and palate.  But this inn’s speciality is strong, robust, hearty German cuisine.

There may be tourists, but with a large presence of locals this is a restaurant worthy of a detour to a much overlooked part of Berlin.  The buildings around may appear ruinous, you may feel slightly on edge after dark, but this is Berlin: enjoy!

About the reviewer: David Dickson came into my life many years ago as Distinguished Literary Editor of the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland. He has ably assisted my researches for numerous Tom Eats! columns. In real life he is a solicitor advocate, cook and baker extraordinaire, gourmet, raconteur, wit, etc, etc (do I get my fiver now, David?)

 

 

The Bill

(in Euros)

Starters 4€ – 6€

Mains

11.50€ – 19€

Desserts

4.50€ – 9€

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

 

Tom Eats! Review of 2017

Another terrific year. Who would be a restaurateur? Standards are so high, and the paying public so unforgiving. If you serve me a poor meal on my first visit, I simply won’t be back, and I will tell many. A five day stay in a hotel in India this year reinforced my belief in the old cliché about getting only one chance to make a first impression. We came away with less than fond memories – largely because our first encounter was with a phenomenally rude manager. From there you go searching for faults.

This year saw the first ever perfect score, and a clutch of newcomers. Last year’s best newcomer, Norn, has won a slew of awards, and is a new entry in The Good Food Guide, chef Scott Smith being one of the few featured chefs. Who knew that they made their own butter? Remember, you read about them first (well, almost first) in this column.

If you want to reread any of these reviews you will, as ever, have to scroll down the page, as there is no search facility. To assist I’ve given the dates of my visit

Best meal of the year: The Fat Duck, Bray (November)

Showmanship, flamboyance, flavour and magic all combine in Heston Blumenthal’s house of genius. This is a food experience like no other. The only people who have not marvelled at hearing our oft repeated tales of this once in a lifetime lunch are chartered accountants.

Best newcomer of the year (fine dining): Taisteal, Edinburgh (January)

Gordon Craig’s Stockbridge Restaurant with the silly name took second spot with a score of 23, one which would be a table topper in many years. With a style of cuisine which is hard to define apart from exceptionally tasty, and with fantastic service, this opened the year with a bang.

Best newcomer of the year (bistro): The Press Café-Bistro, Cupar (May)

I didn’t score this as we were there in the first week of opening. For that reason it doesn’t appear on the league table. This is a neat composite of deli/café/bistro, absolutely perfect for a town such as Cupar. First impressions were very good. I hope it continues to thrive and give pleasure, in equal measure

Surprise of the year: Bologna

Italy’s food capital provided fantastic eating, not least in a day trip taking in the manufacturers of Parmesan cheese, Aceto Balsamico and prosciutto. The tip seems to be that the simpler looking the restaurant, the better the food. The surprise was that our two attempts at the higher end resulted in two of the year’s lowest scores. Notwithstanding this, Bologna is now ensconced as my favourite Italian city

Congratulations to all of the people who fed me during the year, plus, of course, all the unsung people without whom that would have been impossible. (See how well your kitchen runs if your plongeurs walk out.) You have my admiration, together with my astonishment at how you can put out food to the same high standard day after day.

If you have a favourite place you think I should review, please get in touch tgj52a@outlook.com

Best wishes for 2018, and happy eating.

Tom

The Fat Duck, Bray 25
Taisteal, Edinburgh 23
The Newport Restaurant, Newport on Tay 21.5
Le Roi Fou, Edinburgh 20.5
La Culinaria, Rome 20
The Stockbridge Restaurant, Edinburgh 20
East Pier Smokehouse, St Monans  20
Contini Ristorante, Edinburgh 20
Seafood Ristorante, St Andrews,  19.5
Ivy on the Square, Edinburgh 19
Villa Shanti, Puducherry 18
Tsar, St Petersburg 18
Old Bakehouse, West Linton 17.5
Galvin Brasserie de Luxe, Edinburgh 17
Harwood Arms, London 16.5
Balbirnie Bistro, Glenrothes 16
Scaccamotto, Bologna 15
I Caracci, Bologna 14
The Honours, Glasgow 10

 

Villa Shanti

14 Suffren Street, White Town,

Puducherry, 605001, India

http://www.lavillashanti.com/en/

 

villa-shanti-boire-manger-26466-1200-600-auto

 

I’m sure that, like me, you winced when you first read the address. White Town is a reference to the French part of the coastal city that used to be known as Pondicherry, the name in fact having been applied by the Indians themselves. French control here outlasted Britain’s by seven years, 1954 being the year when it was given back to India. The history of the emigration to France, and subsequent remigration, of people from the so-called untouchable class is a fascinating one. It helped shape parts of this historic town, a place which is well worth a few days of your time.

If you take up this suggestion, you could do much worse than to eat (and stay) at the Villa Shanti, a quirky but unpretentious little hotel in the heart of the French town, just a couple of blocks from the esplanade. Meals are served in an open courtyard in the centre. If the service is a little, shall we say, haphazard, the kitchen more than makes up for it. We had been recommended to dine here by L’s niece, one of Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law. Clearly that lady’s talents extend far beyond a court room. Perhaps boringly for some, we took all our meals here; however, there wasn’t a duffer among them.

A golden rule to prevent stomach upsets when travelling out east is to avoid salad. We broke this a couple of times here to good effect. Salads of green papaya, prawn and pomelo, and spinach and roasted apple may not have been the most authentically Indian plates we consumed, but they all worked very well as appetisers in a coastal setting. My concerns about eating fish and seafood in India were allayed by a visit to a fish market where the produce was fresher than the majority of that which is on display in this country, much of it being still alive. This new found confidence stood us in good stead throughout our visit, spiced grilled prawns being a major highlight of more than one dinner. As virtually everywhere on the subcontinent, meat free dishes are stunning – I could happily live as a vegetarian here – and a thali (a mixture of small helpings) highlighted the best of them. A mutton rogan josh was as fine as an example as I have ever eaten. For the fickle, be aware that in India mutton means goat.

Desserts covered an international spectrum. That is perhaps less unusual here, given the French influence. At breakfast one still enjoys crispy baguettes, one of the many truly great things France has given to the world. Non European dishes include a trio of halwa, made from carrot, pumpkin and beetroot. There is also an intriguing sounding aubergine pudding with clove perfumed syrup. We are unable to give you first hand commentary, but a chocolate éclair was of a very high standard.

Alcohol prices are significantly lower in this state because of a favourable tax regime. So much so, in fact, that at weekends there are booze tours to the region, with police road blocks checking departing vehicles for contraband. We broke another habit and drank some wine – an Indian chardonnay. I found it perfectly acceptable, L less so.

The downside to staying here in the summer months would be the absence of a pool, but if you are in town, do grace their table – and remember to book.

December 2017

 

 

The Bill

(£1 = 80 rupees)

Starters

£2 – £4.50

Mains

£2 – £9.50

Desserts

£2 -£2.80

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

 

The Harwood Arms

Walham Grove, Fulham, London SW6 1QP

020 7386 1847     http://www.harwoodarms.com

IMG_0798

 

“The Harwood – it’s not just your average gastropub”. Thus proclaims the website of this comfortable ex-pub in west London, not far off Fulham Broadway down beyond the home of Chelsea FC. Indeed, not at all the sort of place for a couple of beers before a home match, if modern day football fans in the capital go in for that sort of thing.

It can also boast to be the only Michelin-starred pub in London. The food pedigree of the owners is fascinating. Brett Graham is head chef at The Ledbury, one of the city’s high end eating places: fellow director Mike Robinson is also owner of The Pot Kiln in Berkshire, and head chef Sally Abé, recently of the Ledbury, is married to Matt Abé, who has recently replaced Claire Smyth as head chef at the three star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Well, fascinating to me at any rate. By coincidence I have eaten at The Pot Kiln, and very good it is too. Like The Harwood Arms it features a lot of game on its menu, much of it provided, I believe, by the shooting skill of Mr Robinson. The things restaurateurs will do to improve profit margins…

L and I lunched with a Sometime Brewing Giant. While I have described the place as comfortable, you are very much in a pub. The interior is a no frills affair, with bare floors and tables. Not exactly what one expects to blow away a tyre man, though thankfully more important things, such as the cooking, seem to have a higher priority these days in Clermont Ferrand. At both lunch and dinner there is a menu offering two courses for £39.50 or three for £48.50. This gives an adequate choice of five starters, five mains and three puds with a cheese option. In addition, on Tuesday to Friday lunchtimes (excluding December) there is a cheaper, no choice menu on a blackboard.

As I sit writing this, there is much faint praise flowing to my keyboard, which is perhaps unfair. I thoroughly enjoyed my current food of the month, partridge, with a breast and a leg on a bed of spelt risotto. Whipped chicken liver with “thyme hobnobs” and onion jam went down a treat. SBG was also complimentary about his Cornish mackerel with seaweed mustard and pickled cucumber. I snarfed a taste of both – perfectly fine, though I probably won that round. On to mains. Having spent years traumatising my children by calling for “Bambi” whenever venison appeared on a menu, I was unable to break this lifetime habit. Perfectly cooked with some sort of sharp berry sauce and celeriac and walnuts. SBG had pollack with colcannon and some garnish. Anything with colcannon will score points with me, and I have managed to stop L from proclaiming that pollack was what her family used to feed to the cats. To finish we shared a pear tart with flaky pastry and a very good frozen thing described as raisin, caramel and butter milk sorbet.

When one is enjoying great company it is truly difficult to provide an objective analysis of what has been served. This was a lovely meal, one which I would have been proud to produce. There, perhaps, is the root of the problem. I had the feeling that I could have knocked out a decent approximation of this lunch, and I am as close to a Michelin star as I am to swimming the English Channel. More relevantly, if, say, Mark Greenaway were to lunch here, he would rightly be aggrieved at the absence of a star from his eponymous Edinburgh establishment where the cooking is a good few notches higher (and where they provide table cloths and other such old fashioned accessories).

In summary, if you are looking for a delicious but rather over priced lunch, by all means go: but if M. Michelin is your benchmark, be warned  that you may be slightly disappointed.

November 2017

 

 

The Bill

Tuesday – Friday

Set Lunch

(no choice)

2 courses £24.50

3 courses £29.50

Lunch & Dinner

2 courses £39.50

3 courses £48.50

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 16.5/25

 

 

The Fat Duck

High Street, Bray, Berks SL6 2AQ

01628 580333   http://www.thefatduck.co.uk

 

DSC02659 DSC02660 DSC02664
DSC02681 DSC02676 DSC02662

 

I was tempted to dispense with my customary scoring system for this review. A tally of 25 somehow seems pitifully inadequate. Equally, I can fully understand those of you out there who are shaking your heads in disbelief at full marks in the value for money category for a lunch which, including service but no alcohol, costs slightly north of 300 quid a head.

I’ll justify this by and by, but for that paltry outlay we enjoyed a journey, childhood reminiscences, performance art and magic. Oh, and also probably the finest meal I’ve ever eaten, the most charming service, and enough memories to keep us going well into our dotage. (Anyone coming to ours for dinner any time soon, you have been warned.) Tot up the price of all of these combined (bearing in mind you can pay £160 for a theatre ticket in London), and it’s a snip. This column never mentions the wine. Just as well, but that’s another story.

The experience begins a month or so before, when you are contacted by the storyteller. Why the surprise? Doesn’t every restaurant have one? The idea is that you are going on a day trip to the coast. What are your childhood memories? What makes you feel like a kid in a sweet shop? This is followed up by a phone call. You will later be amazed by how much information they have got out of you.

The understated entrance is hard to find, the main clue being the sign on the car park entrance across the road. There is a hanging sign with the logo featuring duck shaped cutlery, and a gleaming sign which simply reads Les Grands Tables du Monde. The place looks shut, but at our approach a door suddenly opens and we are welcomed into a little dark hall with food holograms circling mysteriously, a hint to the techno-magic to come.

The dining space seems surprisingly normal, if you discount the large doll’s house in the corner and a powerful magnifying glass on each table. You are handed your itinerary, seven stages of it, which will eventually comprise 15 courses. The notional journey covers a 36 hour period, the meal itself a mere four and a half. There is a day at the seaside: but all good holidays begin with the excitement of the night before. If you don’t want to be too surprised by what is to come, you can use the magnifying glass to read the tiny print of the menu.

But first an aperitif. By now we are in the care of Dora, our charming Hungarian story teller. She offers me a concoction involving Campari, orange and prosecco. A mousse comes from a pressurised canister, and is then dipped into a vat of liquid nitrogen, whence comes a large bonbon, which you pop into your mouth in a oner. An extraordinary sensation to begin, with flavours popping out like fireworks. The food, when the plates start to flow, is equally breathtaking. I have no idea how many chef hours it must have taken to produce a honeycomb of beetroot with horseradish, but it disappeared in a bite. Breakfast on the day of the seaside trip itself produces more magic. A cup of “coffee” is hot on one side and cold on the other. The breakfast cereal from a variety pack is poured into some sort of savoury egg custard, resulting in a bowl of sausage, bacon, egg and tomato. Guard well the toy in your cereal pack – you’ll need it later.

We move on to the seaside. Coincidentally, this was the source of most of the memories we had imparted a month earlier. Lesley as a child lived in Ardrossan on the west coast of Scotland: I enjoyed Famous Five style beach holidays at Elie in Fife. Sound of the Sea is a Heston signature dish, served on a glass topped box with sand below, eaten while listening to seaside noises, waves, gulls etc, on a mini iPod. It comprises some sushi and sea vegetables, with a seawater-like foam. Stunning in own right, evocative beyond belief in this setting. The fact that at that moment they delivered to us postcards of Ailsa Craig and Elie beach was enough to get us both emotional. At home an after swim snack for Lesley was usually a ginger biscuit. She was 25 before she realised that ginger nuts didn’t contain sand. Neither did those on the plate which Dora brought us, but they did have golden sparkles to make it appear that they did. Still at the seaside we go rock pooling. The white chocolate crab which we find dissolves in a shellfish bisque to reveal layers of caviar.

Space doesn’t permit detail of every plate. It’s hard to describe the walk in the woods (pictured). It had beetroot and mushroom and truffle and other good things, but it looked as though you were getting some tree bark with a few weeds and a couple of weevils for good measure. Extraordinary, both in concept and in flavour. Soon it was my turn for a wee wobble, with an extra pasta course based on a childhood favourite.

The first part of our last pudding arrived on a levitating pillow. Yes, drink had been taken, but I have the photo above to prove it. And finally the party bag. The doll’s house is wheeled to the table and opened up to reveal banks of little drawers. You take your magic penny and put it in the slot.  The drawers fly open and shut until one is selected for you. The device is so magical it knows that Lesley can’t eat sweets with cream.

Is this the end? Almost. It is a belated birthday celebration for me, a present from my wife. Turns out Dora has read my blog and knows about previous kitchen experiences. We end with a tour of the kitchens where I’m presented with a personalised cooking spoon, plus a bookmark embossed with my name and the date.

Writing this four days on I’m still stunned. Thank you, Lesley; thank you, Heston; but most of all, thank you, Dora, storyteller extraordinaire.

November 2017

 

Guide to the photographs, clockwise from top left.

Ginger biscuits; crab in a rock pool; a walk in the woods; Dora the story teller; levitating pillow; the doll’s house window

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Set Menu

(15 courses)

£275

 

 

The Score

Cooking 10/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 25/25

 

 

 

The Ivy on the Square

6 St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, EH2 2BD

0131 526 4777   http://www.theivyedinburgh.com

Ivy on the Square

 

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the best food to be eaten in Britain is most likely to be found in the London area. We know this; however, it doesn’t prevent the onset of extreme irritation when slimy oiks such as Giles Coren (food critic for a so called national newspaper, who refused to leave the confines of the M25 until he acquired a bolt hole somewhere out Gloucester direction) ram it down our throats on a regular basis. The fact that hipster eating in the capital seems to involve travelling fifteen miles from the centre of town to a place where you can’t book and are unable to converse because of the music noise is irrelevant. And those of us who enjoy table cloths, or napkins, or even forks and knives, are sneered at most condescendingly, an attitude which could have been sent up most perfectly by his late papa. It’s annoying for most people in the land, even for those of us who should be old enough and ugly enough to rise above it.

And then the southerners decide to invade. There is virtually nothing in Edinburgh’s new St Andrew Square development which hasn’t come from there. Sure, we’ve had Wagamamas for a while, but Dishoom? Thomasina Miers’s Wahaca? And, soon, Gaucho? Where’s Hadrian’s Wall when you need it to keep them out? And, most recent to open, and most emblematic of the nation’s capital, The Ivy. I have never visited the original in Covent Garden, which celebrates its centenary this year. Its reputation, as known to me, is of a place which provides comfort food at a certain price, should you be among the fortunate few to be graced with a yes to a request for a table. That’s really not a good reputation. I have no intention of paying for someone else to make me shepherd’s pie, and the harder it is to get a table, the less likely I will be to try. Are these big boys coming up here to teach us provincial cousins the error of our ways?

Just shows how the bush telegraph can get things wrong. I was able to book a table for two in Covent Garden at 1230 tomorrow (Thursday). And when I entered The Ivy on the Square, as the Edinburgh incarnation is known, it just felt good. I had, incidentally, secured a reservation without difficulty. The Former Media Mogul, His Gorgeous Wife, L and I lunched here, just a week or two after it opened. A truly lovely space, once you have traversed the rather squashed vestibule, occupying two storeys overlooking St Andrew Square. There are huge numbers of staff, all immaculate, the differences in uniform clearly signifying subtle variations in rank not clear to outsiders. Whisper it, but you feel immediately that you are in a good quality London establishment.

And, ha ha, it has table cloths; and knives and forks; and napkins and plates with an Ivy motif. The scope of this operation is wider than that of its parent. It is open from 8 to midnight most days, serving breakfast, brunch at weekends, and afternoon tea in addition to lunch and dinner. Not one of these places where lunch is a steal but you are rooked at night – the a la carte menu is there from lunch time right through.

Let’s get the wee wrinkles out of the way first. With three front of house staff and four guests in the vestibule, the act of receiving a coat or two and deciding who would show whom where caused a minor kerfuffle. There were a couple of mix ups with the orders, most notably a side order not arriving until the main plate had been consumed. But generally a smooth process.

Starters were the best of a good lot. Duck parfait can be bland or it can try too hard. HGW’s was an assured, well-balanced specimen. Crispy duck salad had watermelon and cashews and five spice and all manner of Asian goodness. Steak tartare was a piece of theatre, arriving under a cloche with a piece of smoking charcoal. I’m sure they would have offered a doggy bag if asked, but less certain about a coaly bag. Probably the star starter was a dish of scallops on a bed of truffled risoni/AKA orzo, with sweet potato crisps. Stunning.

For mains, a very large steak sandwich with a burgundy sauce got large mouthfuls of approval. A lemon sole was of a size I haven’t seen for a long time. Sadly, both the thick cut chips with the former and the truffled chips with the latter were very poor. I can’t speak for mine, as they didn’t arrive. It turned out that I didn’t need them anyway, as I had failed to note that my game pie came with creamed potato. A very good pie it was, in a pie shell of exemplary short pastry with a tasty gravy, allegedly truffled. L commented that her venison stew was a bit on the salty side, but otherwise good.

Unusually, two of us were tempted into the dessert menu. An Ivy classic of frozen berries with yoghurt sorbet came with a little pot of white chocolate sauce. A pud that’s cold and crisp and sharp and warm and sweet – that’s a pretty irresistible combination. More theatre is involved with the apple tarte fine, in the classic French style. At table the little pan of Calvados is flambéed with a blow torch in front of you. Good fun, but I’d trade it for crispier pastry.

Coffee was excellent, and we suddenly noticed that three hours had passed. The place was still busy on a Wednesday afternoon. Despite that there had been no attempt to hurry us up to turn the table. After a busy lunch service all our new waiting chums seemed as fresh and unruffled as they had been at midday.

This is not a big London boy come to town to brag. The menu and cocktail list have been carefully tailored to Scotland. Prices are sensibly in line with the competition and sometimes much keener. I know of a few places which take at least ten pounds more for a whole lobster than they charge here. Some classics have been retained from the mother ship, but already this place feels as though it has been part of the Edinburgh establishment for a very long time. They did well for us, and on this form will do very well for a very long time to come.

September 2017

 

 

The Bill

 

Set Menu

(11.30 – 18.30)

 2 courses £16.50

3 courses £21

A la carte

Starters

£6.50 – £11.95

Mains

£13.50 – £34

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.95

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

Tsar

12 Sadoya Street, St Petersburg, Russia

+7 812 930 04 44  http://ginza.ru/spb/restaurant/tsar

Interior

 

Well, thank goodness for Trip Advisor. It needs to be used with some care, of course. Check the spread of reviews which an individual has given – this allows you to discount the views of those who profess everything to be excellent. Likewise, it is generally quite easy to weed out those who have an axe to grind, and the budget travellers who will praise to the heavens anything which is cheap. With those caveats, I have found it fairly reliable. Had it not been for that, this is a place I would not have touched with a bargepole.

When one is promised that not only will one dine as though with an Imperial ruler of days gone by, but that one can sit on a replica throne and be pictured wearing a make-believe crown, the only way to go is away; however, enough sensible sounding people made us go against our instincts and dine here. The most glamorous people to be found in Russia seem to be greeters at restaurants: such is the case in Tsar. The dining room is indeed opulent, in a style that is more elegant than kitsch. So far, so good.

The menu is in newspaper form with much extraneous background information, the sort of rubbish which is generally to be found in this column. So that’s perfectly fine. The food is mostly Russian classics or versions thereof. You can’t get more Russian than borsch with veal and garlic fritters. This wasn’t just good, it was stunning. Pancakes with red caviar and sour cream were simple but very tasty. Chicken Kiev is probably less authentically Russian. This example was a little less in your face than the usual garlic waterfall, and was enhanced with a good mushroom cream sauce. Halibut was served with a dill scented fish mayonnaise, and piles of basil mash. An odd combination, perhaps, but with oodles of flavour. We had been enjoying Georgian red wines throughout our trip. With this meal we had a Russian chardonnay (I had no idea such a thing existed), which could easily have passed for a minor Burgundy.

The place is fun and the loos with the saucy wallpaper are marked adults only, so Great Aunt Maude’s sensibilities can remain unsullied if she so wishes. And having avoided the caviar, we were pleasantly surprised by the bill. A lesson learned – touristy doesn’t have to mean tacky.

September 2017

 

 

The Bill*

Starters

£5.50 – £25

Caviar

£11 – £96

Mains

£14 – £50

Desserts

£3

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

*Based on 70

roubles to the £

 

 

 

The Old Bakehouse

 Main Street, West Linton, Peeblesshire EH46 7EA

 01968 660830     http://www.theoldbakehouserestaurant.com

IMG_0773

My lunch companion at this relaxed bistro is an actor, writer, historian, musician, gourmet and wit. For all I know he may be a horseman, swordsman and artist as well, so let’s just call him Renaissance Man. Had it not been for RM I wouldn’t have been in West Linton collecting a large box of out of print books from the wonderful local book shop, and therefore wouldn’t have had the pleasure of discovering this most delightful of local haunts.

You get no points for guessing the previous use of this place. (As an aside, if you are ever tempted to buy a new house on a site called The Tanneries, or Old Gasworks Road, make sure someone has done a good environmental search and that you won’t be subjected to noxious odours).

The only smells here are good ones emanating from the kitchen. Sadly, only two tables occupied on the Friday of my visit. I’m told it is very busy indeed at the weekend. For a calmer experience I suggest you head out on a Friday, but Sue and Ian Gray will be delighted to see you anytime. Indeed, I was warmly received a few weeks ago when I simply stuck my head round the door out of nosiness. They took over last year and the word on the street is that this is the best incarnation of The Old Bakehouse for decades.

What do you want from a local eating place? A bill of fare which is a combination of classic and less common dishes? Tick. A regularly changing menu with changing weekly specials? Tick? Sunday roast? Tick. A lazy Sunday brunch? Yup, that too. And if afternoon tea is your thing, or if your Granny is partial to a high tea, they’ll cater for that as well. One gets the impression that nothing is too much trouble for these very nice people.

Once you get beyond the slightly chaotic (in a good way) bar area, the dining space is surprisingly large. The largest room was the bake house itself, the two ovens still in place, together with much of equipment of the day. There is another room off. At full capacity, a lot of mouths could be fed in here. One hears the occasional grumble that the service can be a little chaotic when the place is busy. To this I reply, where do you think you are, The Ritz? It’s a charming local gaffe, you’re there at the weekend, get a life and chill. One hears tales of people who were so chilled that they arrived at 1 for lunch and left at 8, inveigled into serial conversations with all and sundry. You won’t get that chez Gordon Ramsay.

Chef Gareth has been at TOB, on and off, for a long time. He sends out dependable food (also available to take away), some dishes bearing his name such as the Gareth chicken burger, made with a secret blend of nine spices. This was the choice of RM, preceded by cauliflower and cheddar soup. Ian swears that Gareth has never heard of the Tom Cooks! column, and no, he didn’t pinch the recipe from last week. I would have been proud to have served up his soup as my own. Potted crab called out to me, as it often does, served simply in a Kilner jar with toast. No attempts at stupid art, just tasty grub. A chicken and pancetta pie gave a nod to the fact that the first autumn dew had covered my car that morning, and was served (the pie, that is, not the morning dew or the car) with excellent chips and a selection of flavoursome veg. As RM and I both had other engagements later in the day (in his case probably advanced rapier practice, falconry or some such) we shared a dessert, a good lemon posset, nicely sharp with a crunchy biscuit crumb topping. Midweek in wee village places there can be problems with food being kept too long in the fridge: no such issues here.

I can understand why cities can’t support places such as this – high overheads, extraordinary competition, etc. Yet I would love to have TOB in my neighbourhood. Is it haute cuisine? No, nor is it trying to be. But if you’re looking for an eating out experience which is fun, with decent food presented by lovely people in a great dining space, make your way here.

The Old Bakehouse is open

Wed – Thu 1700 – 2230; Fri – Sat 1200 – 2300

Sun 1100 – 2230

 

September 2017

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£3.95 – £6.25

Mains

£11.95 – £28.50

Desserts

£5.50

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 17.5/25

 

 

 

 

OTRO RESTAURANT AND PRIVATE DINING

22 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 7AF

0131 556 0004     http://www.otrorestaurant.co.uk

 

Otro

 

Restaurants have feelings, don’t they? Now if you’re a younger sibling (I’m hiding my scars well here, boys and girls), then by the time you reach adulthood you may have forgotten most of the childhood slights. (Most certainly not all, but that’s another story.) But if you, as a fully fledged adult, are simply referred to as The Other One, otherwise Otro, you might have a wee bit of a complex.

Perhaps, but my advice here is not to worry. Enter these doors into a very large space (formerly home to The Cavalry Club), and your adolescent angst will be left behind. The wild walls – not sure if it’s air brushing, sponge work or whatever, but it looks great – will welcome you in. How peaceful that welcome will be may depend. I ate here twice in three days. On a Saturday lunchtime we were a little discomfited to be joined at the door with an advance party for an (upmarket) hen do. No worries – they were to be established in the large, bright downstairs dining area. Our original waiter was dispatched to attend to them – truly a real man. The following Monday, the atmosphere was more relaxed, but still reassuringly busy.

Before things got going we had encountered a few people, each one more delightful than the one before. The staff here are efficient, informed, sassy and friendly. I can’t ask for more. I also noticed a couple of non uniformed ladies with communication devices. On the basis that they were elegant and effortlessly in control, I guess they must be management. We were served by the delightful Daniela, and a great pleasure it was too.

Oh, you want to know about the food? Between 12 and 6 there is a set price menu offering two courses for an astonishing £12.95. Even going a la carte, you can still get some mains at that price. On my first visit a tasty confit chicken and sun dried tomato terrine was made to sing by the addition of a parsley and caper salsa. The concept of crispy squid with heritage tomato and water melon salad with yuzu mayonnaise was a great one. After decades lamenting the absence of decent tomatoes, it’s great to celebrate them. Watermelon with pepper and a little vinaigrette is wonderful. Sadly, the deep frying of the squid was the only let down – neither long enough nor hot enough cooked. A small point deducted. On the second visit, with the Distinguished Literary Editor, he commented that the linguine with pesto lacked a little punch. The other starter was an extraordinary summer vegetable tart, a crispy disc of pastry extravagantly topped with courgettes, beans, fennel fronds and many other green things. There were crunchy things and lemony things and pickled things and more besides. From a lesser kitchen it could have been very dull creation – this was a triumph. A perfectly grilled pork chop came with a perfect potato gratin, and its mustard gravy was lightly spiked with capers, the slight vinegariness balancing the richness of the meat. Trying a dessert in the interests of research L and I asked for a hazelnut brownie and two spoons. We were brought nearly the equivalent of two portions, L’s cream intolerance having been remembered without prompting.

The big brother restaurant which might be responsible for Otro’s angst is New Chapter in Eyre Place. If it’s half as good as this, or if the service is even one quarter of the standard here, I can’t wait to try it.

August 2017

 

 

The Bill

Set Menu

(between 12 & 6)

1 course £9.95

2 courses £12.95

3 courses £16.95

A la carte

Starters

£5.50 – £7.50

Mains

£12.95 – £21.50

Desserts

£5.50 – £6.50

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

Galvin Brasserie de Luxe

Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian,

 Rutland St, Edinburgh EH1 2AB

0131 222 8988   www.galvinbrasseriedeluxe.com

Brasserie Oysters 3 WEB SIZE

 

What’s in a name? In restaurant terms, often quite a lot. If I were to say La Coupole, Flo or Lipp, the chances are that your mind would quickly be flitting towards Paris, to the great brasseries of the Left Bank, synonymous with platters of fruits de mer, with Art Nouveau décor, with the promise of the imminent entrance of a grande védette. In summary, with luxury.

Keep your mind on these thoughts and you have a fair idea of what the Galvins were trying to create when they opened here some five years ago. Brothers Jeff and Chris are now firmly installed as major players in the culinary world, both in London and further afield. The current management of The Caley Hotel (currently AKA Waldorf Astoria, Edinburgh – warning, the name will never catch on) are now following the well-trodden path of letting out dining spaces to established operators. There are clear advantages to both parties. The hotel, in particular, will be attracting a hefty rental for the space, without any of the huge difficulties in establishing, promoting and maintaining high class dining facilities. That no doubt has an impact on the food prices, but of that more later.

The large space is well designed, the central bar area (which I don’t think was there when the place was first opened) breaking up what could be a rather cavernous void. In best brasserie tradition, an enticing array of seafood is there to welcome you in tempting fashion. Hang on, did I say brasserie tradition? In fact, brasserie is a French word for brewery. The very first were beer halls in Alsace. They were brought to Paris in the late 19th century by refugees from the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Oh, these pesky immigrants and their foreign ways. Once established on the Rive Gauche, they liked the terroir and grew.

How successful have the Galvins been in recreating this? With the exception of the Art Nouveau interior, I would suggest pretty darn well. I remember a lunch early on when it was so quiet as to seem soulless: these days have gone. Some may prefer to be welcomed by a lobster or by a prawn or two. I much prefer the European charm of a variety of suave front of house operators. L and I enjoyed a recent dinner with two Good Burghers of Hawick. They were fresh from hobnobbing with royalty, so a luxury dining space seemed de rigueur. The place had a buzz to it, we saw seafood platters, and no one would have been surprised had a diva slipped through the door. All good. But it would have been better had it not taken half an hour to get everyone a drink.

Truth be told, that was probably the only niggle. There are a lot of staff: they smile most beautifully and move most efficiently; sadly, it is sometimes difficult to attract their attention. When service comes, the whole thing makes you very glad that these poor Alsatian people decanted to Paris. This is what an upmarket bistro should be about. There is a variety of permutations, according to time of day and season. There is also an interesting range of special events. It is worthwhile paying attention to the website. On the dinner menu there was a terrific value three course seasonal menu at £22.50. This is available until 7 pm. (The website suggests it is also available from 9 – 10 pm, but I can’t vouch for that.) In a new and welcome promotion, one can eat oysters for £1 per shuck on weekdays between 6 and 7 pm. See you then.

The main bill of fare has precisely what you expect, want and need from a brasserie. After a list of ten starters you have sections headed Grill, Meat & Poultry, Fish & Risotto and, of course, Crustacea. The house smoked salmon was given 7/10 by Mr GBH. Plates of Bayonne ham, balsamic, poached fig and melon salad demonstrated eloquently how less can be more with perfect ingredients elegantly presented. A steak tartare was of the very finest quality. No need for excessive flavours when the main event can speak for itself. A main course of steak, this time cooked (perfectly) was declared top notch. A Moroccan lamb dish was pronounced excellent, though you needed your own teeth for the chickpeas. Pork three ways was well done – so easy to overcook – and a broad bean, goat’s cheese and pea risotto received very high praise. Finally, a shared raspberry soufflé with matching sorbet was terrific.

I do have a but, which relates to the pricing. Good quality meat is not cheap. At face value, £33 for a decent sized fillet steak is on the high side, but not excessive; however, add some sauce, a portion of spuds and a side veg and this will be setting you back 44 smackers. £3.50 for a drizzle of red wine sauce or a pat of Roquefort butter? That leaves a bad taste, and not just because I dislike butter on steak. And should you venture in for the great value seasonal lunch and fancy a bottle of wine with it, expect nothing under thirty quid. There, I’ve got the but out of my system. The name claims it to be no ordinary brasserie, but a brasserie de luxe, which indeed it is. Enjoy the fine food, the evocation of Paris and the possibility of star quality, but do be prepared to pay accordingly.

July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Seasonal Menu

(until 1900)

3 courses £22.50

Starters

£7.50 – £12.00

Mains

£16 – £45

Desserts

£6.50 – £8.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 17/25

 

 

 

East Pier Smokehouse

East Pier, St Monans, Fife KY10 2AR

01333 405030     http://www.eastpier.co.uk

East Pier Smokehouse View
East Pier langoustines Hot smoked salmon

 

Once upon a time St Monans (or St Monance as we used to call it in these far off, ignorant times) was the nonentity of the East Neuk of Fife. You went to Crail for the harbour and the crabs, Pittenweem for the fish, Anstruther for the seafront and the chips and Elie, well, because it was Elie. But St Monans? You could see the windmill and glimpse the church from the main road. Was there more?

In a relatively short space of time it has gone from anonymity to the foodie capital of the area. For fine dining you have the outrageously talented Craig Millar @16WestEnd. At the Mayview Hotel, the lovely Hughes family catch their own lobsters and sell them to you at ridiculously low prices, as well as serving a mean high tea. And at the bottom of the hill you have East Pier Smokehouse.

Established by the affable James Robb about five years ago, the building perches pierside in the sort of seaside location you feel must have been dreamt up by a film set designer. There is a small indoor terrace, a roof terrace and some tables on the pier next to a line of lobster pots and crab creels. James had been smoking and wholesaling a wide range of produce for some time when he hit on the happy idea of selling his wares to all. This is a seasonal operation, open from April to October. Check opening times as they vary through the spring and summer.

There is no formality. You order at the counter, find a seat and they bring your food in a cardboard box. No reservations are taken. As its fame has spread a hot summer day can see queues. But definitely worth even a long wait. Regular dishes included various salads, of hot smoked salmon, or smoked chicken. You will usually find hot smoked seabass and smoked fish curry. Not everything is smoked. Crab cakes come with a tangy tarragon mayonnaise and a red cabbage coleslaw, mercifully mayo free. You would be hard pushed to find better chips anywhere, though potato salad is offered as an option. Specials might include langoustines, lobster or crab, depending on what the boat brought in. For those who have encountered food smoking which is heavy and overpowering, have no fear. A light touch is applied, complementing the natural produce. In addition to seafood, James smokes cheeses and garlic. The drinks list even boasts an East Pier Smoked Gin! Puddings comprise ice cream and cakes. I have never tried the Portuguese custard tarts, but reports say they sell out very quickly.

I had some professional involvement at the outset here, in the days when I used to be a licensing lawyer. James outlined his vision, citing as his inspiration a well known outlet in a harbour town in East Lothian. I won’t mention it by name: suffice it to say the EPSH would knock it into a cocked hat.

I have spent a few pleasant afternoons here by the harbour, munching langoustines and crunchy chips and quaffing Muscadet or Sauvignon Blanc. If you get a little sunshine as a side dish, let me tell you that life simply does not get better. Every seaside town should have a place like this.

 

June 2017

 

 

The Bill

Soups

 and

 Sandwiches

£4 – £6.50

Mains

£9.50 – £13.50

(specials may be more)

Desserts

£2 – £2.50

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

The Seafood Ristorante

Bruce Embankment, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AB

01334 479475          http://www.theseafoodrestaurant.com

 Starter Exterior Good

14 years have elapsed since this wonderfully incongruous glass cube first appeared in the douce university town of St Andrews.  L and I used to be regular patrons of its first incarnation until chef Craig Millar split from the partnership to open his own place in St Monans, and standards slipped. I therefore read with interest of the change of ownership and change of emphasis to provide top quality cooking with a clever Italian twist (their words not mine).

Owner is 23 year old Stefano Pieraccini. The publicity has it that he will be mentored by mum and dad, renowned restaurateurs, Adrian and Susan (Rocca, St Andrews, Rocpool, Inverness, and elsewhere). There is talk of significant investment, and new design by mum. All good. Yet I have seldom arrived at a review venue on a first visit bubbling with more bad feeling. I call at 6.45 on a Tuesday evening to make a booking. An authoritarian voice listens to my request for a reservation, then tells me I must phone between 10 and 6, as they never take reservations during service. I point out that he has answered the phone and suggest that as he will have the computer to hand, might it not be fairly simple to check availability? No, comes the reply and the line goes dead. There is, incidentally, no online booking service. I was very tempted to say stuff it. Instead I sent an email, explaining what had happened and pointing out that some people work between 10 and 6. I don’t, but that’s by the by. I received an immediate and charming reply from someone called Susan, confirming the reservation we wanted, apologising, saying that of course they take bookings by phone in the evening, but that at some times it can be a little busy.

I’m very glad I didn’t take the hump, as I would have missed a memorable meal in a spectacular setting. At 7.30 on a Sunday night the place was buzzing. Despite that we were warmly and efficiently received, installed with a glass of fizz and some of the finest bread I have eaten, crunchy and seedy and salty, and pondering a very attractive menu. Now everyone will tell you that this place is pricey. It is indeed, but, bear in mind (a) good fish ain’t cheap, and (b) in the predecessor establishment you were being charged about £50 a head for a three course table d’hote.

The menu is less obviously Italian than anticipated, apart from the naming of courses (primi, secondi, etc). Some pasta and risotto are to be found, but not significantly more than you might find in a top class British fish restaurant. There is a separate cicchetti (snacks) section, which could double us a starter or mixed tapa style main (though at dinner there is a minimum food spend of £20 a head). The contorni (vegetable) list does contain some welcome Italian produce, such as puntarella, which I haven’t previously found outwith Italy itself. The Naked Seafood section isn’t Italian at all, just a selection of the very finest things to come out of Scottish waters.

To our meal. I find it hard to pass by anything on a menu containing crab. It came in a fat disc with avocado, lightly set with a little gelatine, topped with a generous dollop of (unadvertised) caviar and served with a slightly sharp (in a good way) gazpacho, melon and blanched pepper. I don’t usually photograph food, but made an exception here – see above. A salad of puntarella leaves, pear, walnut and honey was as well balanced a plate of food as you could imagine – colour, crunch, sweet and sharp, all combined. Scrabster turbot was served with tiny courgette scales. Also on the plate, a courgette flower stuffed with tomato and basil, some green sauce (also courgette, I think) and a delicate garlic purée. If these were a little under seasoned for me, they were perfectly balanced by a pot of boulangère potatoes, crusty and slightly salty. Wot, no chips? (I am being facetious. You want great chips, go to Anstruther. For top class cooking, eat here.) Where were we? Oh, yes, Gigha halibut, steamed with lemon zest and served with cockles and asparagus. Both dishes fabulous, the fish whiter than a film star’s teeth.

The selection of dolci was completely Italian, which is not a positive in my book. Guess the contents? A variation on panna cotta, tiramisu and something with a lemon? Yes, yes and yes again. Italian dessert menus are known for their conservatism, but when you can make ice cream as well as they can, why go for anything else? From a list of about six we sampled, in ascending order of excellence, rhubarb and blood orange sorbets and “brown butter” ice cream. The latter, I am sure, is served to very, very good people on the other side of the Pearly Gates as a special treat on their birthdays.

The waiting staff were great, from the regulars to the well trained seasonal workers. I have read accusations of aggressive upselling – not our experience at all.  I couldn’t leave without asking about booking. Is it really restricted to between the hours of 10 and 6? They seemed confused, so I explained my experience. Ah, said one, sounds like Adrian. The second made the sign of the cross. The third blushed. Sorry, they all said in unison.

I forgive them – no I don’t need to, as they gave wonderful service.  I don’t forgive whoever it was I spoke to first as he nearly deprived us of a quite splendid meal. Expensive, yes, but I have paid more for food of lesser quality. At least eight people working their socks off in the well organised open plan kitchen; the same number and more front of house; ingredients and cooking of top quality. Our food bill for two and a half courses each (we shared a dessert) was £43.50 a head, rather less than under the previous regime.

So three cheers for seafood by the sea in St Andrews. Only one word of advice for Signor Pieraccini, jr. Track down the front of house offender and give him a smack around the chops – even if he is your dad.

June 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

 Set Lunch

2 courses £17.50

 A la carte

Cicchetti

£3 – £9

Primi

£8.50 – £15

Secondi

£21 – £32

Desserts

£7.50 – £8.50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service

First Man 0/5

Staff 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3.5/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

 

The Press Café-Bistro

15 – 17 George Inn Pend, Crossgate, Cupar, Fife, KY15 5AB

01334 208384        http://www.thepresscafebistro.com

 Teh Press 2 The Press Cupar

 

By the happiest chance I found myself in this lovely little bistro in its first week of operation. Situated in a pend just between the west side of Cupar’s Crossgate, and a public car park, it couldn’t be more conveniently sited. The building was once upon a time home to the Fife Herald, hence the name. Local brothers Grant and Paul Hughes have done a sympathetic conversion into a two level café/bistro and deli.

Every town and every city neighbourhood should have a place like this. It looks great. Not only is the menu full of crowd pleasers, many dishes are available in large or small sizes. You can have a deli sandwich, a bowl of soup, small or large plates, or a full three course meal. Dinner is available on Thursdays through Saturdays. While a dinner menu is on the website, the brothers sensibly tell me it will evolve according to customer demands.

I had lunch with L and two Colossi of Education. Our agenda was far more to do with catching up with old friends than analysing the food, which is precisely what a place like this should be about at lunchtime. I was delighted to see many people doing likewise. Full on a Wednesday lunchtime is a very encouraging beginning. Business in fact starts at 0830, with breakfast/brunch being available. And they tell me that if you just want a coffee, you’ll be welcome for that too. They close at 1700 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

I’m not going to give this a score in week one, but, to quote a certain A Schwarzenegger, I’ll be back. (Are you reading this, VFFP?). We enjoyed our lunch, but some things worked better than others. Let’s begin with the only real disappointment, mussels with lemongrass, white wine and chilli. Fusion can work – this didn’t. My advice is go via Thailand or go via France, but not in between. The resulting liquor was downright unpleasant. That was in stark contrast to a hearty special of tomato and basil soup, with an excellent toasted loaf on the side. I love the idea of being able to choose a small portion of scampi as a starter option – why not? – and this being Fife, chips were duly served with it. A starter of chorizo and garlic prawns was generous, with a good helping of quality seafood, though their flavour was rather overwhelmed by the chorizo. In truth, not much can stand up to it. A spiced chicken burger was commended, and the real star was the seafood chowder, more of a stew than a soup, the plate bursting with large chunks of salmon and smoked haddock. I noticed a portion of (whale sized) fish and chips going by. I swear the young lady carrying it was struggling under the weight.

Service was young and eager, with levels of attentiveness often absent in swankier establishments. Our salt cellar was malfunctioning – it was quietly replaced without our drawing it to anyone’s attention. Prices are pitched at sensible levels, not rock bottom but fair, reflecting the fact that quality ingredients are being used. I hope that isn’t lost on notoriously price sensitive Fifers. (I’m one, so I can make that comment –  anyone from outwith the Kingdom who tries it is in trouble.) I really, really hope this place does well. It has a good feel to it, and even at this early stage you get the impression that a lot of effort goes into staff training. It will be interesting to see how dinner service works. Apart from the evergreen Ostler’s Close, Cupar doesn’t have a ton going for it at night. So whether we ask you to watch this space or hold the front page, let’s hope the dishes keep rolling off the presses out of the kitchen. Good luck, gentlemen.

 

 

The Bill

 Breakfast/

Brunch

£2.25 – £6

Lunch/ Day time

 Light Bites/Sharing

Small £4 – £7

Large £7 – £12

Mains/Grill

£8.50 – £14.50

Desserts

£5

Dinner

Starters £5.50 – £9

Mains £10 – £16

Desserts £5

 

The Score

 PRETTY DARN GOOD FOR WEEK 1

 

 

Le Roi Fou

1 Forth Street, Edinburgh EH1 3JX

0131 557 9346           http://www.leroifou.com

Le-Roi-Fou-300x300 Jerome-Henry-Le-Roi-Fou Interior

 

A restaurant with a creative director, eh? Or so I read. Isolde Nash is the design part of Jérôme Henry’s Le Roi Fou, on the corner of Broughton Street. The design is said to be influenced by the Twenties Austrian architect Adolf Loos, Dada and the Absurd. The latter may explain why a couple of panels in the newly decorated space are just bare plaster. A conversation piece, I suppose, though the toilet signs stuck on at forty five degree angles or, in one case, upside down, suggested more that the workman had had a very good lunch, rather than any surrealist tendencies.

A very good lunch was the aim when I visited with D and The Curmudgeon and, boy oh boy, did M. Henry deliver. He spent the last seven years as head chef to the legendary Anton Mossimann in Belgravia. I asked him why he had come to Scotland. He has had a long-time love of the country (a good start), and our produce. A significant number of his top end suppliers were Scottish, so he decided to pack his toque and head north. Mayfair’s loss is our gain. Creative director or not, the food is presented simply and unfussily. If M Henry has slaved to produce a sauce he wants us to taste it, not to admire it as a smear or dot. It is so refreshing to have food presented in a straightforward style. I have (in the main) no issues with food trends, but there are some best consigned to the dustbin of history.

Fads are temporary: flavour, one hopes, is forever. I make good soup. I am proud of my soup. But it is not in the same universe, never mind the same league as the soups here. Asparagus and spinach soup was the quintessence of green. My spicy fish soup took a classic bisque and moved it up a dimension or two. Two mains from the fixed price menu were classic examples of simple things done to perfection. “Rib eye” of pork – the meat removed from the bone of the chop – was grilled and served with new season’s peas and wild garlic. The spicing of M Henry’s sauces is difficult to pin down, even for an expert cook such as D, but the combination of a spring inspired green gloop and the meat juices was sublime, popped on a plate with a few baby carrots and an English asparagus spear, was a delight. Hake is not always the most interesting of fish, but when livened with a romesco sauce (a Spanish recipe of roasted peppers and almonds) it became a triumph. Puddings, as is often the case, will have to wait for another day.

A sample of just four dishes would be insufficient to form the basis for a negative review, but it is more than enough to make us realise that Edinburgh has struck very lucky indeed in attracting a chef of Jérôme Henry’s calibre.  It has already won the title of Best New Restaurant at the Scottish Food Awards – fast work. The restaurant name means The Mad King. The only thing mad about this, some of the eccentricities of the décor apart, is the ridiculously low cost of the prix fixe menu on Fridays and Saturdays. At £15.50 for two courses, this one of the best deals anywhere. Sunday brunch is also available, and there is the option of a private Chef’s table catering for between 6 and 20 people. It sounds as though M. Henry is as hard working as he is talented.

 

 

The Bill

Fri/Sat Lunch

Prix Fixe

2 courses £15.50

Pre Theatre

2 courses £17.50

3 courses £21.50

A la Carte

Starters

£7.50 – £14.50

Mains

£13.50 – £29.50

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

Tasting Menu

6 courses £48

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 20.5/25

 

 

The Newport Restaurant

1 High Street, Newport-on-Tay, Fife DD6 8AB

01382 541449               www.thenewportrestaurant.co.uk

IMG_0688 Masterchef_Jamie_Scott_AR IMG_0689

 

This isn’t named Jamie Scott at The Newport Restaurant, quite yet, but it soon will be. Jamie was the winner of Masterchef: The Professionals in 2014. This is his first venture under his own name, set in the newly refurbished Newport Hotel on the south (ie Fife) side of the River Tay. I stress the Fife not only for chauvinist reasons. Bizarrely, Newport has both a Dundee postcode and STD number. Fear not: approaching from the south there is no need to cross either of the unlovely Tay Bridges. The business as a whole is an interesting concept. In addition to Jamie’s place there are letting bedrooms, a bar, an art gallery and a chiropractic clinic. The extended dining room has full length windows overlooking the river and an outside terrace. The whole thing looks terrific, and you know how keen I am on first impressions.

My chum for lunch was the Very Famous Former Politician. As both a staunch supporter of all things Fife, and a sometime food professional, she needed no arm twisting to join me on my first visit.

I had read that Jamie was keen to introduce the idea of small sharing plates. That isn’t that new, but culinary trends are slow to reach Fife. But breaking from custom, let me talk about service first. In a village like Newport you don’t expect to be able to draw from a pool of multilingual, well travelled serving staff. It’s a tricky introduction having to explain a small plates menu to anyone, never mind to cynical old lags such as the VFFP and me, both of whom have a very low cringe factor. Not only was the dreaded word concept avoided, the whole thing was done simply, concisely and well. That epitomised the service experience. Take nice people who are prepared to smile, train them properly and you can get a fantastic result. The first star (of many) is awarded for the service. Others, please take note.

I was surprised to find two tasting menus (5 or 8 courses) on offer at lunchtime, but we decided to explore the world of small plates (not available at dinner on Fridays and Saturdays). This idea, of course, has a positive for the kitchen – the plates come out as and when. No need to have those tense moments at the pass, waiting for everything to be assembled together. But discard these cynical old lag thoughts and turn to the food. The first section of the menu is entitled Snacks and Nibbles, which can range from olives and nuts to oysters or a £10 plate of charcuterie. These plates, we were told, were the equivalent of starters, and would arrive first. We enjoyed a St Andrews ale and treacle bread, a soda style loaf, with a marvellously dark, sweet crust, served with  home made butter.

The next sections are headed From The Land, From the Sea and From The Ground & Garden. Starr Farm Beef with horseradish, watercress and mushroom was in fact a tartare. The menu should have been clearer but, needless to say, our ever helpful waitress had warned us. As fine a steak tartare as you could hope to meet, the meat hand chopped as opposed to minced, the seasoning perfect and kept to a minimal level to allow the beef to speak for itself. Squares of pork belly came with broad beans and, apparently, a whey and beer mustard. I much preferred the hake served with beautifully braised leeks. In fact, I would happily return to sample the vegetarian tasting menu (one of three on offer at night, the others being a general tasting menu and a pescetarian option.) Our other two dishes were from the ground. Jersey Royals came with crème fraiche and spring onions, some griddled, some lightly pickled. Despite having just written two Tom Cooks! columns about artichokes, I didn’t know we grew them in Fife. Our dish from Pittormie Farm, less than ten miles away, had some very young ones with peas and sheep’s milk (though I didn’t notice the latter), some toasted barley providing a crunchy counterpoint.

We shared a chocolate tart. Sounds a simple dish, doesn’t it – we’ve all made one. But not, I suspect, remotely like this. In the crispy tart shell sat a dark chocolate layer topped with a lighter, creamy layer topped with hazelnuts. And there’s more. On the side, a generous sheet of wafer thin, gold painted, tempered chocolate looking like scrunched up paper. And there’s more. Some hazelnut ice cream on a bed of chocolate soil with pieces of chocolate tuile. This could have been sickly – it was anything but. There may be more perfect desserts, but I haven’t eaten many. And all this for seven pounds. We learned that there are five chefs in the kitchen. I shudder to think how many chef hours that one plate must have taken.

Just looking at the website, the prices seemed modest. Having actually eaten the dishes and appreciated the quality of the food and the cooking, one realises they are a snip. I do fear for anyone setting up to provide top end food in Fife, an area where you won’t get away with charging top dollar. I am therefore doubly delighted that the place seems to be very busy.

The Masterchef judges raved about Jamie’s food. I can see why. I hope to return soon for dinner, but I gather that securing a dinner table may not be easy. Again, I can see why. This is a kitchen which combines seasonality and subtlety, bringing together ingredients with imagination and exemplary technique. On TV, Jamie comes over as likeable as he is talented. I hope he and his family get all the success they so clearly deserve.

 

 

The Bill

Small Plates

Snacks

& Nibbles

£4 – £10

Sharing Plates

£6 – £10

Desserts

£7

Tasting Menus

5 course £45

8 course £65

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21.5/25

 

 

The Stockbridge Restaurant

54 St Stephen Street, Edinburgh EH3 5AL

0131 226 6766   http://www.thestockbridgerestaurant.co.uk

Stockbridge restaurnat

 

When you descend the vertiginous steps and enter this pretty Stockbridge dining room, you find yourself in a better place and also a little back in time. Floor to ceiling windows let in a surprising amount of light in spring. But as the sun descends the elegant space comes into its own, the dark walls broken up by large Cadell-like canvasses. This is where award winning chef Jason Gallagher and his partner Jane Walker have been trading for nearly a decade. Surviving for that length of time is no mean feat: maintaining standards is even harder. AA rosettes don’t impress me much, but still to be in the top two percent as assessed by the notoriously fickle Trip Advisor community is noteworthy.

If you are new these days and aspire to produce high quality food (I really am doing my best to eradicate the phrase “fine dining” from my repertoire), then, like Francis Campbell Boileau, you tend to be a picture painter. I lunched recently with a chum who is one of the best amateur cooks I know. Family circumstances had stopped him venturing into public eateries for a long time. Referring to my reviews, he asked me if everyone at the upper end these days was trying to create art on a plate. When I answered in the affirmative, he shook his head sadly. I found myself agreeing with his sentiment.

How many times do we see smears and whooshes, the product of a long reduction process, condemning good ingredients to be spread so thinly as to render them completely devoid of taste? You will find none of that here. Thankfully the emphasis is on ingredients and flavour.

First impressions: a lovely dining space and friendly, if slightly nervous, staff. Jane didn’t seem to be on duty that night. An amuse bouche came. This is the overture, a chance for the chef to encapsulate skill into a tiny but delicious morsel. We were therefore underwhelmed by a square of Serrano ham. It may well have been very fine ham, but the half cherry tomato, chopped spring onion and splash of balsamic meant we shall never know.

The menu on the other hand was a delight. There was nothing on it I would not have chosen. Compact enough to be sensible:  large enough to have you going back regularly without getting bored. L’s cream free smoked haddock risotto was a treat. I’m really not sure that adding cream would improve it. I was attracted to the spiced pigeon and black pudding with a salad Lyonnaise, as it’s a variation on a dish I cook quite regularly. It was subtly spiced and well executed, served on some frisée and, oddly, some green beans. Not sure where the “Lyonnaise” moniker comes in – that usually implies onions somewhere or other – but am I bovvered?

L had grilled halibut on a bed of crushed potatoes with a lobster bisque. Sadly, the advertised scallop and crab beignet had been given the night off. The first couple of forkfuls were a little insipid; however, once all the flavours and textures got a chance to merge, we started whistlin’ Dixie. Very fine. Lamb two ways (rump and belly) on a bed of wild garlic with dauphinoise potatoes, butternut squash and a rosemary sauce is a lovely dish, of a type which many modern chefs just wouldn’t serve – nicely presented, but not entirely in the modern idiom. Which just goes to show that not all progress is good. The rump was charred on the outside and pink in the middle: the belly slow cooked and bursting with flavour. Purveyors of wishy washy works of art should eat here to see a real chef in action.

Pre desserts were a very tart shot glass of rhubarb trifle for me and a passion fruit sorbet for L. The latter was a triumph – perfectly on the cusp between sweet and sharp. We shared a dessert, a collation of all things chocolatey, brownie, brulée, mousse (white chocolate), ice cream (milk). If the brownie, made with walnuts, was a little dry, it was more than compensated for by everything else, the brulée and the mousse being the stand out components.

These days I have relatively few restaurants which I visit with any degree of regularity. This could become one of them.

May 2017

 

 

The Bill

Set Menu

(Tue – Fri)

2 courses £27.95

3 courses £33.95

A la carte

Starters

 £7.95 – £12.95

Mains

£20.95 – £25.95

Desserts

£5.50 – £6.45

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

 

La Culinaria

Via Gaeta 81, 00185 Rome

www.culinariaroma.it  06/4880509

Carbonara di gamberi at Culinaria

 

Any wedding anniversary is special, and so is Rome. Good food and anniversaries go well together: sadly, as in any tourist town, finding good food, as opposed to the usual it’s good enough for the visitors muck is not always easy.

Subject to the one important caveat below, we certainly hit the jackpot this time in chef Giuseppe Rubano’s stylish little basement just behind the Piazza della Repubblica, close to Termini station. The name is pretty self explanatory. The kitchen is in two parts, both visible from the inner dining room, glassed off from the room, saving the diner from smells and sounds and whisked outside by an extraction system. Oh, such an extraction system. One whose noises bounce round the hard basement walls and wood flooring, which drown the music (I originally thought I was being subjected to some ghastly 21st century experimental muzak) and which overwhelm your senses like an Ipcress File style torture, especially if you are seated in a corner. We asked to move and were relocated to a table at the entrance where the noise was audible but bearable. Fifteen minutes later, the place would have been full and we would simply have left. Which would have meant missing out on some food which was very good indeed.

A problem with Italians and their food is that they are ultra conservative. Even in their cosmopolitan capital I would be surprised if more than 5% of restaurants are non Italian. And as for doing it differently from the way Nonna (Granny) cooked it? You are a brave man indeed. I know little about Signor Rubano, but perhaps his willingness to experiment a little with good classical Italian stuff is the fact that London is his home town. Witness his treatment of pasta with oxtail, a Roman classic. We are all used to coloured pasta, but pasta with cocoa? And it worked. Though not as well as the spaghettoni carbonara gamberi e bottarga di muggine (spaghetti carbonara with shrimps and mullet roe). By mixing the roe and the egg yolk and coating the pasta (spaghettoni are simply thick spaghetti) and combining it with tiny sweet shrimps, Rubano produced the best pasta dish I have ever eaten. If I encounter any finer plates of food this year, I shall be a very lucky man.

I can’t find out much more about this restaurant. The head man front of house may well be a business partner, or possibly even the boss. He personified the very best example of whatever one calls a maitre d’ in this hipster age. Attentive, charming, and well able to juggle the endless string of people dropping in on the off chance. The reputation is clearly spreading.

I do know that chef is a fan of cooking slowly. The execution of my turbot was perfect, but, sadly it was unseasoned. It came with a pesto purée and a truly marvellous union of courgette and parmesan. L enjoyed her slow cooked lamb chops with early season artichokes (although the former also lacked salt).  For my own part, even though I never sampled the cooking of either of my Nonne (Grannies), I prefer my chops seared on the outside and pink in the middle.

Manfully and womanfully we managed to sample the dolci menu. Soffice al Cioccolato was a hot, soft and wonderful chocolate pudding in a bath of some sort of light custardy, saucy gloop. I also read rave reviews of the deconstructed tiramisu.

Not only is it a brave thing to reinvent classics, it is also a very hit and miss activity. This kitchen hits the bullseye more often than not. At its best it reaches dizzy heights. Unfortunately, in the inner room so does the volume of the extractor. I will certainly visit again when next in Rome, but I shall be very particular about the location of my table (and I will ask for salt and pepper on the table in the case of another seasoning lapse).

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Antipasti

€12 – 15

Primi

€14 – 18

Secondi

€23 – 30

Dolci

€8 – 10

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

The Honours, Glasgow

Malmaison Hotel,

 278 West George Street, Glasgow G2 4LL

www.malmaison.com/locations/glasgow/the-honours    0141 572 1001

Martin-Wishart

 

I am sure Martin Wishart is an honourable man. Brutus, as the Bard told us, was also an honourable man. But, to mix metaphors and plays, something is rotten in the west end of Glasgow.

For anyone living on the Planet Zog, let me tell you that Martin Wishart is one of Scotland’s finest chefs. His two flagship restaurants both deservedly boast Michelin stars. Like many top chefs, he branched out some time ago to found a restaurant aiming for less exalted culinary heights, with less labour intensive food and, therefore, with more chance of turning a profit. The first The Honours (the name is derived from the nickname for Scotland’s Crown Jewels) opened in Edinburgh in 2011. It has attracted rave reviews and a dedicated following of regulars. This younger sister appeared in 2014, brightening up the basement of the Malmaison, in a former Greek Orthodox church in West George Street, just down from Blythswood Square.

There is no separate reception area. You sit in a rackety bar with loud music, football on the telly and Roy Lichtenstein pastiches on the walls. You say that you have a dinner reservation but are really unsure as to whether that has registered. But at least the bar staff on this side of the door clock your presence and bring you the drink you have requested. You will come to treasure that small kindness later. After twenty minutes you venture into the restaurant space to remind them of your presence. In a slightly scolding tone you are told that your table is ready. You are allowed to ferry through your coats, bags and umbrellas yourself.

We are here for a birthday celebration. Mr Wishart’s prices are not conducive to every day dining, no matter how well they may represent value for money. Now even a greetin’ faced one like me can be induced to smile on a day of celebration. In fact I tried, tried and tried again to crack the face of the miserable head waiter. Gratifyingly I managed it at the third attempt, as I cajoled him with my love of his home town of Nice. It did register with me on more than one occasion that I was supposed to be the one to be on the receiving end of a good time as opposed to supplying it, but let that pass.

The menu was a surprise. Just a couple of years ago Richard Bath pointed out that the menus on both sides of the M8 were virtually identical. Tonight, the menu was bistro fare at its most basic. Five starters – soup, two salads, smoked salmon or paté. Seeing the eyebrows ascend into the hairline (no mean feat for us follically challenged chaps), Riviera Smiler then dropped the bombshell. Ah, he said, soothingly, Martin Wishart is giving this up soon. It’s not his menu – we’re in transition. We’ve been scaling down. I’s not his wine list either – I’ll find you something else. He then helpfully said that L couldn’t have any one of the five starters because of her allergy to dairy products and to nuts. (She doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. She has an intolerance to cream which we had advised them of. End of. Full stop. But even at this early stage I was beginning to wonder about nuts.)

Birthday Girl had smoked salmon which was OK. L and I had a slab of tasteless paté. Cornichons can usually be relied on to liven things up; however, in the interests of economy, these had been cut into three some hours earlier, and left out just to make sure we weren’t overwhelmed by flavour. The chutney on the other hand had a powerful whiff of industrial malt vinegar. It was utterly inedible, though it might have helped clean the silver.

Few dishes shout celebration louder than chateaubriand. The finest, the most extravagant part of the fillet, served on a groaning platter surrounded by veg, potatoes and all manner of good things. And so you would expect for seventy quid (for two). Well, no. This bought each of us four slices of beef, correctly cooked, three large, excellent onion rings, four lettuce leaves, five chips and a pot of so called béarnaise sauce whose vinegar content made the chutney seem positively alkaline. It was removed and replaced with a pot of mustard.

On to desserts. Affogato was stated to be white chocolate ice cream, coffee mousse and coco nib brittle. We got ice cream, a chocolatey crispy thing and a chocolate splodge. To make up for the lack of coffee and the true affogato (the word means drowned) effect we were promised, at time of ordering, an espresso to go over the top. The plate came; the staff vanished. Between the time we physically sought one out to ask about the espresso and its  arrival, most of the rest of the dessert was liquid anyway. (Very tasty, it must be said, but we were getting a little terse by that time.)

I mentioned a birthday, as I had done that very afternoon to Nigel from Nice. No problem, he had said, some petits fours with a greeting. Was there any sign of it? Was there any sign of Nigel? Was there any sign of anyone? To try to jog a memory – this was supposed to be a birthday surprise after all – L and I ordered coffee which we didn’t want. Still nothing. By this time all the staff were playing hide and seek, walking in great circles just out of earshot. Rehearsals, I think for a Brian Rix revival at the Theatre Royal. Once again we had to leave our seats to get attention. Oh, sorry, chef’s just doing it.

SHAME ON YOU, MARTIN WISHART. The website says nothing about your winding down or your transition. I booked this celebratory meal because of your reputation, one for excellent food and decent service. Our money here was taken under false pretences. I have never seen customers treated with such contempt outside of the faceless accountant-driven chains. I expected so much better from you.

March 2017

I sent a draft of this review to the main Martin Wishart Twitter page

48 hours before it was published. There has been no response.

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£6.50 – £8.95

Mains

£14 – £38

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.95

 

The Score

Cooking 4/10

Service 1/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 2/5

TOTAL 10/25

 

 

Ristorante I Caracci,

Grand Hotel Majestic Già Baglioni, Via Manzoni 2

40121, Bologna, Italy

http://www.grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com

DSC02146

 

I’m sure many of you will have enjoyed the latest offering of Further Back in Time for Dinner in which the lovely Robshaw family lived through the first half of the twentieth century. If you want to go back to the 1970s style grand dining, this is the place to come.

The Caracci of the title were the noble Bolognese family who first lived in the palazzo which now houses the Grand Hotel Majestic. Note the Grand. Not just enough to be fit for a Majesty or two. We innocently thought we were going to have the swishest of meals in Italy’s food capital, little realising that, Tardis like, we were to be whisked back about four decades. Not that grand hotels of the 70s were necessarily bad things. The service at all levels was lovely, presided over by the smoothest of white haired, ageless maitre d’ of the type one used to encounter in every good dining room in London. The next throwback? The lady receiving the menu with no prices. On the basis that L was paying, we really should have swapped. That is something I thought had died out in about 1980.

These were amusing foibles, but the sad fact is that the food in hotel dining rooms of that era wasn’t all that great, and the standards here reflected that too. Given how well we were treated by the front of house staff, I found it difficult to dislike the place, but AA Gill or a critic of equal savagery could have had a real go at some of the pretentious stuff on the menu. Let me give you just one example – Be able to retune truly with the deepest beat of mother nature and her gifts. There was much more of this guff – stand up Executive Chef Claudio Sordi – but you get the drift.

I had a salmon tartare with a sort of guacamole and a yoghurt and anchovy crumble. I didn’t notice the anchovies and, to be honest, didn’t notice much seasoning throughout the meal. Perhaps Signor Sordi’s staff all have high blood pressure – maybe they are forced to read his prose a lot. L had a starter of the classic tortellini in “double capon broth”, no better or worse than we had sampled elsewhere, but scandalously priced at 18€.

I tried another local speciality, Veal Bolognese, a cutlet served with Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. Once again, the price was the only thing out of the ordinary. L’s beef was stated to be Modena breed. It came with lots of purple things, stated to be sundried tomato tartare and pomegranate, but we’re fairly sure there was beetroot in there too; however, the abiding impression of this purple platter was that they must breed em tough in Modena. Don’t try this dish if you have any malfunctioning jaw muscles or teeth.

So we’re still searching for The Truly Great Bolognese Dinner, having contented ourselves very well by eating a lot of very good ones. If this experience has given us an excuse to return to Bologna, excellent. But not I fear, to the Majestic.

 

 

The Bill

(in Euros)

Starters 18 – 30€

Mains 23 – 38€

Desserts

we didn’t stay to find out

 

The Score

Cooking 4/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 2/5

TOTAL 14/25

 

 

Contini George Street

103 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 3ES

www.contini.com          0131 225 1550

Diningroom

 

This is the third edition of a restaurant on this site run by the energetic Contini family. I would guess that some fifteen years must have elapsed since they first converted this room, one of the loveliest of Edinburgh’s banks. The Continis are now part of the bedrock of the Edinburgh catering scene, as firmly attached as the cannon ball in their restaurant of the same name just down from the castle. Yet, unlike the proprietors of many tired “Italian” restaurants in the city, they have shown a tireless determination to adapt and move on. In this latest incarnation, in one of the New Town’s most elegant spaces, they have achieved their best result ever. By miles and miles.

I reviewed Contini Cannonball a couple of years ago and was unimpressed. I have also had issues with the previous restaurant on this site because of pricing which seemed, shall we say, imaginative. I therefore entered the door with a certain amount of baggage. In the original conversion, to make the space practicable, it was necessary to install a dumb waiter, which detracted from the view of the neo classical telling room and its imposing Corinthian columns dating back to 1885. That has now been trimmed down, opening up the sumptuous interior revamped with playful touches. There are saints (I think) ascending, an imposing classical light fitting to which a few coloured shades have been added just for fun, and a faux primitif painting of the Cockenzie chip shop where the family business began. My lunch companions, Long Tall JK and His Elegant Friend, neither of whom had visited before, were very impressed. The welcome was warm and all was going so well until we heard the dreaded words, “would you like me to explain the concept to you?” AAARGH! Allow me to do it instead.

The menu is in fact in traditional Italian format with primi piatti, secondi and contorni (sides). It is very different from the ersatz Italian restaurants prevalent in Edinburgh. While there are pasta dishes they are of a small starter size. It varies from a traditional Italian menu in that the portions are of a size that a normal person could go through the menu without feeling totally bloated. (I write this as someone whose stomach is still distended after a week in Bologna, trying to eat like a local.) The publicity for this reopening talked about sharing plates: I think what our concept explainer was trying to do was to point out the option of taking a few of the small primi piatti to share, a reasonable option, not just for ladies who lunch, but for anyone who doesn’t want to go for a full Monty at lunchtime. There is, incidentally, a small set lunch menu and also a full vegetarian a la carte menu. Oddly, the latter wasn’t produced at the beginning.

LTJK, HEF and I, however, were having none of that, determined to test the kitchen to breaking point. Let me say that the kitchen passed with a perfect score. This was a truly wonderful meal.

Bread came with excellent oil and, a new one on me, creamed macadamia. First courses are very small, but are fantastic value even for the quality of ingredients alone. A plate of lardo, cured fat from Tuscany, was served with goat’s cheese and roasted grapes. Mozzarella came with honey, figs and dried figs. Orecchiette, the little ear shaped pasta, were presented with sausage and porcini, in a parmesan cream. The delightful Signora Contini chose that moment to visit our table, and was overwhelmed by the oohs and ahs of satisfaction.

She could have returned at any time and witnessed the same reaction. Venison haunch can be tough – not here, served with balsamic onions and other good things. Seared lamb on lentils with salsa verde was pronounced excellent, as was my coda di bue (oxtail). This dish was described a week or two ago by the Scotsman  reviewer as “ox cheek”, so I assumed it must have been served off the bone. It isn’t – the lady has a very odd idea of bovine anatomy. We had been steered in the direction of a couple of side dishes – be warned, the upselling is relentless, albeit charmingly done. A salad of raw courgettes, thinly sliced with oil, parmesan and chilli was an eye opener, very much better than it sounded. For once the little potatoes, roasted with rosemary, a staple in most Italian restaurant really were crisp and light. This is rare.

On her way back from a visit to the ladies’ room HEF had spied the cheese and insisted it be brought for our attention. Were it not for the fact that all ingredients here are of the highest provenance and quality, one might have described this as a cheese board on steroids, with giant hunks of top Italian formaggi. We shared a generous helping of unpasteurised Gorgonzola Dolce, as good as any I have ever tasted. To finish, a chocolate mousse and a lemon cream. The former, thick and unctuous, neither too bitter nor too sweet, served with boozy cherries; the latter, creamy but sharp, topped with meringue shards. And need I add that the coffee was excellent?

On my way out I quietly asked the waiter to throw my bag of prejudices in the bin. I certainly won’t be needing them for my next visit (which will be very soon).

March 2017

 

 

The Bill

A la carte

Primi £5.50 – £7

Secondi

£14 – £24

Dolci

£3 – £5

 

The Score

Cooking 7.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

Ristorante Scaccomatto

Via Broccaindosso 63, Bologna,
(+39) 5126 3404    http://www.ristorantescaccomatto.com

9469208

 

Reading Trip Advisor reviews of this place, I noticed a significant divergence of opinions. There is nothing terribly remarkable about that; however, for two couples to share a table and enjoy completely different dining experiences is a new one on me. Combining social media and synchronicity we found that we were holidaying in Bologna at the same time as the Two Maestros, S and K, whom we hadn’t met in the best part of two decades. Deciding to dine together we discovered that they were determined to follow in the exact footsteps of Rick Stein who had long weekended here some months earlier. Being a fan of the great man, I was more than happy to take the ten minute stroll out of the centre to Scaccomatto (Checkmate).

It’s a pleasant space with chess and other game boards on the walls. The evening was not warm, nor was the welcome. The menu is a sophisticated one, listing a lot of ingredients. Despite my reasonable Italian, I struggled a little, but not as much as the others did with the less than expert English translated menu. There were tricky choices to be made. That takes time. When the waiter came for our order we asked for another five minutes. He returned after just one, then was back again 60 seconds after that. As they didn’t look to turn the table that evening there was no obvious reason for this irritation.

Yet SM’s request for the off menu onion ravioli, as enjoyed by Rick, presented no problem at all. KM opted for the tortelli with parmesan cream and lemon grass. Both pasta dishes were sublime. Wish L and I had gone there. I chose artichoke, containing a fairly tasteless polenta based stuffing, enlivened only by two (too) small blobs of an anchovy sauce. L’s terrine contained so much gelatine that it would, if dropped, have bounced back up to table height. The ladies both enjoyed their seabass with a sauce of chickpeas, artichoke and horseradish. KM’s half pigeon was wonderfully rich and gamey with crisp red cabbage and polenta. Wish I had gone for that. Cod is not my favourite fish, but baccalà (salt cod) can be a wonderful thing. To my surprise, this square had been reconstituted to the consistency of fresh cod. It sat slimily, serenely devoid of taste or texture, on some average leeks and tatties.

Dolci, it must be said, were pretty impressive. L had flavoured ricotta on shortbread type biscuits. My memory of caffelatte (that’s the name of the dish) came in a glass coffee cup, a very good coffee mousse topped with a mixture of good and well whipped creamy things. SM hit the jackpot with a chocolate tortino and passion fruit sorbet.

Unfortunately, the sweetness of the desserts didn’t continue into the unsmiling departure. Still, it was good of the staff not to complain when we went to retrieve our own coats, and it would have been quite an effort for them to have raised a head or said good night as we left. We wandered into the night comparing notes of two entirely different experiences, which I’ll reflect in two sets of scores, mine and how I think the Maestros would have rated it. Interesting cooking, but when three plates out of twelve are poor, the standards need to be far more consistent. These chess players are some way from a successful end game.

February 2017

 

 

The Bill

(in Euros)

Antipasti €13-15

Primi €13-15

Secondi €8-20

Dolci €6-10

 

The Score

(Maestros)

Cooking 7/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

(Me)

Cooking 4/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 12/25

 

AVERAGE

 15/25

 

 

Taisteal

1-3 Raeburn Place, Stockbridge,

Edinburgh EH4 1HU

0131 332 9977    http://www.taisteal.co.uk

taisteal-owner

 

Right. Let’s start with a rant about the only negative thing involving this place. Why the **** do chefs in restaurants in Lowland Scotland feel it is a clever idea to give their restaurants Gaelic names? This one means travel or journey. Woop de doo. We have never spoken the language here, we can’t pronounce the name (I know how now, but I’m not going to help you), and we feel foolish trying to get a taxi driver to take us there. Until recently, this was Field Grill, interestingly under the same management. So please, guys, change it again, otherwise forever be known as that really great restaurant in Raeburn Place with the stupid sounding name.

But, do you know what? Change nothing else, because this is one of the finest new dining experiences in Edinburgh, or anywhere else for that matter. Chef proprietor Gordon Craig (that’s him pictured, taken from the Taisteal website) and his business partner went their separate ways recently, each retaining one site. Gordon decided to stop flipping steaks (on the night of our visit a fair few people thought they were coming in for griddled protein) and relaunched a couple of weeks ago. Oh my word. While a great steak is a wonderful thing, with this much talent, it’s like taking Michelangelo away from artex ceilings and freeing him to work on the Sistine Chapel.

The food is, simply put, sensational. I had booked on a whim, passing by and glancing at a menu which on first glance reads like many others. That is not a criticism. Overly hyped descriptions are naff: on the other hand the terse lists of ingredients are usually harbingers of technical excellence which stimulate the palate but don’t encourage a return visit. The excellent Marina O’Loughlin recently suggested another criterion for a restaurant review – no matter how good the food, how likely are you to return?

I will be back here in a trice and, if you have any sense, so should you. A Thai Red Curry Fish Soup was authentically spiced and a mass of fish filled goodness. Squid on a squid ink risotto is not an easy thing to pull off. The cephalopod can be rubbery or tasteless or both. This dish featured a whole baby squid plus tentacles of a larger relative, both tender and exceeding tasty. I was unable to place the seasoning of the risotto, but it was subtle and a perfect complement.

Duck breast was served with pak choi, edamame beans and a shitake samosa. Perhaps the world wide list of ingredients represents the travel or journey of the name? Kohlrabi is not a vegetable I have ever cooked. With a perfect piece of roast hake it came two ways. Baked chunks made an excellent potato substitute and the main event was surrounded by lightly pickled discs. Or so I thought. But not only was the fish on a bed of crabmeat, each of the discs turned out to be a tiny and delectable crab sandwich. Clever, inventive cooking. We shared a chocolate and yuzu fondant with orange curd, powder and sorbet. That’s one heck of a lot of work for a pudding costing a mere £6.50. Yuzu, incidentally, is a citrus fruit from Japan. Don’t worry, I didn’t know either until informed by our waitress, the lovely Katie.

We are now fortunate that decent service is the norm, but service here goes way beyond decent. This lady is a star in her own right. On a busy Saturday, nothing was too much trouble. Time to pause for a quick word; requests anticipated in telepathic fashion.  We had a mix up with the wine. (Another great feature is that even the most expensive wines are available by the glass). She heard me grumbling about the quality of my glass. Nothing wrong with it, so I couldn’t send it back and was just writing it off to experience. Off her own bat she offered to replace it. Free of charge! It then transpired that the barman had poured me the wrong one, but she wasn’t to know that at the time. Astonishing and far beyond the call of duty.

This was an evening which started well and just kept getting better. How long they can sustain these unfathomably low prices, who can tell? Even at 50% more this would still have represented terrific value for money.

Taisteal’s score equals the highest mark from 2016. Look out, world, you have a very, very hard act to follow.

January 2017

 

 

The Bill

Starters

 £6 – £9

Main Courses

£13 – £17

Desserts

£6.50

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 23/25

 

 

Balbirnie Bistro, Balbirnie House Hotel

Markinch, Fife

KY7 6NE

01592 610066   http://www.balbirnie.co.uk

interior

 

The pretty Balbirnie Estate lies just outside Glenrothes, on the west side of Markinch. Acquired by the Balfour family in the mid 17th century, the present building dates from 1817. Considering it spent twenty years as council offices (home to the Glenrothes Development Corporation from 1969 to 1990) and that is has been extended and developed, it remains a very attractive building in the Grecian revival style. That goes some way to explaining its multi awards, including Scottish Wedding Hotel of the Year and Scottish Hotel of the Year in 2016. But you don’t win such prestigious prizes simply by being in an attractive location. The Russell family who own and manage the place know their business inside out. I have been going to Balbirnie for intermittently for years and at each visit there is a sense of seamless evolution.

Food has always been a big part of the offering. (This is not always the case in Scottish country house hotels.) If I was forced to go to a formal dinner, one of my many dislikes in life, the pain was always eased if it was happening here, as a good meal was guaranteed. The main restaurant, The Orangery, was the place where one would take high end clients to impress them. Sadly, the world no longer lunches as it did and The Orangery is a dinner treat only. Very sensibly, given the trend for less formal eating, the Balbirnie Bistro was opened a couple of years ago in the old kitchen or, more accurately, to guess from the numerous hooks on the ceiling, in an old pantry or store. I lunched there last week with the Delightful Ms Y, just to prove that business can still be discussed in attractive surroundings, and that food at lunch can be more than a Tesco sandwich.

Having said that, you don’t need to spend much more than that to eat here. There is a selection of smørrebrød available at a mere £6.95, smoked salmon and roast beef being two of the options. There is also a short fixed price menu which looks remarkable value too. It was a disappointment, then, that we were the only two customers. That’s January in the licensed trade for you.

The à la carte, we decided, was for us. This is reasonably extensive, and does change seasonally. There were nine starters. Under the heading of Main Courses there were seven options plus a great list of steaks, burgers, pasta and salad. Something for everyone. DMY, a Muslim whose diet she describes as Pescetarian and not, as she once told her astonished father, Presbyterian, was well catered for and decided to go for two starters. Smoked haddock and sweetcorn chowder, a simple twist on Cullen Skink, was indeed substantial as predicted. Rich and flavoursome. It was followed by crab and avocado on toast, a dish which broke no trading standards, but didn’t excite. My starter of deep fried whitebait and calamari rings was attractively presented on a board in brown paper, chip shop style, with a seared lemon. It looked good, but the cooking oil needed to be a fair bit hotter, as evidenced by the pool of grease. A main of chicken Milanese was a perfectly cooked, breaded chicken escalope (this one was done at the correct temperature and properly drained) on a bed of very good linguine. If all their pasta is of this standard, that will be a good choice for the future.

We had no space for dessert and finished off with a couple of cups of pretty dire coffee. Perhaps the very large wedding party meant that people’s eyes were off the Bistro ball. A nice place and a decent looking menu, but the end result could and should have been better. We had great problems taking our leave as a group shot was being taken on the steps of the main entrance, with guests about four deep. It took us some time to ease our way through, and I’m not sure how often the shutter snapped in the process. So, Leonora and David, if you spy a couple of interlopers in your wedding photies, that’s DMY and me. Sorry about that. Best wishes for a long and happy married life.

January 2017

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £9.95

3 courses £12.95

A la carte

Starters

£4.50 – £6.50

Main Courses

£5.95 – £24.00

Puddings

Sorry, forgot

to check

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 16/25

 

 

 

 The Ship Inn at Elie

The Toft, Elie, Fife KY9 1DT

01333 330246          http://www.shipinn.scot

the-ship-elie

 

For Fifers and regular visitors to The Kingdom, Elie’s Ship Inn is a venerable institution. Until the 1990s, it was a simple pub of charm with a wonderful seaside location, master of Elie Bay and Harbour which it surveyed. It looks out over a most unusual tidal pattern, one which threatens the sea wall at high tide, yet which yields up a cricket pitch at low.

Then the Philip family took it over and put it on the culinary map. A dining room was added upstairs and the outside area developed, but structurally it remained basically the same (including, sadly, the toilets). It became a destination pub, not just for the beach cricket (The Ship Inn XI once hosted the touring West Indies Test XI), but for the food. Pub grub of the very highest quality. Nick Nairn’s testimonial described the fish and chips as “probably the best in Scotland.” While not a fan of Mr Nairn, I didn’t demur.

As everyone knows, one tinkers with something well loved  at one’s peril. I knew that The Ship had changed hands: I didn’t realise that two years had elapsed since then. L and I had heard of radical changes and were keen to see for ourselves. The new owners are Graham and Rachel Bucknall. Having taken over the Bridge Inn at Ratho in 2010, they clearly have no fear of taking over well loved places. And they or their financiers obviously have deep pockets. The place has been transformed and extended (I’ve seen only the public areas, not at the bedrooms, though from the photos on the website they look great as well). The bar is completely refigured. There is a larger ground floor dining area and the dining space on the first floor is double the size. The kitchen has been relocated and, mercifully, the toilets brought into the 21st century. The décor is far far more than just a lick of Farrow & Ball: this has been done tastefully and thoughtfully. Modern but without losing a smidgeon of charm. In a word the net result is wonderful.

So, to the food. The menu is sensibly compact, boasting cooking, not reheating (the head chef has experience in Skye, preceded by spell in charge of a couple of kitchens down under). It features many of the quality pub staples, sea bass, pork belly, confit duck, etc in addition to burgers and steaks. Vegetarians are very well provided for with at least three options in each of the starters and mains sections. The Bucknalls try to source locally – indeed the menu highlights bread from a small Elie bakery. But, as one who has just tried his first attempt at Christmas plum duff knows, there is only one proof of the pudding.

Among the starters of soups, soufflé and smoked salmon, what caught my eye was the pheasant pie. Well, I think it was pheasant. Both the waitress and the bill described it a “lamb” pie. To this day, I’m not quite sure which it was, though a tiny section of what was probably leg tendon (pheasant legs are notoriously difficult to strip down) suggests it was from a winged creature. The pie was served in the middle of two concentric rings, one of butternut squash puree, the other of multi purpose gravy. It was topped with a few crushed peas and two neatly centred onion rings. A photo of it could have been used for archery practice. Certainly one of the more eccentric starters – a pithivier it certainly wasn’t – but actually very tasty in a football terracing sort of way. I was assured that the “wild” mushroom ravioli were homemade. When they arrived it was obvious that they had been, and by a skilled hand. The pasta was thin and the filling very well seasoned. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of the pan of mixed sauteed fungi which topped the pasta. There was a faint hint of undercooked garlic and a complete lack of salt. This is such a basic error that it completely detracted from the skill of the pasta maker. You can’t visit The Ship and not have fish and chips. The haddock is still locally sourced: you can still have a small portion (the whale size full portion has defeated better men than me in the past): and you now have the option of breaded as well as battered. The haddock was perfectly cooked and obviously fresh. Just a pity about the chips. Homemade, yes, but pretty ordinary. A 5/10, when chips at The Ship used to guarantee a 9.

Puddings comprise the usual suspects, ice cream, steamed pudding, crème brulée, etc and looked fine. A compact menu is commendable; however, I hope that they either change it regularly or ensure that there is at least a few dishes of the day. In holiday seasons they may well attract regular diners, especially at their non-greedy prices.

For many of us 2016 was not a good year: The Ship, on the other hand, won the AA Pub of the Year award. It is most certainly worth a journey. If a little more attention to detail is paid in the kitchen, this really could be quite special.

December 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£3.95 – £7.95

Mains

£9.50 – £25.50

Pudding

£5.50

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 16.5/25

 

 

 

Tom Eats! Review of 2016

(**denotes guest reviewer)

I have been fortunate to have visited a fantastic munch of restaurants this year. (If you can think of a better collective noun, let me know.) I surprised myself by the number – 27 in total, 25 by me personally. I was also surprised by the geographical diversity. I regularly apologise to those living outwith Edinburgh for being far too capital-centric: in fact I see that only 12 of these establishments are in Edinburgh itself, including the highest and lowest scoring reviews. When you consider that a mark of 70% (17.5/25) or above would be reckoned to be an ‘A’ Pass, it is remarkable that all bar 6 achieved that score.

If you want to reread any of these reviews you will, I’m afraid, have to scroll down the page, as there is no search facility. Perhaps Santa will bring me a new website for Christmas. Here are the Tom Eats! awards for 2016. To assist I’ve given the dates of my visit.

Best meal of the year: Gardener’s Cottage, Edinburgh (November)

Skilful, complex food served in the eccentric surroundings of a William Henry Playfair designed cottage just off London Road. The surroundings and the communal tables will not be to everyone’s taste, but if you let that put you off, you are missing out on a delightful dining experience.

Best newcomer of the year: Norn, Edinburgh (June)

Scott and Laura Smith front this talented newcomer in Leith on the site of the old Plumed Horse. L and I were blown away by the freshness and modern seasonality. Other critics liked it too. Joanna Blythman scored it 10/10. Marina O’Loughlin of The Grauniad wrote, “it made me want to gasp OMG, OMG.” Coincidentally, L and I featured in the photograph above that review. In this year’s league table it is half a mark off the top spot. Hottest new ticket in town.

Most Eccentric Meal of the Year: Naše Maso, Prague (May)

A single table in the middle of a butcher’s shop. A set menu where the first three dishes are Candle, Tartare and Bones. A meal unlike any other.

Personality of the year: Mark Greenaway (October)

I have been a fan of this restaurant since it moved from Picardy Place to Queen Street. The food is regularly innovative, stylish and, more importantly, packed with flavour. I have held a major celebration there. Sadly, the service has been patchy over that time – visiting two or three times a year one seldom sees the same staff twice. Draw your own conclusions. I visited again in October and was delighted to find staff of the highest level, and the food as good as ever. My review reflected this. Mr Greenaway took great exception – at least, I think that’s why he called me a wanker. He complained that I called his staff “crap” when my exact phrase was “a brigade of lovely people”. I had concluded that he deserved a Michelin star. I really have no idea how he would respond to a bad review. It just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to be very bright to produce good food.

My thanks to all of the very talented and hardworking people who go the extra mile to meet our ever higher standards. I wish you every success in 2017. Thanks to David and Jack, my two guest reviewers. If you have a favourite place you think I should review, or, better still, where you would like to take me, please get in touch tgj52a@outlook.com

Best wishes for 2017.

 

Gardener’s Cottage, Edinburgh

23

Norn, Edinburgh

22.5

Marcus, London

22.5

**Marcliffe, Aberdeen**

22.5

Mark Greenaway, Edinburgh

22.5

The Art School, Liverpool

21.5

Ottolenghi, London

21

The Wee Restaurant, Edinburgh

21

Mozaic, Bali

21

21212, Edinburgh

21

Kyloe, Edinburgh

20

The Adamson, St Andrews

20

**Three Lemons, Aberfeldy**

20

Room With a View, Aberdour

19.5

Apiary, Edinburgh

19

Rogano, Glasgow

19

Barley Bree, Muthill

19

Michael Neave, Edinburgh

18.5

Naše Maso, Prague

18

Hadrian’s Edinburgh

17.5

Tower, Edinburgh

17.5

La Rua, Specchia, Italy

17

Dean’s, Perth

16.5

Café St Honore, Edinburgh

16

Pompadour by Galvin, Edinburgh

14.5

Airth Castle, Airth

14

The Dome, Grill Room, Edinburgh

13

 

Ottolenghi

50 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields

London E1 7LJ

020 7247 1999           http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk

 

exterior

 

For the last decade and a half, the name Ottolenghi has been flitting in and out of my life like some strange password. Like abracadabra it is a word which evokes eastern promise and a passport to all manner of exotic delights. My children revere it: the eyes of the Distinguished Italian Teacher grow sultry and wistful when it is mentioned: the cults which gave life to the whirling dervishes have had less hold on people.

A trip to London: a time to try for ourselves. I should say that in the interim I have been the recipient of two of the great man’s cookery books. (I should say great men – we are talking of Yotam Ottolenghi and his partner Sami Tamimi.) While I loved the philosophy and the enthusiasm, there were so many ingredients of which I hadn’t heard that the books remained closed to me. For years, my ignorance knew no bounds. I am now doing my best to shrink it.

When others plan a trip to the metropolis their focal point is often the West End theatre district. For us it is invariably food related. Whether we Scots like it or not, Giles Coren calls it right when he declares London to be the food epicentre. While I may not agree with his premise that you go back ten years for every 100 miles out of the capital, we are behind the food times up here. But fashion is not everything, especially in the court of King Yotam. The reverse, in fact. Read his books and see how much he is influenced by the food of his childhood in Jerusalem, a cuisine which goes back centuries. He now runs a small chain of restaurants, but the principles remain the same in each. Much of the offering is salad based, the colours and generosity of the piled high bowls greeting you as you enter. On the menu there are no starters as such. The bill of fare at lunchtime has three headings, Hot Mains, Mains from the Counter and Salads. At night there is a choice of From the Counter or From the Kitchen. There is also an extensive, and very tempting, breakfast menu. The place is open from 0830 to 2230. You can sit in; you can take away; and you can even buy many of the ingredients to attempt to recreate at home.

We were there for an eye opening lunch. Each dish comes with the option of a number of salads. We chose seared beef fillet and confit duck and a selection of five salads. The beef was perfect – seared on the outside, pink in the middle and served with horseradish, mustard, rocket and soured cream. The duck was advertised with cinnamon, apple, chilli, dill and grapes. Its spicing was the work of great subtlety and finesse.

How did we Brits manage to reduce the definition of salad to something as prosaic as lettuce and tomato? And how do I begin to describe the wonders presented here? Let’s start with the most basic, broccoli with garlic and chilli. I read that when this was removed from the menu of one of the outlets (in addition to the Spitalfields restaurant, he is to be found in Islington, Notting Hill and Belgravia), demonstrations ensued. This was fine – did what it said on the tin. Hummus was served with zhoug, the latter another Ottolenghi favourite, a mixture of coriander, parsley, chilli and spices. The hummus was as fine an example of the genre as you please, taken up a notch by the zhoug. Cauliflower was roasted and served with good things, saffron, currants, red onions, fried capers. I never cease to be amazed with the many ways the aubergine is treated in middle eastern cookery. Ours was prepared, inter alia, with cumin and coconut yoghurt. Terrific: but the star dish was the muhammara with pomegranate, parsley and walnuts. This is a dip made from roasted peppers, chilli and walnuts, the latter giving a creamy consistency and sublime flavour. Wow.

We paused for breath, then, unusually for me, hit the dessert menu. I recall a wonderful flourless chocolate cake (reminiscent of the Delia one which saw pharmacists sell out of liquid glucose a decade or two ago). You might encounter roast pineapple or rice pudding with almonds. There will be a choice of ice creams and sorbets, with flavours which will whisper of Yotam’s Jerusalem.

While undoubtedly part of our delight in this lunch stemmed from our unfamiliarity with much of what was on offer, the menus do change regularly with the seasons. I think it would be a very long time indeed before one tired of food as good as this.

December 2016

 

 

The Bill

 

Hot Mains

(with selection of two salads)

£21.75

Mains from the Counter

with two salads £15.70

with three salads

£17.90

Salads

Selection of three

£12.90

Selection of four

£15.50

Puddings

£4.90 – £9.00

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

 

 

 

 

jack-cummins

CONSERVATORY RESTAURANT

THE MARCLIFFE HOTEL AND SPA

NORTH DEESIDE ROAD, PITFODELS, ABERDEEN AB15 9YA

01224 861000  www.marcliffe.com

Guest Editor Jack Cummins

langoustines-1 marcliffe-2 langoustines-2

 

An invitation to provide a guest review based on my writing ability and love of food posed two seminal problems. The skill with words (if such it is) can only be based on my attempts to place a dollop of mayonnaise on the dull and tasteless chew that is Scottish licensing law. And my taste in food is, well, somewhat below the sophisticated level you would expect on these pages. Add to these limitations a proposal to review seafood and chips and one can easily see that, but for Tom Johnston’s encouragement (of which more below), this could be a piece of writing that might easily end up on the spike.

First, the venue: the Conservatory Restaurant at the Marcliffe Hotel, on the outskirts of Aberdeen near the plush suburb of Cults. The hotel was opened by Mikhail Gorbachev at its present location in 1993 (it had previously occupied two other sites in the city). Owned by Stewart Spence, a hospitality industry veteran with 50 years’ experience, it’s the most welcoming of places. The management style is infused with a charming degree of eccentricity detectable on the menu: “We don’t charge extra for sauce or potatoes of your choice, NEITHER should anyone else, so please tell them, J Stewart Spence, Owner”. Mr Spence is correct, even if his exhortation is starting to becoming a burden, introducing yet another filter into my already complicated decision-making process. Planning a visit to a hotel in Stirlingshire, I checked out the menu: beer-battered haddock, mushy peas, tartare sauce. Chips? An extra £3.50, and enough to put me off the idea.

The restaurant is, as the name suggests, bright and airy. It’s also plush, very comfortable and the tables are properly spaced. The meal doesn’t start well, but it’s my fault for not paying attention to the description of the first course. All I see is “John Ross Jr Cured Salmon”. But instead of a simple presentation, the salmon is, in fact cured with soy-cured with chilli, ginger, coconut, wasabi and spring onion. It’s a shame, because I’m sure that the salmon would have been marvellous if it had been left to do its own talking instead of being trashed with a cacophony of mismatched flavours.

Much, much better to come: grilled langoustines landed at Kinlochbervie where the silty coastal waters produce extra large specimens. Cooking this dish is a tricky business. Slow for tenderness or fast-and-furious? Each technique carries its own risks. Cook too long and gently and you’ll probably end up with a cotton wool consistency. On the other hand, the rapid technique with a timing error will result in flesh with the chewy  texture of  twine. Here the timing is perfect, the result fabulous: soft, moist, melting and enhanced with some garlic butter. Chilli and ginger are offered as an accompaniment. A serious mistake, I reckon; and it strikes me as bizarre that a kitchen totally expert in cooking seafood would subject their diners to misguided “fusion” flavours – as if the delicate taste of the langoustines might benefit from a “kick”. In fact, the mistake made with the treatment of the salmon.

The accompanying chips – probably triple-cooked as is the fashion (but not described as such) – are good, but I would have preferred more crispiness and crunch.

When I explained my concern that a seafood-and-chips review was liable to lower the tone of this website, Tom Johnston offered this reassuring thought. Could you cook this at home to the same standard? Or how well could another kitchen produce the same food? There’s a big gulf between what can be achieved in a domestic kitchen, an average establishment and a top pro kitchen: thinking of the langoustines, to produce a simple dish that is truly memorable and sets a new standard for its kind –  rather than just a workman-like offering – is an achievement.

To finish, just some cheese: an interesting selection, at the right temperature, and served with moreish homemade walnut bread.

The service is ultra professional, unfussy, well oiled In fact, it would do credit to a five-star London hotel. All of the service irritants that excite my curmudgeonly side are absent: the wine placed out of reached, but glasses not topped up; drinks poured by staff with one hand up their back, jujitsu style; and, possibly worst of all, “Would you like some water this evening?” (it’s the temporal aspect that gets to me).

Overall, the menu stays within very safe limits: essentially surf and turf, some vegetarian options, a pork dish and grouse, no chicken. The food pricing is remarkable value for those staying in the hotel. If I’d walked in from the street the bill would have come to around £72 without the wine. But resident diners pay just an extra £30 per head on top of the bed and breakfast rate. The only catch – and it’s a totally fair one – is that a plate of extra large langoustine will incur a £15 surcharge.

About the Guest Editor: As well as being Scotland’s top licensing lawyer and writer, Jack Cummins is known, nay renowned, for being an all round bon viveur and gourmet. Many thanks from Tom Eats! for the guest contribution.

 

 

 

The Bill

A la carte

Starters

£7.00 – £15.00

Mains

£18.00 – £79.00

Desserts

£7,00 – £8.00

Seafood Menu

Starters

£27.00-£28.00

Mains

£49.00 – £59.00

The Score

Cooking 9/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marcus

The Berkeley, Wilton Place

 London, SW1X 7RL

www.marcusrestaurant.com        020 7235 1200

marcus-choc-dessert marcus orange-dessert

 

Looking at Marcus Wareing one gets the impression that he smiles a lot. This is in contrast to his sometime mentor and friend Gordon Ramsay (the pair had a serious falling out a decade ago): indeed, it is rather different from the driven intensity which never seems to be far from the surface of most top chefs, no matter how hard they may try for the cameras. One suspects that some of the comic turns on the celebrity chef circuit would struggle to fry an egg.

This air of calm pervades Marcus’s eponymous dining room which nestles in the luxurious setting of The Berkeley Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge. My guess is that there is one waiter for every two tables. Everyone knows his job: no one tries too hard. The room is currently presided over by a laid back looking Glaswegian. He is proof that first impressions can be deceptive. Watch him for a few minutes and you will see more eye movement than a secret service man, and more yards travelled than many a Premier League footballer. Occasional glimpses of the kitchen suggested the same quiet efficiency behind the pass. If you want a closer view there is a chef’s table (pictured).

In the modern style, the menu contains simply a list of ingredients. L& I are a little tired of tasting menus (and considering how full we were after three courses, I’m not sure how we would have coped with eight). The three course table d’hote beckoned, laden with promise. The quail with walnut and fig produced gurglings of delight (note to self – must tell L it’s rude to gurgle with her mouth full). The pheasant breast with chanterelles and radicchio bore little resemblance to the bird I had cooked the previous evening (further note to self – must try harder). A main of shorthorn beef fillet with charred little gem and peppercorn was pronounced perfect. My rose veal rib came two ways: the heritage carrot manifested itself in three. There was a slow cooked whole carrot with a Moroccan spice and a purée of infinite subtlety (shorthand for, I don’t know what was in it, but it was awfy good). But the jaw dropping item in terms of technical virtuosity was a pickled baby carrot no more than 3 cm in length. What’s so unusual about that, I hear you cry? Well, dear reader, this had been cut into four slices, lengthwise! Marcus has also co-written a book on knife skills.

On to desserts. I don’t usually photograph food, but such virtuosity deserves a wider audience. On the left we have toffee, hazelnut, milk chocolate nougat: on the right, chocolate, clementine, honey, rosemary. They both tasted, if anything, even better than they looked.

Are there faults to be found? Not really. L raved about all three of her courses. I enjoyed all of mine, particularly the main with the clever contrast of flavours and with the crunch of pine nuts for texture. Clever, very accomplished cooking yet somehow just missing the wow factor I was hoping for. Such standards (we are talking 2 Michelin stars here) come at a price. I don’t mind that, but I did struggle to see why a plate of fallow deer would attract a supplement of £15 on an £85 three course menu, as would four squares of cheese. L wanted to call me a curmudgeon, but I told her the position was already filled. My summary? A wonderful meal in lovely surroundings, but just outside my top 10.

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Dinner

3 courses £85

Tasting Menu

5 courses £105

8 courses £120

 

The Score

Cooking 9/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

 

Deans Restaurant

77 – 79 Kinnoull Street, Perth PH15EZ

01738 643377     www.letseatperth.co.uk

img_0576

 

Like many other small cities, Perth has its own issues just now. I avoided the wrath of natives by remembering to refer to it as a city, it having been awarded that accolade a few years ago. Teleport yourself into the very middle and you are confronted with a pretty ordinary town centre. Move a few streets out and the empty shell of McEwen’s department store is a sad reminder of the cut throat nature of modern retail. Walk north from the South Inch car parks (where I usually deposit the Rolls) and there aren’t many buildings of note. A church or two? The Lesser City Hall, perhaps? But that’s empty and imperilled.

So here’s a better idea. Enter along the banks of the Tay, past the working harbour, skirt The Inch and the Fergusson Gallery, follow the delights of Tay Street, with its imposing civic architecture, then park your car in Rose Terrace. To your left, some Georgian buildings as fine as any in Edinburgh, with the centre piece of the Old Academy building, Perth’s homage to Robert Adam’s masterpiece, Charlotte Square. Look to your right across the parklands to the autumn colours beyond and appreciate fully why Perth is known as the Fair City.

After all this contemplation, it’s time for lunch. There are many delights in my biannual lunches with the Very Famous Former Politician (VFFP), not least in our quests boldly to go (sorry, Star Trek fans, I can’t bring myself to split the infinitive) in search of eating places which are new to us. Chef Willie Deans has been around for a long time now. Twenty two years have passed since he was crowned Scotland’s Chef of the Year, and twelve since he put up his own plate here. Some of you will know this as Let’s Eat: others as Deans @letseat. It has now made the full translation to the simple Deans Restaurant, where we ventured one chilly Thursday. The exterior looks terrific, chic and welcoming. Internally, however, the geometric lines of tables and chairs look ever so slightly institutional. I have had warmer greetings than the one from the slightly morose lady who met me, but the enthusiasm of her younger colleague balanced things out.

There are various menu permutations. The first impression is that, if properly executed, the value for money is remarkable. Yet the occasional dip into social media discloses some lunatics complaining about prices – Perth needs to build a new asylum for such people. It really is astonishing how few people have the first idea of the economics of running a restaurant. I read that this is now a completely family affair, with Pa, Ma and both weans involved. Sadly, being distracted by the scintillating conversation of the VFFP, I forgot to enquire who was on duty.

The ex politico chose two starters from the a la carte, while I was attracted by the set lunch menu – an absolute steal at £13.50 for two courses. The portion of scallops was generous, but we couldn’t work out the provenance of the large black crisp which hovered over them. We thought someone had tortured a black pudding, but it turned out to be squid ink artfully prepared to taste like a charcoal biscuit. That’s chefs for you. My starter was a square of pork belly with a bit of mash and a wonderful fruity and spicy purée, of whose exact contents I’m uncertain. Autumnal and lovely.

Mains were less successful. A Troon Bay fish pie came in a small individual pot and was pleasant enough but unremarkable, topped with lemon breadcrumbs instead of the more usual potato. The lamb shank was surprisingly lacking in flavour apart from the accompanying  black pudding which was stunning. In the interests of research, we ventured into dessert world, sampling both of the offerings from the table d’. VFFP picked the better option with a classic combination of warm banana sponge, caramel sauce and rum and raisin ice cream, though her praises were less than fulsome. I went for Pear Williams rice pudding. It was served in an unstable Kilner jar which had a tendency to fall over once the lid was opened, this being the only way I could think of to eat its contents. Any hint of pear in the rice passed me by. Instead there were a few drops of a good strawberry compote, which sadly looked a bit like nursery food. This came with a fruit jelly and some chopped fruit This may well have included bits of pear, but the combination of hot rice and cold jelly and fruit just didn’t work.

I find it difficult to assess this place. From the prices being charged for the a la carte dinner menu, and its numerous rosettes on display it is a restaurant which aims at fine dining, which one cannot expect for the lunchtime prices. But many of Scotland’s finest chefs put out value menus in the middle of the day, and seem to be able to make lesser ingredients sing in a way that we did not experience. This is a perfectly decent restaurant in a town which does not have a great pedigree of fine dining. The experience was enjoyable enough, but I won’t be shouting about it, and I won’t be rushing back when there is so much competition in the central belt.

November 2016

 

 

 

The Bill

 

Set Lunch

2 courses £13.50

3 courses £18.50

Set Dinner

(Tue – Thu

 6 – 9

Fri 6 – 7)

2 courses £17.50

3 courses £21.50

A la carte

Starters

£4.95 – £10.50

Mains

£14.25 – £26.95

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

 

The Score

Cooking 5.5/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 16.5/25

 

 

Rogano       

11 Exchange Place, Glasgow G1 3AN

www.roganoglasgow.com          0141 248 4055

rogano

 

Arriving early I pause for a pre lunch drink in a nearby hostelry and am stunned by the low prices. I suggest to the barman that I may have spent too long in Edinburgh. He sympathises, commenting that this is not good thing to do. While, to my certain knowledge, no one has ever remarked upon Rogano’s prices being low, it in some ways signifies much of the east/west divide. It’s not so very long ago that I was commenting upon a stylish Edinburgh eatery, complimenting it on it major improvements, suggesting that a Michelin star might not be far away – and then being roundly abused on social media by its precious owner.

Nothing here gives any nod to modernity. The food is much like Glasgow at its best. It is hearty, warm, generous, and very, very good. The height of fashion? No, but with bags of style and no pretension. I lunched with an Up and Coming Thespian from down south. Isn’t it wonderful to be able to introduce a jewel in our crown to someone who has never heard of it? I learn that Rogano has been delighting us since 1935. I was surprised, as she seems to be more of a child of the jazz age – I thought she was older. I am guessing that most of you know that she (I’ve never really thought of restaurants in gender terms before, but Rogano is racy, vampish and very feminine) is a replica of a state room on the original, Clyde built, Queen Mary liner. Even the ceilings are in art deco style, transforming a windowless box into a magical space. Even if your budget won’t stretch to a meal, treat yourself to a drink and be transported back in time.

Over the decades its food standards have been subject to the same ups and downs that any great liner experiences. Currently things are on the crest of a wave. I was astonished to read a relatively recent review complaining that the staff were rude. I have never had anything other than great service here, even if the food has been a little iffy in years past.

There is a set lunch menu which looks great value; however, when introducing a U&CT to the delights of this fair city it has to be a la carte. The smoked salmon was not at all what either of us had expected. It was a piece of skin-on fish, almost certainly smoked inhouse, with a discernible and delightful gin cure. It was served on a very fine example of celeriac remoulade. The menu also offered langoustine (note the singular) “en croute”, which was no such thing for two reasons. Firstly, the large and sweet langoustine was served spring roll style, not in pastry. Secondly there were FOUR of them. Neither Glasgow nor Rogano does things by halves. This theme continued into the mains. I have no idea how many ducks perished in the making of the U&CT’s main dish, but there was a lot of meat. Contrary to the current Masterchef vogue of selling fowl which a good vet could bring back to life, this beast was properly cooked. I received a small mountain of perfectly cooked sea bass fillets, underneath which there lurked a crab cake the size of an ice hockey puck, all lubricated with a classical fish sauce with some baby mussels.

U&CT somehow had room for pud. I ordered an extra spoon for myself in case she needed assistance. (My selflessness knows few bounds.) A trio of chocolate things had a decent brownie, a rich and solid délice and a chilled white chocolate and orange nougatine (I think). This would have been a sharing platter elsewhere.

Open about 13 hours a day, this is a Glasgow icon. You can lunch and dine: you can eat formally or informally: you can drink or you can have afternoon tea. You can see: you can be seen. You can do all of these things, but I defy you to leave without a smile on your face.

November 2016

Note that this review is of the main restaurant. The Oyster Bar and downstairs Café Rogano have separate menus. They are simpler and are priced accordingly.

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Set Lunch

2 courses £16.50

3 courses£21.50

A la carte

Starters

£6.50 – £12.75

Mains

£21.95 – £33

Desserts

£6.25 – £6.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

 

The Gardener’s Cottage

1 Royal Terrace Gardens, London Road

Edinburgh EH7 5DX

0131 558 1221        www.thegardenerscottage.co

(this is not a misprint – the website ends in.co)

gardeners-cottage-exterior

 

William Henry Playfair was an architect who believed that the design of much of the New Town of Edinburgh was boring. He spent a great deal of his life livening it up, mostly through imposing public buildings such as the National Gallery of Scotland, the Royal Scottish Academy and the very different St Stephen Church. Not everyone knows that he also designed houses. Many believe his masterpiece to be the sweep of three terraces, Royal, Carlton and Regent, sited majestically above London Road.  In 1836 he also designed the little building in which this restaurant is housed, originally known as Royal Terrace Gardens House. Perhaps it was this which attracted the owners, Dale Mailley and Edward Murray, Mr Murray himself being a qualified architect. Despite the address you enter from a path on London Road itself.

In the website we are told, somewhat fancifully, that the gardens were laid out “to include a path for the exiled King of France Charles X to walk along on his way from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to church.” What this anecdote omits is that before 1880, when those owing money could still be imprisoned for debt, the grounds of Holyrood House were designated as a sanctuary for debtors, but that they were entitled to venture out on the Sabbath free of fear from arrest. His Majesty did indeed reside at Holyrood, but mostly in a debtor’s hostel rather than in the palace itself.

But we digress. The McCalls are generous people. It was thanks to nephew and niece McC that we found ourselves here using a voucher from last Christmas. Curiously, although I had read many good things about this venue, I had yet to meet anyone who had been. It is a small space, simply but quirkily decorated. No piped muzak from an iPod here – vinyl on a real turntable if you please. The seating comprises three communal tables. This may not be to everyone’s taste, especially when expending this much on a dinner, and was potentially the only major downside of our night. On a Wednesday evening, booking three weeks in advance, there were no tables available between 1830 and 2100. We opted for the former. Although among the first in the place we were allocated the two worst seats in the house. I don’t mind being next to the pass, although it’s far from my favourite. But I do mind very much indeed being six feet away from the kitchen bin and facing directly, perhaps some ten feet away, into a door-less room with the dishwasher and other bins. Our request to move was dealt with gracefully, but for these prices no one should have to put up with that. Not sure how you deal with it, gentlemen, but it needs sorted. My advice when ordering, dear reader, is to ask to be seated in the cosy wee room on the right.

At dinner there is a seven course set menu (the first “course” being your amuse bouche.) There is no choice, but at the reservation stage you are asked about any food issues, and they follow this up with a phone call in advance of your arrival. We shared our table with, inter alia, a charming Asian family from Kenya. Mum asked me what type of food it was and I found it difficult to classify. Modern Scottish doesn’t do it, nor does nouvelle cuisine. What you get are little masterworks on a plate, the combination of flavours carefully and brilliantly matched, executed to the highest standard, and produced in an impossibly small kitchen space.

For me, things started merely very well – I wasn’t as impressed as L was with the spicy crab tart or mascarpone with fermented chilli. Who can be bothered fermenting a chilli? Who can tell the difference? Halibut and mushrooms had the seasoning provided by a mushroom consommé, but by making two people share one jug, most of the seasoning was at the bottom, meaning one missed out. Again in a minority of one, I missed the point of the accompanying poached or confit egg yolk, which struck me as a bit of unnecessary swank. Then, boy oh boy, did things go up a notch or nine. The slight saltiness of a piece of pork belly was perfectly balanced by lightly pickled plum, radish and beetroot. That was followed by the ultimate flavours of autumn, partridge and parsnip, the latter both roasted and pureed. There was a bit of smoked potato and walnut too. Both, to quote the late Michael Winner, historic.

Then a couple of puds with a cheese course in between. I’d never much seen the point of Caerphilly before: I do now. Like my Tom Cooks! recipe last week – http://bit.ly/1qegiGj in case you missed it – this kitchen also hates to see a pumpkin lantern go to waste. Theirs was converted into sorbet with a hint of ginger and gingerbread crumb. The final pud featured chocolate and sea buckthorn and almond and, apparently, wood sorrel. It came in crunchy bits, frozen bits, gloopy bits, ganachey bits and was, quite simply, one of the best desserts I’ve eaten in a long time.

I don’t normally mention drinks, but an exception here. We went for the “wine flight”, i.e. a different glass with each course, selected for you. These can often be a sad disappointment. Here everything was chosen to perfection, with real thought given to the accompanying dish. And the last word to the delightful staff. For any set menu, never mind a relatively unusual one with matched wines, the level of input is critical, Too little and you’re not sure precisely what you have: too much and it can be infuriating, patronising or both. We had at least four different servers, of a uniformly high standard.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Allow two and a half hours for your meal. Do not expect huge portions (although we were very well fed indeed by the end). Do expect, and you will receive, high quality food of great subtlety and imagination. And if you are lucky enough to receive a voucher as a gift don’t be an eejit like me and allow eleven months to pass before you use it.

November 2016

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Lunch*

Starters£3- £8

Mains £9- £18

Desserts £6

Dinner

Set menu

7 courses £50

 

The Score

Cooking 8.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 23/25

*We went for dinner. I can’t find a lunch menu on their website. These prices are based on a lunch menu from September 2016

 

 

Restaurant Mark Greenaway

69 North Castle Street, Edinburgh EH2 3LJ

0131 226 1155          http://www.markgreenaway.com

mark-greenaway

 

This is one of the most favourable reviews I have ever written. See below for Mr Greenaway’s response. Funny chaps these chefs. I recommend that you go, but for pretty obvious reasons (I don’t like being called a wanker)  I won’t be joining you.

The very first review to appear in the Tom Eats! column was of Restaurant Mark Greenaway. A fabulous review (fabulously written, of course) and wonderfully well deserved. Read it below. It appeared not long after a fantastic birthday meal celebrated there. Sadly, the gilt slipped off the gingerbread a little, due to staff issues. Suddenly, no one would take a booking for 1.00, although one would arrive as dictated at 1.15 on a wet Tuesday to find an empty dining room. General girns on social media produced a petulant response. The waiting staff then acquired an attitude – they seemed to be think they were doing you a favour. In short, we fell out of love with the place –  and it’s not hard to find alternatives in Edinburgh.

Today, on a whim, I called up for a table. One o’clock? No problem. Nothing was a problem for the brigade of lovely people who graced our lunch. No need to beckon – they were there; glass to be replenished – they were there before you; want five minutes to finish the wine before we bring the pudding menu – one step ahead. Fabulous. (Have I used that word before in this review? – oh, what the heck, Mr Greenaway deserves it.)

The food? I won’t trouble you with the details of an amazing sweetcorn velouté, a ham hough several miles above the clichéd version, hake which brought unimaginable flavour to that humdrum fish or a steak (on a twenty quid menu!) with béarnaise and a chip, Yes, you also read the latter correctly – go and find out for yourself. This is the greatest food bargain in the whole of the city. GO NOW!

I will rest when this place gets a Michelin star, and not before.

October 2016

I sent Mark Greenaway an advance copy of this review. Here is his response

WaW  (I have discovered this is shorthand for “what a wanker”)

I’m immensely proud of my staff past and present. We have been over your past issues before. I will not go over them again. I am glad you enjoyed your lunch however it’s probably best I take my petulant attitude and crap staff and focus on running a business. Good day to you. And of course I am going to stick up for my staff and my business and I you would hope you would do the same for yours. This conversation is now over and I feel we no longer have anything to say to each other.

Jings! I called for him to get a Michelin star. I wonder how he reacts to unfavourable criticism.

This was my original review from 2014

 I’m often asked for recommendations for where to eat in the capital. How hard can that be, I hear you cry? Tell them where you had a good feed recently and all will be well. Not so fast, my little naïve chum. Replying to such an apparently simple query is fraught with danger. Your reputation and future friendship may be on the line. Your skills in emotional intelligence, psychology and international relations may all be brought to bear, with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

For example, a significant stratum of Scottish society will question your sanity if fried potatoes in some language or other do not feature on the menu: others may feel their culinary quest to have been a disaster if stomachs are not swollen fit to burst at the end of the evening. Or if your recommendation of a sophisticated new wave eastern establishment fails to live up (or down) to the standard of the accustomed Madras with two naan breads. I could go on, but you get the drift. And do remember that when you are accused by the disappointed ones, it will all have been your fault. Recommendation: a difficult exercise with friends, impossible with a mere acquaintance.

Remember that as we enter the pleasant walls of Restaurant Mark Greenaway on the corner of Queen Street and Castle Street. The set lunch menu is the best bargain in the universe. A recent foray with a Distinguished Italian Teacher featured a celeriac velouté with celeriac crisps and truffle oil, a lemon sole main and an astonishing selection of chocolate work, all of which are still being shouted about in Milan. All for twenty two quid!

A celebration dinner saw the kitchen pull out every known stop, then pull a few more. Crab “cannelloni” were served in a jar billowing with the smoke used to flavour the cauliflower custard, together with lemon pearls and herb butter. A beef main dish looked as though it should be in one of the city’s galleries, adorned with osso bucco presse and beetroot pickled shallots. Desserts are often Greenaway takes on classics. So baked Alaska might include salt baked pineapple and green tea sponge. A dish prosaically named “jam jar” includes fruit compote, sorbet, rice pudding and jelly.

This kitchen can cook fast and it can cook slow. What it cannot do is produce something which is not bursting with flavour on every forkful. Every dish is beautifully presented in the modern idiom. One of the many things which set this restaurant apart is that everything is intended to be eaten. No smears that look like something you would rather not find on your shoe: nothing which fails to add to the total taste experience.

The dining room is simple and elegant. Staff are a delight. They know they are there to serve great food and make sure the customer is happy. They appreciate that we can read, know how to use a knife and fork, and don’t have to have a “food concept” explained. The restaurant was recently awarded three AA rosettes, and further recognition can’t be far away.

Where to eat in Edinburgh? Simple. Restaurant Mark Greenaway.

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Market Menu

2 courses £20

3 courses £24.50

A la carte

Starters

£9 – £14

Mains

£23– £33

Desserts

 £9 – £11

Tasting Menu

(Eight courses)

£65

 

 

The Score

Cooking   9/10

Service    4.5/5

Flavour   4.5/5

Value      4.5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

 

Airth Castle Hotel & Spa

Grill Room

Airth, Stirlingshire, FK2 8JF

www.airthcastlehotel.com            01324 831411

img_0547 airth-castle img_0546

 

There has probably been a castle or fortified building on this site since the time of William Wallace: legend has it that he attacked it to rescue an imprisoned uncle. The oldest part of the current castle building dates back to the 16th century. We know that the Bruce family lost it after taking the wrong side during the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, that it spent two centuries in the ownership of the Grahams (a well-known name in this part of central Scotland), and that it enjoyed fifty years in the hands of the Forrester family before becoming a hotel in 1971.

The imposing castle building is straight in front of you as you come up the drive, but confusingly you don’t go in there. The reception and the dining room is in the converted stables, which you can’t see until you reach the car park. This latter is in fact well signposted – it takes a certain type of stupidity to miss it. The main building is used for accommodation and for their very healthy wedding trade, which is not surprising considering the fabulous setting. For my own part, I wasn’t unhappy to be in a side building, given the ghostly reputation of the old one, inhabited we are told by a nanny and two young children who died in a fire, and a phantom dog which still nips guests’ ankles, presumably just for fun. This seems to be unrelated to the horse (above right) with the lampshade coming out of its head. The RSPCA have been informed.

L, the Emeritus WS and I had been on a jaunt nearby to see the Kelpies up close and personal. While the burgers and cones in the local kiosks and cafes looked pleasant enough, we required sustenance of higher quality and rolled up here. Good first impressions. Busy enough for a Thursday, including many attending for spa therapies – at least I assume that’s why so many were clad in dressing gowns. I discounted the possibility of a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.   A warm greeting from a lady whose father-in-law’s father had been chauffeur to the Forrester family. Not many establishments boast staff who can give you that level of historical background. The dining room is a modern conservatory, part of a nicely done conversion.

With respect to central Scotland, you don’t come to this neck of the woods expecting the culinary earth, but the menu was attractive. Something for everyone, while avoiding both the tired standards (though, being a pleb, I’m quite fond of steak pie and fish and chips) and the modern clichés (chicken Caesar salad, Thai green curry, etc). Very keenly priced at £10 for 2 courses. First courses were pretty decent. A goat’s (question for the pedants – should that be goats’?) cheese mousse was coated in crushed smoked almonds and served with a beetroot jam. A pressed ham hock terrine avoided the common flaws of being dried out or over refrigerated and came with a suitably tart apple compote. A mushroom starter came in a pleasant, if rather one dimensional, garlicky cream sauce. I failed to detect the advertised smoked cheese.

Mains were less successful. The burger was not made on the premises, nor was it particularly well sourced. The smothering of cheese seemed to be there primarily to hide its shortcomings. Chips were pale and a little flaccid. Roast chicken was praised faintly by being described as “well cooked”. I continued on the vegetarian theme by choosing “tomato and chilli gnocchi, marinated vegetables, grilled halloumi cheese and basil pesto”. There are two major traps awaiting purveyors of gnocchi: firstly, unless you’re careful they can be like bullets, and secondly, you need a lot of flavour to overcome their inherent blandness. What we had was a dish of gnocchi served in a pleasant tomato sauce which had a  light chilli kick and which contained onions and peppers. The second trap successfully avoided. Unfortunately, the first test was failed.  The net result was pretty stodgy. The best part was the grilled halloumi, and the most unsuccessful game played was hunt the basil pesto. Had I consumed the entire plateful, my chances of walking out unaided would have been slim. You will eat worse examples of this dish: you will also eat better.

Sadly, this was where the wheels started to come off. We had been looked after by the charming Aurora, who took  our coffee order and never returned. If you go off shift, you pass your tables on. After twenty minutes we had to go and search for someone (we were by no means the last in the dining room, which stays open all day). From there it took another ten minutes to find our bill and remove the coffee order. We were even asked what types of coffee we had ordered so that these could be removed. Is it hard to look up the table number and remove anything which says coffee?  Sadly, that loses a few points.

The overall verdict? Perfectly acceptable food in pleasant surroundings, but not really worth a special trip. The evening menu is similar, but boasts of a Josper grill and a wide range of steaks. May well be fun if you’re staying there, but not enough to tempt me back.

 

 

 

The Bill

 Lunch

 Mon – Thu

2 courses £10

3 courses £15

Fri – Sun

2 courses £12.95

3 courses £15.95

Dinner

Starters

£4.95 – £8.95

Mains

£12.95 – £32

Desserts

£3.30 – £5.95

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 2.5/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 3.5/5

TOTAL 14/25

 

 

 

Mozaic

Jl. Raya Sanggignan, Ubud, Kec.

 Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia

www.mozaic-bali.com    +62 361 975768

 

 dsc01913 mozaic-table

 

Holidays on small islands and fine dining don’t usually go together. We’re more likely to remember the sardines grilled al fresco, the little place with the perfect pan of some unusual local dish, or meals consumed on a high terrace shaded by vines or bougainvillea. For most of our month on Bali this was the case. We ate most types of Indonesian food on offer (including one local speciality that you expect to see described by Anthony Bourdain in one of his eat odd things odysseys). In all that time we ate only one substandard meal, but little that stood out as great, as opposed to good, food. Short trips to Malaysia and Cambodia, plus a couple of cookery classes piqued my interest (to say nothing of my taste buds) on the differences between the various eastern cuisines. With food from the Indian subcontinent being part of mainstream British fare these days (I think chicken tikka masala is now the most popular dish in the UK) many have moved on to the delights of Thailand, but the rest of Asia, China and Japan apart, is poorly represented here. Many treats await when you venture into the kitchens of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Looking for something above average we did a little research. Outwith the luxury hotels, Bali has two restaurants of note. One is Locavore, also in Ubud: the other is this place. Chef patron Christian Salans is American born and French raised. His CV is impressive, training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and spells with David Bouley and Thomas Keller, before his first trip to Asia. He established Mozaic in 2001. It has now won a raft of awards and is listed in Les Grands Tables du Monde. To put this in perspective, the UK has only half a dozen or so entries, mostly featuring surnames such as Roux and Blumenthal.

Part of me wants to enjoin you from reading the website. There is a fine line between selling oneself and going completely OTT. Tricky, but, for me, M Salans steps over that line. “A fresh oasis of ingenuity”, “à la minute creations which evolve, disappear and return”, “seeking out the earth’s bounty”, etc, etc. You get the picture.  Instead, allow his food to do the talking.

What is on offer is an interesting series of combinations of classically prepared dishes whose principal ingredients are very familiar to us in the west, skilfully allied with fruit, vegetables and spices from Bali and neighbouring Lombok. A basket of these local ingredients is placed on your table for reference. There is no a la carte. The choice is of three tasting menus, the Grand Menu from which you can choose 6 or 8 courses, a 6 course Vegetarian Menu and a 6 course Surprize (sic) Menu. You are given no advance warning of what you will get in the latter, but any allergies or dislikes are requested at time of booking and, unlike my experience of certain other establishments, they are scrupulously catered for. In addition to the advertised courses you are also supplied with amuse bouches (often one of my favourite parts of a dinner), and pre desserts. Even restricting ourselves to a mere 6 courses we felt no need to stop for a plate of nasi goreng on the way home. (If you don’t know what that is, check out this week’s Tom Cooks! column.)

We kicked off with prawns, tropical fruit and a tamarind reduction. This was by no means the last fruit combination, but showed true mastery in allowing the fruit to speak while avoiding any sweetness. Trout was served on a lemon and turmeric reduction, a perfect marriage. There was a slightly bitter note in the next course – but that’s what you get if you try to make a nutmeg purée. It was an unusual accompaniment to smoked quail and foie gras, one which didn’t quite come off. Suckling pig (babi guling, an established Balinese classic) was served three ways with a wonderful purée of mamey sapote. Not only was this a new one on me, it is a relative newcomer to Bali, originating in Mexico and Central America. Perhaps the star combination. The let’s-not make-things-too-sweet theme continued to the desserts. Sadly, they were the poorer for that and I speak as one who does not have a particularly sweet tooth. Local produce was again in evidence, featuring kenari nuts (in ice cream and praline form), kaffir lime leaves and belimbing wuluh. What, you were unaware of this tree of the genus Averrhoa, family Oxalidaceae? You really should get out more.

The website also spoke of a “magical garden setting” and here not even a cynic could quibble. You are lead through a dark passage into what seems to be a jungle clearing. Palm trees sway high above your head. The tables are discreetly lit so that the waiting staff suddenly appear at your side from the shadows. Magical indeed. If my description of the food sounds a little over analytical that is because there were so many new products and flavours on offer. These were succinctly introduced by the waiting staff, done in such a way that you were better informed without feeling you had been on the receiving end of a lecture. This being Bali, it goes without saying that the staff were friendly if, perhaps, a little stiffer than in other places.

This was our penultimate dinner in Bali. A wonderful climax, innovative food served in a perfect setting, well worth the hour and a half journey. Should you ever be fortunate enough to find yourself on this idyllic little island, you will do much worse than to dine at the table of M. Salans.

* Prices quoted are based on exchange rates at the time of our visit.

16500 rupiah = £1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill*

 

Grand Menu

6 courses £42.50

8 courses £60.50

Surprize Menu

6 Courses £76

Vegetarian Menu

6 courses £36.50

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

Kyloe Restaurant

Gourmet Steak  Restaurant and Grill

1 – 3 Rutland Street,  Edinburgh EH1 2AE

0131 229 3402  www.kyloerestaurant.com

 

Kyloe Interior

 

When love comes to town, I’m gonna jump that train

When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame

All of that is all dandy and grandy. It makes me think of BB King and Memphis: which makes me think of Beale Street: which makes me think carnivorous thoughts – BBQ as well as BB King. But lest you wonder as to the relevance of this ditty, let me declaim with certainty that when K comes to town you gonna eat meat. Actually, on her last visit she confessed to having vegetarian thoughts, but there are certain things which even a liberal such as my good self will refuse to countenance, so we’ll move swiftly on.

As swiftly as we moved to Kyloe, situated on the upper floor of The Huxley at the west end of Princes Street. Give that girl a sniff of beef and she’s out of the traps faster than a Fringe hopeful can snatch your ticket money. As a father of daughters one has certain responsibilities. Once they are beyond a certain age, I consider it my prime duty to spoil them rotten, in the case of this particular specimen with prime cuts. I knew the word kye (cow) from Sunset Song, so it was no great surprise to learn that kyloe is the Gaelic word for highland cattle. I’m not fond of attempts to bring Gaelic terminology into lowland Scotland – it’s as phony as people wearing Highland dress to dinners celebrating the lowland bard Robert Burns. Nor, in the main, am I fond of steak restaurants. They tend to be affordable, in which case the beef is of poor quality, or ultra expensive, in which case I usually leave thinking I could have done better myself. My steps up to the elegant entrance were therefore a little less than fairy like.

Isn’t it great when you expect a little and get a lot? From the moment we stepped in I loved the place. Greetings that were friendly and easy, views over some of Edinburgh’s best bits in different directions, comfortable seats and décor that was just right for the time and place (assuming you don’t mind the sundry comic cows).

The menu was also something of a surprise. Obviously the emphasis is going to be on beef, but non beef carnivores are well catered for as are fish lovers. Vegetarians are perhaps less well catered for (although the Parmesan and Lemon Gnocchi were tempting), but let’s not criticise a place for sticking to its message. The starter selection was wide ranging, classical and very tempting. I would happily have chosen any one of the dozen dishes on offer. The choice was made even more difficult by a list of charcuterie from two Borders farms, Peelham at Foulden, and Hardiesmill at Gordon. The latter farm also supplies much of the restaurant’s beef. We ordered a selection, including fennel salami, coppa, smoked lamb and Doewors Sticks. In a blind tasting one would have sworn that the first two were Italian and the latter were much much more palatable than any ghastly South African equivalent I ever tried. We also shared a fritto misto, a near perfect example of the genre, featuring, amongst other things, scallops, langoustines and squid in a light and greaseless tempura batter.

Our mains included an individual Beef Wellington, served with a bone marrow gravy, and a large ribeye. The steak, as you would expect, was faultless. Beef Wellington is a tricky dish to get right. I therefore do not expect it to be perfect every time – no worries here, as the kitchen nailed it. Now that saturated fat is good for us again (I think), no guilt surrounds the beef dripping chips, each one the size of a small ingot, crisp and beefy on the outside, fluffy in the middle. More satisfied sighs all round. In addition to the standard cuts, there is a guest cut, this week the modestly priced bavette, and a guest breed (Belted Galloway if I remember correctly).

K found room for pud – that child really has no shame. A little concoction involving sponge, raspberries in a champagne jelly with vanilla custard on top, which looked every bit as good as it tasted.

There are times to search for flowery words and there are times to be simple. I had a wonderful meal here and will definitely be back. Good meat is not cheap, although they do have a number of reasonably priced lunch dishes. My recommendation, however, would be to go rarely, or medium rarely, but go for the best. Worth every one of the many pennies it costs.

The Bill

Starters

£4.75 – £9.50

Mains

Lunch Specials

£8.50 – £12.95

A la carte

£14 – £38

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

 

Hadrian’s Brasserie

The Balmoral Hotel

1 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2EQ

0808 145 3715    www.roccofortehotels.com

Hadrians

 

Dining rooms in Scottish hotels? On the evidence of the last 50 years, these have not been good places for food lovers. Under heated dining rooms in provincial hotels, highland hotels with a welcome colder than a carlin’s cheek. Arriving at 8.01 pm to be denied any form of sustenance because the kitchen closed at 8.00.

There were exceptions, of course. The great railway hotels whose kitchens were the last bastions of the feudal system, where young men sweated through a five year apprentice before rising to the dizzy heights of commis chef. Before they were replaced with cut priced equivalents, hotel carveries were things of wonder. In the 1980s The Pompadour Room in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel was at its zenith: yet at the same time Glasgow’s Central Hotel was in the final stages of decline and fall. It really is difficult to remember how dire the Scottish food scene was a mere thirty years ago.

Now, of course we have more restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Pubs which do not serve food are the exception. How have hotels kept up with the food revolution? At the upper end, some try to compete at the top level in their own right: others enlist established names, some with transient success such as Gordon Ramsay or Michael Caines in Glasgow, others more successfully, such as Nick Nairn or Martin Wishart. But hotels have guests who need to be catered for daily. City centre space being the price it is, how best to combine the basic catering needs with generating extra turnover from the general public? This appears not to be easy; for example, the Roxburghe Hotel on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square has a chronically underused space on the corner of George Street with one of the finest views in the New Town.

My researches took me to the other end of Princes Street, to Hadrian’s Brasserie in The Balmoral Hotel. To many an Edinburgh resident this will still be the NB or the North British, the grande dame of Edinburgh hotels, whose clock is always three minutes fast to ensure that travellers get their trains on time. Always, that is, apart from Hogmanay when the bells ring on time.

Hadrian’s has been in place for a long time. Technically it is on North Bridge, but one can also enter from the main hotel. The interior hasn’t changed much in that time, classic 90s stuff in a soothing pale green with dramatic pictures of dancers in unlikely poses. If you are feeling frazzled as you enter, not only the décor will calm you. The service is, almost without exception, warm, welcoming and efficient. On my last visit a famous comedian was lunching. Judging by his companion’s reactions he is as funny off screen as on. He was being treated exactly the same as everyone, that is to say very well indeed.

The brasserie is open from 7.30 am to 10.30 pm, with a break between 11.00 and 12.30. One dreads to think how many covers are served, or how many miles walked by the waiting staff. Among the many problems faced by hotels of international renown is how to be all things to all people. Thus we have beef burger, steaks, fish and chips. Is there scope for any decent cooking? West Coast Crab Salad was enlivened with green apple (chopped by someone whose knife skills far outweigh mine) and marinated fennel. It was virtually all white meat, served in a daft crab shaped plate with the tiniest dottles of brown crab mayo piped impenetrably into little indentations. Tasty but frustrating. Avocado with Feta and Pomegranate conjured up thoughts of middle eastern exoticism, but tasted of little apart from the feta. If the accompanying frisée was dressed it was in a skimpy fashion, appropriate, I suppose, for the Edinburgh Festival which raged outside.

Cod is not generally my favourite fish, but I could readily change my views were it usually this good. Served in a light sauce with brown shrimps, mussels and sea vegetables, this dish was a thing of wonder. It is easy to wave airily at staples such as steak, fish and chips etc, but these are very good things if well done. Bizarrely, on one visit, we were told that fish and chips were off. Steak, from a choice of three cuts, was a 250g ribeye, of exceptional flavour, well hung and perfectly cooked. It comes with a choice of red wine or béarnaise sauce. I seldom resist the latter. Also perfect. The chips were perhaps a little greasy, but I’m being picky. Some may balk at the price (£29), but any kitchen has to aim to charge at least three times the cost of the ingredients (remember that one sixth of the price is VAT) and meat of this quality doesn’t come cheap. Mind you, I happen to know that they have their very own butcher dismembering carcasses in the basement, so they’re not paying the same rates as you and me. If I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the pricing doubt on that. I’m less forgiving elsewhere on the menu. The cheapest starter is six quid. For that I got a half avocado, six small cubes of feta, a smattering of pomegranate seeds and a tiny amount of lettuce. Onion soup is £7.50; chicken breast is £22. I could go on, but you catch my drift.

I have eaten here on and off over the years. I have recollections of a slightly more adventurous menu, but that may be memory playing tricks. I enjoyed my recent meals and I absolutely loved the service, but based on the five star prices I couldn’t give a whole hearted recommendation.

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £19.50

A la carte

Starters £6 – £12

Mains £15 – £35

Desserts

£7.50 – £10

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 17.5/25

 

 

 

Three Lemons

32 Dunkeld Street, Aberfeldy

Perthshire PH15 2AB

01887 820057   Website under construction

*In the absence of a website only the dinner menu is available

 

 Three Lemons

Guest Reviewer: David Dickson

 

Bonnie lassie, will ye go,

 Will ye go, will ye go,

Bonnie lassie, will ye go,

To the birks of Aberfeldy!

 

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,

 And o’er the crystal streamlets plays;

 Come let us spend the lightsome days,

 In the birks of Aberfeldy.

A glint of summer sun saw us in Aberfeldy but before my Bonnie lassies would partake of a glimpse of the crystal stream there was the question of dinner. Having sampled Iain Burnett’s sumptuous chocolates at Grandtully and delighted in the book lined shelves of The Watermill, the stakes had been raised on finding a good dinner.  The Three Lemons did not fail on either service, décor or food.

On a corner site, retaining the exterior of the original shop front, the former window bays are given over to low tables and easy chairs. The interior is light and fresh with a combination of booths, tables and higher tables and chairs near a small bar area.  Having been offered a booth (with ample space) we cast our eyes over the menu.

The starters were described as “wine plates” and offered a range including charcuterie, olives, bread, flat bread and hummus. The bistro style main courses were varied.   Two attractions were handmade pizza prepared in a wood fired oven and meat being prepared on an Inka Grill.  Being aficionados of pizza (mainly homemade, especially the all important base) and keen to experience the wood fired effect having last used an outdoor cob oven to great effect, we were keen to try.  We were not disappointed.  Thin, crispy and delicious with tasty toppings; large to boot and presented on heavy wooden boards.  The younger lassies were fair impressed.  Subsequent extensive investigation and tasting of other wood fired pizzas have put Three Lemons at the top of the tree.

The “wine plate” of cassoulet was a generous bowlful of slow cooked beans, peppers and chorizo served with flatbread. It was spicy and warming, real comfort food and better than we had tasted in Paris. The Inka Grill was a first for us.  It appears as a conventional oven but is in fact fired by charcoal, providing the benefits of open cooking in an enclosed British made oven.  The venison burger retained the full flavour of the meat, succulent and flavoursome.  A full range of meat and burgers was on offer.   Medium rare venison with a black pudding topping in a sweet brioche bun was earthy, meaty and delicious.  Accompanying fries were clearly handcut, crisp on the outside and fluffy inside.

Puddings were equally delightfully presented.  Lemon tart was sharp and appropriately tart, served with a portion of homemade meringue and local raspberries.  The sticky toffee pudding was plump with dates in a beautifully light sponge.  Local blueberries and homemade vanilla ice cream completed the dish.  Joy all round.

The meal was all we expected and more.  Service was suitably paced and friendly.  Despite being a Thursday evening the room quickly filled up with all generations eating and genuinely exchanging their delight at such good food.  A delightful, tasty, glowing meal on a summer’s evening in the lower Highlands followed by a walk through the Birks.  A lovely thing!

 

About the reviewer: David Dickson came into my life many years ago as Distinguished Literary Editor of the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland. He has ably assisted my researches for numerous Tom Eats! columns. In real life he is a solicitor advocate, cook and baker extraordinaire, gourmet and all round good egg (less round after a recent successful diet, curse him).

 

 

 

The Bill

Dinner*

Starters/Wine Plates

£3.50 – £8.95

Mains

£7.95 – £23.00

Desserts

£4.95 – £6.75

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

21212

3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB

0345 22 21212     http://www.21212restaurant.co.uk

 

Paul Kitching has now been producing food in this elegant dining room for eight years, winning rave reviews (and a Michelin star) along the way for the boldness and originality of his flavour combinations. It is perhaps appropriate that he chose Royal Terrace as the venue for his elegant restaurant with rooms. Its 19th century architect William Henry Playfair went on record as saying that he found the early New Town design to be boring. The city abounds with examples of his work, now classical to our eyes, but flamboyant at the time. Many regard the Regent/Royal Terrace development as his masterpiece.

As some will know, the name derives from the shape of the menu, featuring two starters, one soup, two mains, cheese and two desserts. At dinner they do three starters, mains and puds. You can choose to have two or more courses, at lunch, three or more at dinner, except on Saturday, when five courses seem to be compulsory. Being peckish we were geared up for a four course lunch. I had dined here some years back, but the elegant Georgian dining room is perhaps even better suited for lunchtime. The room has been knocked through, the rear section being an open kitchen. Watching the seven or so chefs at work must be what it is like for a skilled engineer watching the workings of a Rolls Royce engine, silent, efficient, apparently effortless. The same delightful lady who had taken our booking met us and passed us on to a waiter of equal charm. Lunch times in Edinburgh don’t get much better. So far.

The menu structure is of course extremely handy for the kitchen. Yes, each plate contains many and varied elements (for example The Dirty Dozen (Washed), Summer Vegetables, Aragan & Macadamia, Chickpeas & Watercress, Tomato & Ginger Water): and that’s disregarding the multitudinous foams, emulsions, crisps and freeze dried extras which adorn most of them. But what if you don’t or can’t eat any of the component parts on offer? We are anything but fussy eaters, but L can’t eat cream, as was explained in response to the question when we booked the day before. An adjustment was made to the starter “10CC”, featuring breaded smoked haddock and scallop, grapes, beetroot, crab and new potatoes. This astonishing compilation was many times better than it sounds. The component parts of many dishes are often difficult to identify, but the net result is that in different parts of the plate you savour different flavour combinations, to stunningly good effect. On the side there was served a brightly coloured, babushka decorated teacup with crab and beetroot, some sort of foam on mine, something else on L’s. The soup was a wonderful combination of two, vegetable and artichoke. No cream free option was available. My main of “A Pear of Fishes” was, to quote the menu, Halibut & Smoked Salmon, Caviar 1/2, 2x2x2x2, Spinach, Onion, Mushroom, Nuts. I may not have understood the menu, but the dish was sensational. “Deli Style Chicken” was offered with beef and numerous accompanying morsels, again eliciting superlatives; however, when it came to pudding, the dairy free one became a pariah once more. A platter of fresh fruit was offered. I fancied neither of the two on offer, both of which contained nuts.

In a kitchen staffed with unbelievably talented chefs, this is completely unacceptable, especially when advance notice has been given. Our meal which should have been a total of eight courses between us was severely curtailed. That lunchtime, 2+2+2+2 equalled five. When such a restricted menu is only for the benefit of the management, not the customers, such an approach shows contempt for the punters. In restaurants of far less stature this issue has been dealt with infinitely better. We remember the food with something approaching awe, but we remember the experience as a whole with a slightly sour taste, reflected in a couple of marks knocked off the value for money score. A pity. This could have been very special indeed.

July 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

2 courses £24*

3 courses £32*

4 courses £42*

5 courses £55

 

Dinner

3 courses £65*

4 courses £72*

5 courses £79

(*supplement for cheese)

 

 

 

The Score

Cooking 9/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

 

La Rua

Via Matteoli, 73, Specchia, Province of Lecce, Italy

+00 39 328 8428 123

 

 DSC01365

 

There are virtually no “unknown” parts of Italy remaining. Puglia was perhaps the most recent of these to be “discovered”; however, for many the holiday will centre around Alberobello, UNESCO World Heritage site, home to the trulli, curious little conical structures built of dry stone, thus capable of speedy deconstruction when the home tax collector was seen to be on his way. And for those many, the beautiful city of Lecce may be their southernmost sight. Below that is the Salento peninsula, the Land’s End of Italy, the spur on the heel of the boot. Its Adriatic coast to the east is rocky: to the west beach lovers find much to enjoy on the Ionic Sea. Inland there is a plethora of little towns and villages of varying degrees of interest, some claiming to be among the collection of Italian’s most beautiful. Specchia is one such, its piazza gleaming from the typical Lecce stone, a pretty church or two, a reasonable hillside view. Worth a look in the passing, no more.

What took us there was primarily a mention of another restaurant in the guide which our helpful owners had provided in our little house on a masseria, (fortified farm) nearby. Said establishment was in the grip of a refurbishment, Italian style, which seems to involve the visit, every few days or so, of a man or two in a lorry or on a Vespa. The occasional fag is smoked, a quick confab takes place, then it’s home for lunch. May be open again in 2018.

By way of replacement we stumbled on La Rua, a newly opened restaurant just off the long hill leading to the Centro Storico. It has been converted from an olive mill, the equipment and stone tanks still in situ. Judging from the slightly shambolic look of the garden (it is also a bar at night) we took it to be older, but a chat with the owner on our second visit confirmed its newcomer status. Given the large number of people whom we met who all seemed to be associated with it, to say nothing of their physical similarities, this must be a family run concern, with the gentle laid back approach this often brings, and the friendly but slightly disorganised service of people who haven’t been at the game all that long. Not perhaps the best of introductions, but behind the kitchen doors are a few folk who know what they’re about. La Rua advertises itself as providing cucina tipica (don’t they all), but unlike many there is substance behind the boast. This area was one of Italy’s poorest for centuries, its cuisine deriving from the so called cucina povera, where meat was a luxury and every part of the animal was used. A platter of antipasto was virtually meat free, the exception being a ham and artichoke stuffing for some grilled aubergines. A slice of cold aubergine parmigiana was a delight, as were some potatoes cooked dauphinoise style with mushrooms and cheese. A square of a sort of frittata came with courgettes. A light ratatouille with capers, and baby tomatoes with oil were sweet and sublime. No one fries better than the Italians. A starter of frittini included arancini, little balls of cooked rice, one of the few times I’ve ever seen the point of that dish. Best of all were tiny potato croquettes, light as air, delicately flavoured with mint. The traditional Salento pasta is orecchiette (little ears), and very fine they were. We had them in a simple tomato sauce, the traditional turnip top accompaniment (cime di rapa) being out of season.  Tagliatelle was (or were if you are an Italian speaking pedant) less good. If you want to be really tipica, yes you can eat horse here, pezzetti di cavallo featuring proudly among the secondi piatti.

I had never heard of gnommareddhi, another Puglian dish. I was told it featured sheep’s liver, heart and lungs – sounds familiar to a Scotsman. In fact, nothing minced at all. Pieces of liver and heart were stuffed together and tied up with some bits of entrail or other and served nicely seared. Served with rocket and lemon, this tasted very much better than expected.

Puddings were the usual Italian bought in stuff. OK, but not a connoisseur’s delight. The place is light, high ceilinged and airy, even better when they remember to switch on the air-con. When it’s 40˚C outside you really need it. Service is gently shambolic, but eventually you do get the right combination of fork, knife, napkin, wine glass and water glass. The fact that there is a ready smile and, on our first visit, a gift of a book of photographs of the region, helps. With this sort of food and at these staggeringly low prices, it’s a place you want to return to (and we did.)

June 2016

 

 

The Bill

Antipasti

€5 – 12

Primi Piatti

€6 – 12

Secondi Piatti

€7 – 13

Dolci

€3

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 17/25

 

 

Norn

50 – 54 Henderson Street, Edinburgh EH6 6DE

0131 629 2525          http://www.nornrestaurant.com

 

 Norn Amuse Bouche Norn Asparagus

 

Gaudeamus igitur. L and I are no longer iuvenes, as was evidenced by the latest birthday celebrated here, and by the aching joints and creaking knees which accompany us everywhere. That, however, must not prevent rejoicing in the young, especially the talented and the bold, such as Scott and Laura who have taken the huge and brave step to open their own place in Leith on the site of the former Plumed Horse.

How many who swan in and out of restaurants have ever run their own businesses? How many have sunk their life savings and more into a venture they care about? How may have had the guts to follow their dream? Remember that the next time you are tempted to find fault with a new enterprise. You were delighted when your first child took its first faltering steps, not critical of its lack of balance or grace.

There my metaphor ends. Norn is one of the most exciting new culinary ventures to hit Edinburgh since Messrs Wishart and Kitchin were putting up their plates for the first time. Boasts about foraged produce tend to cause me to groan, and everyone does seasonality. But few, I suspect, change the menu as often as Mr Smith; fewer still have such a sure hand when it comes to dealing with the unfamiliar. When reading about the opening of Norn (an ancient Scottish language from somewhere between Inverness and Shetland, apparently), I was much more excited to read that Scott trained under Geoffrey Smeddle at Peat Inn. And boy did he learn well. In the three years between leaving Peat Inn and opening here he has been working on ideas and refining his technique to produce food of a complexity, subtlety and sophistication that is rarely found anywhere.

At dinner the choice is between a four course and a seven course menu. There is no choice; however, when you call to book the charming Laura will ask about allergies and the like. Without any reminder on the night, the one dish with a small component which contained cream was brought with a readymade alternative.

The amuse bouche, a “carpaccio” of tomato, started the evening with a wow. A crimson disc was topped with edible flowers, microscopic capers and the smallest croutons known to Man.  I loved the tartare of mackerel with cicely and lemon served in a cicely gazpacho. L was less entranced, raw fish not being her thing. (She had a pretty miserable time when forced to spend three weeks in Japan for work, but that’s another story.) The very last of this season’s asparagus came with purees and foams and some raw bits and some cooked bits. If that sounds poncy, it wasn’t. As you can see from the picture above it was a thing of beauty. Chicken breast came with mushrooms and cavolo nero. The plate was a masterclass in colour and texture, the softness of the sous vide or poached chicken offset with some crispy chicken skin. Underneath, there was a symphony of juices, chicken mingling with lovage. Lovely.

And so to pud. A fresh Scottish strawberry au naturel is a thing of loveliness. Mess with it at your peril. I have eaten strawberries everywhere. Attempts to do cheffy things with them almost invariably fall flat. Almost, but not here, served in three forms, fresh, dried and poached, livened with mint, hiding little spots of almond panna cotta and a white chocolate crunch. Sensational.

Front of house there are Laura and Sandro, the knowledgeable sommelier from Marseille. (We reassured him we were not English, and tendered apologies on behalf of our hooligan southern neighbours). Unusually the food is brought to the table by the chefs, displaying justified pride in their work. This is not a large place, but I counted at least five in the open plan kitchen. So after this raft of praise, are there any quibbles? A few. I did feel everyone out front was trying just a little too hard, but better that than indifference. I enjoy the Rolling Stones as much as anyone of my generation, but they played incessantly, quite loudly and on a loop. There was no decaff coffee. Leaving aside the service issue, stocking it would have probably added at least twenty quid to their turnover, since we were in the mood for a digestif to celebrate the birthday. But you see how hard I had to work to find something negative to say. These are the merest of teething troubles. The next time I decide to visit (and it will be soon) I hope I will be forced to book well in advance. For all of your sakes, I hope it will be you occupying the tables. I predict this will be a runaway success. Reserve your table now.

June 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

(Thu – Sat)

3 courses £20

Dinner

(Tue – Sat)

4 courses £40

7 courses £65

 

 

The Score

Cooking 8.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

Naše Maso (Our Meat)

Dlouhá 39

110 00 Prague, Czech Republic

+420 222 311 378            http://www.nasemaso.ambi.cz

Our Meat Lard and Candle Our Meat Bones Our Meat T Bone

 

I have nothing against prosperity. I enjoy Sophie Tucker’s famous quotation (also attributed to Mae West and Beatrice Kaufman) – I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.

But what those of us living in the affluence of western Europe in the 21st century fail to realise is how much our eating habits have changed as a result. Nowhere is this reflected more than in our attitude to meat. Offal is rarely served today, even liver and kidneys. Many who enjoy black pudding become very squeamish when its contents are explained, and occasionally passengers on my tour bus would reflect its bilious green colour when I told them the terrible truth about haggis. No one makes humble pie any more. Yes, it really did exist, though correctly known as umble pie, umbles being animal entrails, the word generally being used of the innards of a deer.

In eastern Europe, however, they have not lost the art of nose to tail eating, and I suspect never will. In particular, they have failed to adopt our obsession with lean meat. Their butchers will adopt the mantra that fat is flavour. If you want to experience a little of that (with no offal or entrails in sight), try the astonishing set dinner at Naše Maso, in the Old Town, close to the city centre in Prague. This is a butcher’s shop of the old school, with carcasses on display, being expertly attended to by skilled craftsmen. Where it varies from the norm is that they will happily cook their produce for you there and then. You can take away burgers or sausages, or munch them in store, pouring yourself an accompanying beer from a tap on the wall.

But the highlight for real carnivores is the single sitting dinner at 7pm at the central table, seating six, or seven if they’re friendly. The menu is on a board on the wall. Translated, the first three courses are Candle, Tartare and Bones. Before that, however, amuse bouches. There is a plate of sundry delicacies on bread, salamis, rillettes, brawn etc. But the eye catcher is the large plate of cubes of pork fat, nicely browned, with a large dish of salt to dip it in. Once you get over your namby pamby western shock it’s surprisingly delicious, even if you are aware of a soft rumble of complaint emanating from your arteries.

Then the candle, which arrives lit, melting the beef dripping of which it’s made so you can dip your bread. You can buy some to take home. A substantial tartare follows. George, our friendly butcher turned waiter for the evening, tells us that the secret ingredient is some finely chopped salami. Pretty full already, and only two courses down. The bones course was a large tray of, I think, shin bones, roasted and split down the middle to enable you to access the marrow. We were advised to spread this on bread which we rubbed with garlic. That was accompanied by the only piece of greenery all night, a parsley and onion salad. (I wouldn’t advise dining here if you were thinking of going on to a party later with romance in mind.)

A relief from the fat came with the next course, a generous plate of pork. I was unsure of the cut. There was the faintest marbling which suggested that it wasn’t fillet, but it was succulent and tender. George obligingly brought me a pig hip bone to try to explain its source to me. I am none the wiser. We were advised to eat the pork with crisp apple and dill pickles, a splendid combination.

Then the biggest T bone steak I have even seen. Even for four people it was OTT. I had been taken by my resident Prague expert, GB. We shared with Petra and Michal, two charming Czech lawyers. Even after we had eaten half a pound of meat each the Prague residents all went home with doggy bags. I was glad that the strudel which rounded off proceedings wasn’t up to much. It’s one of my favourites, but A & E would have beckoned had I crammed any more in.

The shop and its concept are the brain child of František Ksana. The latest in a long line of family butchers, he decided to branch out on his own. Reading interviews with him, it is clear he is passionate about meat and an adherent to the view that happy, well treated animals will produce the best meat. Judging from this meal, he’s got it right.

I have never had a dinner quite like this. While you are eating you are in the middle of the bustle as other customers are served from the counter and burgers and sausages sizzle in the background. You help yourself to beer, with an honesty system for keeping a tab. Good Czech red wine (I didn’t know such a thing existed) is available and George will offer shots of plum brandy from time to time. Excellent for cutting through the fat. If you want to try this one off carnivorous cornucopia you must book up well in advance, but you can drop in at any time (it’s open until late) to snack on any number of Mr Ksana’s delights. If you’re in Prague and you’re not a veggie, don’t miss it.

 

 

The Bill

Set Dinner

1000 crowns

(about £32)

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

APIARY RESTAURANT

33 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH9 1QR

0131 668 4999     www.apiaryrestaurant.co.uk

 

 

Some time ago I reviewed Apiary’s sister restaurant, Three Birds in Bruntsfield. I didn’t give it a score having eaten only the one plate. Now, having encountered both birds and bees I hope to give you more of the facts of restaurant life. (Well, it sounded witty when I first thought of it.) While the food is similar in both places the overall layout in Apiary is less cramped, although Distinguished Literary Editor and I had to manoeuvre ourselves carefully to get into one of the booths along the street side.

The ladies who run this pair of eateries are smart operators who clearly understand their market. They are set up as neighbourhood bistros of high quality. If city slickers choose to enter their doors they will be welcome, but don’t sneer if you think, for example, the décor is less sophisticated than in the town centre. For my own part I thought it was fun, a word I would use quite a lot to describe the whole experience here. A little unusually these days one speaks to a human being to make a reservation. It was as though I were an old friend.  When I next spoke to my newest friend to change the time of the booking, it felt as though I were doing her a favour, not the other way round, I arrived early, DLE (who was having a very stressful week), late. Neither fazed the delightful waiting staff, who proved that it is possible to smile and recognise an entrant’s presence while delivering a plate of food. Such multi tasking is beyond many in the hospitality industry.

The chef is allowed free rein, reflected in the eclectic menu. From the nibbles on the Side Bar, one may select not only the expected bread or olives, but also a veggie mezze platter or a crispy pig’s ear. From a selection of six starters plus two daily specials on a handwritten menu and a few more on the blackboard, we had “wee sausage hotpot” with venison and haggis sausages and Japanese pickled mackerel with edamme beans. Compare and contrast. The only thing in common was that both were very good. There is a bit of Asian influence here but, to be fair, there are influences from everywhere. You won’t find that in bistros in most European countries.

There is a daily changing seafood sharing platter. Today’s attracted our (undivided) attention. A whole seabass stuffed with Mediterranean vegetables was accompanied by a giant bowl of mussels in a winey, garlicky, creamy broth with some good sized crevettes thrown in for good measure, along with bread, anchovy butter and skinny fries. Two miracles here: firstly, that you can have this for only 18 quid a head (remember, that’s only 15 after they’ve paid the taxman), and secondly, that the DLE’s elegant silk tie survived unmarked. When it comes to pudding or Afters, as they are designed on the menu, the chef really goes to town. The list included Sumac Martini Mess, Sticky Coconut Rice Pudding and (DLE’s choice) Sweet Potato and Cocoa Rum Drizzle Cake. I usually body swerve anything to do with that overrated tuber, but the piece which I snaffled was very fine. It came with sweetcorn and chilli ice cream. No, you did not misread that. There is a separate menu of ice creams and sorbets, with a selection of 12, including blue cheese, white choc and horse radish and pink peppercorn and ruby grapefruit. I tried the latter. Stupidly, I also ordered the sweetcorn and chilli, not realising it featured on the other plate. A little of the sweetcorn goes a long way, but peppercorn and grapefruit has definitely given me ideas.

This is the sort of place which should be feted and encouraged. Every neighbourhood should have one. Judging from the number of satisfied faces on show I think that this hive of pleasure will not be short of future visitors, whether workers such as DLE or drones like me.

June 2016

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£4 – £6.50

Mains

£11 – £20

Afters

£3 – £4.50

 

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

Tower Restaurant

National Museum of Scotland

Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

0131 225 3003    http://www.tower-restaurant.com

 

the-tower-restaurant

 

Situated at the top of the museum’s modern extension, this restaurant is another part of the James Thomson (Witchery by the Castle, Prestonfield House) empire. On the last visit, as guests of the generous EmeritusWS, it had everything you have come to expect from Mr Thomson. Bags of style and oodles of class…at a price. Of that more later.

There is an outside terrace with views to the Castle. The main dining room looks over the roofs of Chambers Street down to the quirky spires of George IV Bridge. (Edinburgh from on high is quite a different city to the one encountered at street level.) In this elegant modern space you can eat your way through the day, beginning with brunch at 10, sandwiching afternoon tea in between lunch and dinner.

We lunched, warmly greeted by the many slick and professional staff. In addition to the carte there is a set lunch menu and a table d’hote. Unfortunately they are printed on the reverse (was it pure coincidence that all three menus were presented a la carte side up?) and we failed to notice them. Not that we were complaining, with the range of delights on offer. A crab and prawn cocktail arrived on a plate with more than a passing resemblance to a flying saucer, and was pronounced excellent. Ballontine of rabbit was attractively presented with pickled carrots and some anonymous green gloop, but was a little bland. Two of us shared a chateaubriand, beef of the very highest quality accompanied by a choice of mash or chips and red wine sauce or Béarnaise. So often this dish delivers an obscene amount of food, with quality sacrificed for the sake of quantity. This portion sufficed for two greedyish people with no need to negotiate a doggy bag. L was equally enthusiastic about her seabass. (As a passing thought, when and why did we start referring to this fine fish as seabass? There is no such thing as freshwater bass. What next? Seahaddock? Seacod?) But I digress.

On to puds. Rhubarb crumble came with ginger ice cream. A classic combination, even if the crumble topping resembled granola sprinkled on as an afterthought. A thin slice of a chocolate terrine, fashionably salted, was bejewelled with honeycomb and pleased the palate well. The website boasts the best coffee in Edinburgh, and very fine it was. Had this been one of these old fashioned places of distant memory where the guests are given menus without prices, I would have had few quibbles. I have been here a few times before and that is probably the first time I could report that. But even though I wasn’t picking up the tab, I was keeping an eye open for second mortgage advisers. I won’t comment on the meat prices. Top notch meat such as they serve here doesn’t come cheap, and many who cast critical eyes on menu prices often forget that one sixth of the bill goes straight to the taxman. But fifty quid for a lobster? Or, worse still £22.50 for a butternut squash risotto? We all have a living to make, and the elegant staff uniforms were very well pressed, but even in London one has to look quite hard to pay these sorts of rates. I enjoyed my meal and my view of the top of the former Dental Hospital, but in a city full of top class chefs cooking good quality ingredients this won’t be high on my recommendation list. Compared to Mr Thomson’s other venues it comes a distant third behind the estimable Prestonfield House and the intimate charm of The Witchery.

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Set lunch

(two courses)

£19.95

3 course

table d’hote

£36.00

Lunch

& Dinner

A la carte

Starters

£7.95 – £17.95

Mains

£19.50 – £50.00

Puddings

£6.50 – £8.50

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 17.5/25

 

 

 

The Art School Restaurant

1 Sugnall Street, Liverpool L7 7EB

0151230 8600   http://www.theartschoolrestaurant.co.uk

Art School Pipette

 

I am not clear as to whether there ever was an art school on this site, tucked away behind the newly reopened Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. What we do know is that it was once a home for destitute children. Times move on. No gruel to be had here, although Paul Askew’s food will have you queueing up for more. One of Liverpool’s most renowned chefs, the charming Mr Askew fulfilled a dream when he opened this restaurant two years ago, moving from the nearby Hope Street Hotel and London Carriage Company.

I had never heard of the place, but I had heard of Paul Askew. I had entrusted youngest daughter TN with choosing a venue for the highlight dinner of my annual visit, and she inadvertently struck gold. Hidden behind a Georgian door, the small reception opens into a calm, elegant dining room under a large glass canopy that must be a nightmare on a summer afternoon. The kitchen is visible through a plate glass window, but is enclosed to spare us the sounds, smoke and smells. Not even the best of kitchens nor the most efficient of extractor systems gets things right all the time.

TN, her companion HC and I all opted for the tasting menu, this being terra nova for the two of them. It includes a glass of (real) fizz to start. HC had had a fraught week. I always knew that champagne had medicinal qualities – his visible relaxation proof of its efficacy. Not only our bouches were amused by the first offering. A teacup containing a tiny morsel of salmon and dill looked disconcerting until filled with asparagus velouté poured from a teapot, and not a Mad Hatter in sight. It would be tedious to describe every last crumb, but this dinner was of a uniformly high standard, complex dishes well conceived and expertly executed. A couple of splendid fish courses to begin, the first featuring turbot, crayfish and lobster, the second a conventional marriage of scallop (please note the spelling – it’s scAllop, not scOllop) with cauliflower and morcilla. The latter dish did contain a real mini show stopper, a tiny piece of the most extraordinary cauliflower ever, spiced and roasted. The meat dishes were duck and veal, the former a take on the classic duck à l’orange with a “burnt orange” sauce. No idea how it was done, but delicious. Had I been cooking the duck I would have given it a few minutes more, and I would have been wrong. My first impression was that it was alarmingly pink: in fact, it was perfect.

The pre dessert (pictured) was the conversation piece of the night. A perfect pear sorbet came with a pipette sticking out, enabling you to choose your own dosage of cognac. Two or three of these and we would have been well pipetted.

This is very good cooking indeed. An idiotic woman from The Guardian said some unkind things about it. I quote – There’s no sense that anyone involved has eaten in an ambitious restaurant outside Liverpool since the turn of the century. That’s just the sort of snobbish rubbish that gets restaurant critics a bad name. This is not cutting edge Soho or Mayfair, nor is it trying to be. This is where you come for fun not pretension, to be fed like royalty (though minus the Tupperware) and to enjoy yourself in a relaxed atmosphere. Curiously the staff all seemed a little nervous at the start of service, but warmed up as the evening went on. Paul Askew returned our cheery wave by coming and chatting – a lovely man, which came as no surprise having watched the calm, well oiled working of his kitchen. Like head chef, like brigade. Not cheap, but well worth it for  a special occasion, which in our case was, it’s Friday.

May 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

(and early evening)

Prix fixe

2 course £23.50

3 courses £29

Dinner

Menu Excellence £69

Tasting Menu

£89

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Score

Cooking 8.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 21.5/25

 

 

 

The Dome – The Grill Room

 14 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PF

 0131 624 8624     http://www.thedomeedinburgh.com

 

The Dome Interior 1

 

There may be more spectacular dining rooms in Edinburgh, or indeed in Scotland, but they will be few and far between. Begun in 1844, on the site of the former Physicians’ Hall, the head office of the Commercial Bank was designed at a time when one of the main criteria was to be grander than your competitors. The architect, David Rhind, who went on to design Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College, certainly succeeded. Ironically he based the frontage on the design for Surgeons’ Hall. The Commercial Bank became the Royal Bank, then in 1996 the building was one of the earliest and certainly the grandest in the great flood of converting banks to bars.

I apologise. The phrase “banks to bars” has a cheaply alliterative ring to it, but is quite inaccurate here. This place is far, far more than that. There is indeed The Front Bar, but there is also The Georgian Tea Room, The Club Room and, jewel in the crown, The Grill Room under the wondrous and eponymous dome. As a visitor to Edinburgh do not under any circumstances miss it. But a room with an inbuilt view is one thing: it’s what you do inside it that counts.

L and I went for a special occasion lunch organised by BC Liz and birthday girl, BCL’s  Auntie W, herself a grande dame of the licensed trade. The table in front of the stained glass windows looked just the job, gleaming napery and immaculately dressed waiting staff. Sadly the latter went AWOL almost at once, at time when an aperitif is customary. I attracted the attention of one young lady who apologised that she couldn’t help since she was just a trainee. Some training on fetching a colleague might pay dividends. We were seeking some birthday bubbles, which eventually arrived about ten seconds ahead of the first course. Now, no cheating – you have to read the rest of the column before guessing the score for service.

Butternut squash soup was pronounced fine, as was the crispy goat’s cheese with black pudding and celeriac remoulade. A haggis, neeps and tatty starter came with some unadvertised brown gloop. I seem to have drawn the short straw. A game terrine tasted a little better than it looked, which was not great. The accompanying gooseberry chutney had the vinegary edge which you get when it has just emerged from the pickling pan, before you store it for three months. In short it was inedible. The accompanying endive and mixed green salad looked nice but had no dressing at all, although on close inspection there was the faintest smear of what tasted like olive oil in a corner. Noone commented on why a three quarters full plate of food was being returned.

Our mild complaint about the speed of delivery of starters was clearly taken on board, since a very long time elapsed before any more food appeared. It all looked good and the portions were generous. Monkfish was roasted in parma ham and served with capers. Spinach and feta were wrapped in filo pastry. Venison casserole came with a wonderfully rich but under seasoned gravy. The mashed potato on the other hand was exemplary. A perfectly cooked chicken breast was served with allegedly wild mushrooms (in April?). The accompanying “gratin” potatoes were a so-so dauphinoise and as for the advertised brandy in the sauce, the kitchen must still be in Lent mode. Some bread to mop up some of the gravies would have been good, but bread and plates are removed after the first course, whether you want it or not. Auntie W’s birthday was marked with a candle (in truth, several score too few) on a slice of tasty sticky toffee pud with butterscotch ice cream. We shared it. Someone started clearing the plates while others were still eating. I despair: you wouldn’t get that in a Toby Carvery.

We finished by ordering some black coffees with cold milk. Depressingly we were neither surprised that two jugs of hot arrived, nor that the replacements took five minutes to appear. Staff went AWOL again when we needed the bill: the nice thing is that they seemed to be enjoying their chats. L and I stopped visiting The Dome a number of years ago after a seriously bad service experience. It’s sad that no improvement seems to have been made.

The good news is that Auntie W enjoyed her birthday, but we’ll go somewhere else next year.

April 2016

 

 

The Bill

Set lunch

2 courses £16

3 courses £20

A la carte

Starters

£4.50 – £10.50

Mains

£15- £33

Desserts

£5.50 – £7.50

 

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 13/25

 

The Pompadour by Galvin

Waldorf Astoria Hotel (The Caledonian)

Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB

0131 222 8975

www.thepompadourbygalvin.com

 

 Pompadour Exterior

 

What a curious meal. I have never ever had a dinner so infuriatingly inconsistent. Awful to sublime in the course of two hours or so, fortunately in that order.

But to begin at the beginning. What is a Pompadour? Who is Galvin? How are they related? Do you care? If so, read on. Madame de Pompadour was the 18th century mistress of Louis XV, King of France. The trained hair stylists among you will know that this was a hair style designed for her, featuring the hair swept upwards from the face and worn high over the forehead, the most notable male wearer being a young Elvis Presley. Now to Galvin. Actually, there are two of them, brothers Jeff and Chris from London, who blew into Edinburgh some years ago with a stellar pedigree, with head chefships under their belts working for the likes of Nico Ladenis, Antony Worrall-Thompson, Marco Pierre White, and Corbyn and King.

In 2005 they set up their first venture, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. Sundry others soon followed. Perhaps their best known is Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton, awarded a Michelin star in 2010. Two years later they were lured to Scotland to revive the tired food offerings available at The Caledonian Hotel on Princes Street, one of the two grandes dames  who flank Edinburgh’s principal thoroughfare. (The management may call it a Waldorf Astoria as much as they like and for as long as they like, but to Edinburgh folk it will always be The Caley.)

Fifty years ago The Pompadour was the place to dine in Edinburgh if money was no object. It declined with the fall of the British Railways hotel brand (incredible to think that was once synonymous with luxury). It reflowered briefly and spectacularly in the 1980s then spent some time in hibernation until the arrival of our heroes. L and I went to celebrate a special occasion, wearing best bib and tucker and in the mood to be swept off our feet.

You can’t always get what you want. I generally love amuse bouches, the chef’s chance to show off both flavour and technique and get the palette excited about what is to come. We were presented with two tiny cheese scones/puffs which tasted as though they’d been stored for a while. Next to them were two lukewarm things with the appearance of small flaccid chips. Tomato something, we were told. We were lied to. Flaccid lukewarm chips would have been more welcome. To the main event. L had a terrine of ham hock, chicken and foie gras. Unusually it came as thin shavings rather than a tranche, but tasted fine. I went for a Galvin signature dish, crab lasagne with beurre Nantaise. The latter is a variation on a beurre blanc. The addition of cream makes it more stable. Not so in this case. The sauce had split and was deeply unpleasant. At this point I sought additional bread from one of the seven waiting staff (approximately one for every three tables). I attracted attention at the seventh time of asking. While I admired the symmetry, the bread, alas, arrived too late.

We shared a wonderfully good chateaubriand, crusted on the outside, perfect in the middle. This came with potato millefeuilles, a rather underdone shallot and an allegedly confit garlic clove which tasted almost raw. Had we passed on pudding as we generally do, this review would have been damning. It is much lifted, as were our spirits, by two of the finest desserts I have ever eaten. Ever. Anywhere. L’s cheesecake of Yorkshire rhubarb with rhubarb and ginger beer sorbet was sublime, but was transcended by my chocolate pavé. I forget the exact detail but it was rich and gooey and wonderful and had something crunchy and chocolate on the base and….but you get the picture.

Get out while you’re ahead, Johnston. But no. We chatted with the amiable maitre d’ for a little and decided to finish the celebration with a wee digéstif. Our new chum said he would send a man with a trolley. Said man duly arrived some time later, just as the last dregs of a very hot coffee had been drained. Not good anywhere, but completely unacceptable in a place which describes itself as “Edinburgh’s finest best French restaurant in Scotland…”

In the interests of my dear reader I have agonised on how to score this food. As we had to do at school I will show working. Out of 10: amuse bouche 2; starters 4.5; mains 7 and desserts 10. That averages 5.875. As it’s Saturday, I’ll round it up.

The sad thing is that this place could be very good indeed. There is clearly talent in the kitchen, but laziness at the top allowing substandard dishes to leave. The staff whom we encountered were lovely, but clearly not sufficiently well trained, nor adequately supervised. Given the competition from other places with a much better claim to be Edinburgh’s finest best restaurant, Messrs Galvin have some work to do.

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£16.50 – £24.50

Main courses

£28.50 – £36.50

Desserts

£9.50 – £11.50

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 2.5/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 14.5/25

 

The Wee Restaurant

61 Frederick Street, Edinburgh EH2 1LH

0131 225 7983          http://www.theweerestaurant.co.uk

 

 The Wee Restaurant Edinburgh 4

 

There’s a lot of hype about food and restaurants, and a lot of misinformation about Edinburgh history. So it would be wrong to describe the opening in the capital of a branch of one of Fife’s best restaurants as being the best received invasion since Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. In fact, the Young Pretender was coolly received: the good burghers of Edinburgh have always been able to spot a phony.

There’s even more hype about boxing. As I write this, the heavyweight championship of the world is about to be contested. There is in fact more than one. There is also more than one current Scottish Chef of the Year. But wild horses would not induce me to get in a ring with Anthony Joshua or Charles Martin. They must be pretty darn good to get that far.

Craig Wood is chef patron here and holds such a title (Chef of the Year, that is). Trust me, no hype was involved in that. I have been a long time customer and fan of his restaurant of the same name in North Queensferry. Delight at the news of his opening in the city was unconfined.

We ate at only the second ever sitting and the first lunch service. The smell of fresh paint apart you would have thought everything had been in place for ever. A simple space on the north east side of Frederick Street, this looks larger than mark one, but has the same number of covers. Craig will divide his time between the two. New head chef in Edinburgh is Michael Innes, with whom Craig worked many years ago. Michael’s last job was head of production in a three Michelin star restaurant in Girona in Spain. Not many know that Craig’s last post was as one of only two chefs when Martin Wishart opened in Leith. No lack of talent there, then.

But the question is how you translate that into bustling central Edinburgh, where every other building houses competition in a fickle marketplace. On the basis of this showing, the answer is, without obvious difficulty. In the centre of Edinburgh, where rent and rates bring a tear to a glass eye, you cannot maintain the astonishingly low Fife prices; however, by sticking to the menu du jour on the blackboard we enjoyed a wonderful lunch for a very reasonable outlay.  First to arrive was some most stunning sourdough served with Craig’s signature tapenade and good butter. A simple salad with saucisson, mi-cuit tomatoes and pecorino was pronounced delicious. At the very start of the season I had a vibrantly green asparagus velouté. Somehow the cream enhanced the flavour rather than masking it as is so often the case. Blade of beef could have been mistaken for a good rump steak, full of flavour, served with baby spinach and sauté potatoes. I had always thought blade was one of those cuts which required a long slow cook. Wrong again. Cooked on the chargrill, the secret being, I was told, a long rest. Sounds like my philosophy of life. The star of the proceedings was a stunning tart with smoked haddock and a poached egg atop a disc of flaky pastry. Seasonality continued into the desserts, new season’s rhubarb served in the form of a rhubarb and frangipane tart. All of this for 36 quid for two!

The a la carte has something for everyone. I would happily go through the entire menu. Regulars from across the bridge will recognise some favourites, while others are new and will change with the seasons. On our first visit proceedings were presided over by Vikki, aka Mrs Wood, the redoubtable, charming and slim line chatelaine. She too will divide her time. She was ably assisted by Marianne, a charming Burgundian.

Am I biased because of long association? I think not. As my waist line attests I have eaten out widely and well. Repeat visits are not down to sentiment on my part. They are inspired by good quality food made from fine and fresh ingredients, cooked with panache and served with a little care and a huge dollop of unforced customer care. In summary, that is what you get here. In ten years I have never been served a poor course, never mind a poor meal. When your dining room is 80% full on your first ever lunch service, and when all of those diners leave with big smiles, the future is surely bright.

April 2016

 

 

The Bill

Fixed Price

Lunch

2 courses £16

3 courses £20

A la carte

Starters

£6.25 – £12.50

Main Courses

£17.50 – £36

Desserts

£7.25

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

Room with a View, Seafood Restaurant

(Forth View Hotel)

Hawkcraig Point, Aberdour, Fife, KY3 0TZ

01383 860402          http://www.roomwithaviewrestaurant.co.uk

 

Every time I lunch with the Very Famous Former Politician we seem to depress ourselves more and more with the state of the world. As she is no longer in office I can’t blame her: but I do have her to thank for my first visit to one of Fife’s finest restaurants. In this reviewing game, the phrase hidden gem is becoming a terrible cliché, but it is bang on here. In Aberdour, head towards the Silver Sands then take the little road that circles round to the right. That then becomes nothing more than a track which descends more steeply than a Cumbrian pass down to the Forth View Hotel. If that sounds too daunting you can leave your car at the top of the hill or, by prior arrangement, be collected from the Silver Sands car park, or even from Aberdour itself.

However you choose to arrive you will be rewarded with stunning views, south to Edinburgh and Inchcolm island and west to Aberdour harbour. This restaurant is aptly named. It forms the ground floor of the substantial Forth View Hotel, a solid building from, I guess, early Edwardian times. Rooms are available during the summer season, beginning in April. This is a family run concern owned by Hannah Norman and chef Tim Robson. It offers lunch from Wednesdays to Sundays and dinner Wednesdays to Saturdays.

The décor is nothing to write home about, but when you have food, service and views of this quality, who cares? Carnivores, beware. The menu features one vegetarian dish but no sop to meat eaters. If you go to a place which has the words “seafood restaurant” in its title you really can’t complain. The fish is supplied by Douglas Murray just along the coast in Inverkeithing. Recommendation enough for freshness, and most of their other suppliers are from Fife, within a ten mile radius. The ultimate question, however, is what you do with these ingredients: the answer here is darn fine things at extraordinarily generous prices.

An initial word of warning. There are many in my home county of Fife who judge a restaurant as much by quantity as by quality. Mr Robson tends to favour the latter approach. Two small but exemplary crab cakes were lifted with a spicy paprika mayonnaise. A lobster bisque was rich, creamy and full of flavour. You can also order a “hamper”, a selection of starters to share. Sea bass fillets were cooked to crispy perfection and served on a smoked haddock risotto which the VFFP declared perfect. Halibut was served en croute, wrapped in parma ham for flavour and texture, the pie enlivened with a subtle cream pepper sauce on the side. Service was efficient, friendly but unobtrusive. The customary concerns about our meal were made discreetly, at appropriate times. You can’t ask for much more. Lobster and oysters are available if you give them 24 hours’ notice.

Desserts might include cheesecakes, mousses, tarts and tortes. I hear and read great things about them. If they are remotely on a par with what we ate they will be things of loveliness.

A trip down to Hawkcraig Point would be worth it for its own sake. But you will increase the experience tenfold if you break bread here.

March 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Starters

£5.25 – £8.95

Mains

£10.95 – £15.95

Desserts

£5.25 – £5.75

Dinner

Starters

£5.25 – £8.95

Mains

£13.95 – £23.95

Desserts

£5.25 – £5.75

 

 The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

Café St Honoré

34 North West Thistle Street, Edinburgh EH2 1EA

0131 226 2211          http://www.cafesthonore.com

 

No one I know can remember Café St Honoré not being with us, tucked away in a lane on the north side of Thistle Street.  I have eaten there for years. In its time it has been good and not so good, but it has always looked the same, thank goodness. Taking its name from one of the classiest streets in Paris, the CSH is how you would design a Parisian brasserie for a film set. It’s like that amazing little place you discovered in a tiny back street on the Rive Gauche – or maybe one you just dreamed about. Successive owners have had the good sense not to fiddle about with our own little Paris-sur-Forth.

The latest of these is the omnipresent Neil Forbes. After Atrium closed its doors five years ago, this became his HQ. That of course is when he’s not penning a column for The Scotsman newspaper, appearing on TV and radio and championing the Slow Food movement. He did have time to be crowned Scottish Chef of the Year a couple of years ago. The website speaks proudly of the daily arrival of the freshest seasonal produce from a host of regular suppliers, virtually all local. The menu changes daily, a sure way to keep your brigade on its toes. It makes for very good reading, and one can settle in very cosily on a Saturday lunchtime. Many others had the same idea. By one o’clock the place was full and humming gently (this is not the sort of clientele which raises its volume to anything as vulgar as a buzz – it is the New Town of Edinburgh after all.)

We lunched with the most charming of companions, the Building Money Expert and the Educational Money Expert. The ever frugal L went for the Café Classics menu, two courses for £15.50, while the rest of us tested the carte. Things got off to a flyer with the starters. The set menu ham hock terrine with red onion jam was fine, but at the lower end of the superlative scale. It would have been hard to better the crab mayonnaise, the delicacy of the white meat gently counterpointed with a light mayonnaise and enhanced with a crunch of radish. By coincidence the recipe for the caramelised onion and Clava (a Scottish brie like cheese from the Moray Firth) tart had appeared in that morning’s paper, perhaps influencing what turned out to be an inspired choice. Few kitchens have the patience to render the humble onion as slowly and delectably to such a base for such a fine cheese. Worth a trip for this dish alone. Sadly, for a recipe which boasts of seasonality, seasoning was the undoing of the mains. Starting with the positive, coq au vin is put forward as one of the house specialities. Nice chicken, tasty enough, but I make a better one myself. Venison cottage pie tasted fine, but L was reaching for glasses of water for hours later. Clearly a different chef from the one in charge of the dish plate of venison with Stornoway black pudding, hispi cabbage and roast carrot. It also came with a block of dauphinoise. The black pudding apart, I can reassure members of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Salt that not a single salt crystal was harmed in the making of this dish. Let’s put to one side the question of whether or not you should season at the cooking stage what was beautifully cooked venison. No doubt at all that you need it for cabbage, and anyone who has made dauphinoise potatoes knows, they need an awful lot more seasoning than you think. One might forgive these glaring blunders at catering college, but not in a kitchen aspiring to this standard.

Puddings were three tarts (chocolate, rhubarb, and lemon) and a pudding (sticky toffee). No room, sadly. Service was pleasant enough. For food with the wow factor these prices are fine, but seem a little steep for bistro fare. I think this kitchen needs to decide what it is trying to target and set its sights accordingly. This is not the best meal I have ever eaten in this dining room. Arriving with high hopes, I left a little disappointed. But we’ll always have Paris.

March 2016

 

 

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses

 £15.50

3 courses

£19.50

A la carte

Starters

£8.50 -£12.50

Mains

£15.50-£22

Puddings

£6.75

Dinner

Starters

£8.50 -£13.50

Mains

£14.50-£21

Puddings

£6.50

 

 

The Score

Cooking

5.5/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3.5/5

TOTAL

 16/25

Provisional Review of

three birds

3-5 Viewforth, Edinburgh EH10 4JD

0131 229 3252          http://www.threebirds.co,u

 

Having done no market research, I have no idea how old my reader is. If he or she is roughly of an age with me, he (sorry, can’t keep going with alternatives) may remember a few things from the 70s. For example, a truly ghastly concoction by the name of Croft Original Sherry. The world had allegedly grown out of the sweet brown stuff. Sophisticates had heard of fino but didn’t know what it was. Pale was in vogue. The only good thing about Crofts Original was its advertising campaign, featuring a variety of elegant scenarios with the strap line along the lines of, ‘one instinctively knows when something is right.’

Scotland has been notoriously poor at producing neighbourhood restaurants worthy of a visit. So it was a great pleasure on entering the cramped doorway of three birds (the lack of capital letters is their choice not mine) to recall those far off ads. The place itself has been formed by converting into one two of the tiny narrow shops which were a feature of Bruntsfield. The décor is simple, but effective. The welcome could not be warmer. I arrived early on a Friday lunchtime, but within half an hour the place was full to the gunwales, primarily with locals, many of whom were obviously regulars. Truth be told, if you live around here, you would be daft not to include this palace among your list of favoured eateries.

I was there with a long lost friend, Long Tall JK, gourmet extraordinaire, and fan of 3B. We had much to catch up on and opted for one of the sharing platters. Large and satisfying; however, it prevented sampling any of the menu’s other delights and therefore not enough upon which to base an equitably arrived at score. I will certainly be back, not just to complete this review, but to introduce others. I was sad to see that they have fairly recently opened a sister restaurant, Apiary, in Newington Road. Sad because I really would love them to open near me.

The menu is eclectic, suggesting a kitchen which is knowledgeable on both product and technique. Pickling and smoking are done inhouse. Careful choice of ingredients allows them to deliver food which is terrific value. From a sidebar to the menu you could choose from inter alia crispy pig’s ear with aioli or 3b dukkah, bread with extra virgin olive oil and smoked shallot vinegar. On the day of our visit mains included chicken laksa, smoked ox and gojuchang (a Korean paste made from red chilli, rice and fermented soybeans) sausage, seabass in a broth and slow braised lamb shoulder.

There is a blackboard with daily specials and the menu changes regularly. On the first day or two of a new menu they offer special “guinea pig” rates to encourage customer feedback. LTJK and I tucked into the 3Birds & Beasts Platter, featuring pulled pork ball, miso beef shin, wasabi and gouda fried sandwich (the least successful part of the plate), piri piri chicken wings (eat your heart out, Nando) and star anise ox cheek (sensational beyond belief). I barely have space to mention the shoe string fries in a paper poke, BBQ bacon beans and Thai slaw, to say nothing of the sundry sauces and dips. You will forgive the two of us for having ignored the pudding section which featured such delights as chocolate and avocado cake, ice cream slider with choc nougat wafer and cheeses by Mellis.

I can’t find out much about the owners – my sources suggest that there are two birds not three – but they know how to keep their neighbours very happy.

March 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Fixed price

2 courses £10

Starters £4 – £5

Mains

£6.50 – £18

Afters

£3- £4.50

Dinner

Starters £4 – £6

Mains

£11 – £18

Afters

£3- £4.50

 

The Score

To follow

 

The Adamson

127 South Street, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9UH

01334 479191          http://www.theadamson.com

 

When you last took some pictures with your camera, did you ever stop to think how much you were indebted to St Andrews? Many, I suspect, will have heard of Edinburgh based photographic pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, but how many made the Fife connection? Until this splendid eating place opened in 2012, I suspect very few.

127 South Street was the home of respected physician John Adamson MD, for whom the restaurant is named. It was he who produced the first calotype portrait, then taught the technique to younger brother Robert who made it his trade until his untimely death aged 26.

The Adamson has been a hit with locals since it opened its doors, and the newly opened cocktail bar is also proving a great success. Former chef Scott Davies raised the profile when he reached the final of Masterchef: The Professionals in 2013. He has now departed to take over as head chef at Shirley Spear’s The Three Chimneys. I was curious to see if his departure would have a significant impact. I visited with L, Grumpy Old Surgeon and His Luscious Wife on a Tuesday night. The place was packed on a Tuesday night and the open plan kitchen seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine. New head chef Stewart Macaulay is clearly in control.

Starters were pretty amazing. GOS and I started with pigeon, a particular favourite of mine. (It used to be a signature dish until regular diners staged a protest. You just can’t get the dinner guests these days…). Unusually the breast had been halved, but was perfect, served with some sort of  Chinese style reduction with a generous chunk of foie gras for added luxury and a cherry on the side. L and HLW raved (well, L does quite often, but I mean about the food) about the crab. This came with beetroot, avocado sorbet, hazelnuts and a hint of lemon. If you write a textbook about colour, texture and contrasts, something like this may be near the top of your list.

On to mains. The stone bass was declared fine. Its dissection was exemplary, so you can guess who had it. Roast chicken came with pommes Anna but was sadly a little dry. L is not usually a sole fan but waxed lyrical (makes a change from raving) about this served with creamed kale, brown shrimp and macadamia nuts. I went for a simple steak and chips, often a very good test of a restaurant. Are they cheapskates when it comes to sourcing their meat? Do they know how to cook it? Can they deep fry correctly? And how is the béarnaise sauce? I have to say that Mr Macaulay’s boys and girls passed the test with flying colours. As good an example as I have had in a good long while.

Desserts included pear and cinnamon trifle, cherry parfait, and orange crème brûlée, as well as good old sticky toffee. There is also a variety of ice cream dishes including a favourite of mine, affogato (literally ‘drowned’), ice cream with espresso and amaretto. The size of the first two courses precluded a sampling of any of these, but if they are on a par with what went before they’ll be pretty darned good.

I should give a special mention to the serving staff. In student towns it is reasonable to assume that many of the staff will be temporary. This is often where things can creak a little. Not here. Every single one of the people who looked after us was cheerful, charming and efficient. It’s a pleasure to dine here on every level.

We have been coming to St Andrews for short breaks for many years and have eaten out in most of its restaurants. The Adamson is now our number one choice.

 

 

The Bill

Day menu

3 courses £15

A la Carte

Starters

£4.95 – £9.50

Mains

£11.50- £32.50

Desserts

£3.95 – £7.50

 

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

Michael Neave Kitchen and Whisky Bar

21 Old Fishmarket Close, Edinburgh EH1 1RW

0131 226 4747          http://www.michaelneave.co.uk

 

The history of Edinburgh before the New Town was developed in the 18th century is to be found among its closes, all 82 of them. For those of you to whom the word is unfamiliar, “close” is the Scottish word for an alley or wynd, in Edinburgh’s case the narrow alleys which descend from the spine of the Royal Mile. Because of the topography, tenements which seemed to be only five or six floors at High Street level, might be twelve or more storeys high by the time they descended to the Cowgate.

A fascinating day or two may be spent in exploring them. Some are blocked off: some simply lead to the back doors of bars or offices. Others are hidden gems, with secret gardens, ancient buildings or publishing houses. Your exploration will give you an appetite, so venture to Old Fishmarket Close, on the south side of the High Street, just below St Giles Cathedral. Half way down an unfeasibly steep street in an incongruously modern building you will find the headquarters of Michael Neave. Only 21 when he put up his own plate four years ago, Neave has just opened his second venture in nearby Jeffrey Street. If it is on a par with this, I shall be visiting very soon.

Distinguished Literary Editor and I attempt to break bread a couple of times a year to discuss books, baking and many things in between, and to laugh at Big Cheese Editor who had the chance to host this column, but spurned it. (Remember the A & R man at Decca who turned down The Beatles? Ha!) Some good sounds on the bush telegraph led us here. DLE had been before, but it was my first visit. First impressions couldn’t have been better even though I was the first customer of the night. The welcome couldn’t have been warmer. The restaurant is a well-designed modern space which is both stylish and comfortable. The dining room is on the lower level, the upper floor being the whisky bar.

The menu makes good reading. The theme is, I think, modern Scottish, if that makes sense, with eight each of starters and mains and six desserts. Some of the fish dishes really stood out – lobster and crab ravioli with a tomato and lemongrass sauce, for example, or halibut on a shellfish bisque with samphire. But the night was chill, demanding of good red wine, which in turn demanded more carnivorous accompaniments. At a time when many restaurateurs strive to be different, it is a brave or confident chef who serves up a chicken liver parfait these days; however, when the end result is as good as this one, served with a cranberry jam and pickled cucumber, all’s well. I was intrigued by “pigeon carpaccio”. The notion of raw pigeon didn’t appeal but I decided to trust the chef. The end result was an elegantly presented line of finely sliced pigeon meat, the breasts having been correctly seared, with a slight caramel on the outside and perfectly pink in the centre.

So to mains. Guinea fowl breast and braised leg with carrots and peas came just as it said. I had some minor issues with the seasoning, but a very acceptable dish. It’s easy to get the cooking of guinea fowl wrong – this kitchen didn’t. DLE was very impressed with his venison. It is undersold by describing it as saddle. Technically correct, but the loin meat which was presented was stunning. I’m unsure what it was coated in before cooking but it was certainly enhanced, and served with a carrot and lavender purée which tasted better than it sounds. The two courses plus ample supplies of homemade onion bread made pudding an impossibility. Next time, perhaps.

And there certainly will be a next time. Early reviews of this restaurant were generally favourable, but talked of inconsistencies. These seem to have been ironed out. This is good modern food, presented with flair but devoid of pretension. It is perfectly executed, and served by top notch staff. The atmosphere is relaxed at night. Lunchtime features a menu entitled Express Lunch for Busy People. A chef who understands his market and who can do things this well will go far. I hope fortune smiles on Michael Neave. Who knows what he’ll be doing in five years’ time when he reaches the ripe old age of thirty?

February 2016

 

 

The Bill

 

Lunch

Express Lunch

£9.95

Saturday Lunch

2 courses £11.95

3 courses £14.95

 

A la carte

Starters

£6.95 – £10.95

Mains

£15.50 – £21.95

Desserts

£6.95 – £8.95

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18.5/25

 

 

Barley Bree

6 Willoughby Street, Muthill, Crieff, Perthshire PH5 2AB

01764 681451          http://www.barleybree.com

 

You may not be familiar with the small Perthshire town of Muthill (pronounced Myoothill), despite its 15th century ruined church which once featured in the opening shot of a Peter O’Toole film. If not, you will be unaware that it was destroyed by a retreating Jacobite army licking its wounds after the Battle of Sheriffmuir. (Terribly bad losers, those chaps.) Or that it was rebuilt because of its position on the Wade road north.

To be fair, it’s not obvious that too much has happened there since to make it worthy of note. It had a shop or two, mostly closed, a filling station, now shut, and a traditional small town Scottish hotel, which you would not have ventured into unless in possession of a strong drouth.

It is this latter which is now well worthy of a visit should you be travelling to or from Crieff on the A822. From a very basic establishment it was converted nearly 10 years ago into a “restaurant with rooms” by Fabrice and Alison Bouteloup. I had visited some years ago, and was taken by the modern Scottish feel of the dining room. Probably a couple of bars and a dining room  knocked into one, the traditional stone offset with stained wood and warmth literally injected by a blazing wood stove on a cold Wednesday lunchtime. GB, the eldest, and I were heading north. When she suggested a detour to Stirling for lunch, I counter offered with Barley Bree, and a darn good choice it was too.

It is clear that profits have been reinvested over the years. Fabrice’s kitchen now boasts a bespoke Athanor range, as used by Andrew Fairlie, (himself a customer) at nearby Gleneagles. We read that the cosy little lounge through which you pass en route to the loos is soon to be closed for refurbishment. The attractively laid out children’s playground wasn’t there at my last visit.

Fabrice, from north west France, is a chef patron. Like many French chefs he cites his grandmother as his influence. He worked in his native France and in Germany before coming to the UK some 20 years ago. His experience includes a spell with Anthony Dumetre of Arbutus fame, together with jobs at the Howard Hotel and The Atrium in Edinburgh. He can put together a menu (changing daily) that makes you want to choose everything on it. The fixed price lunch menu comprises three starters, five mains and three puds, including his signature tarte tatin, an ever present. GB chose the fishcake bonbons with pickled mooli and shimeji. (Oh for goodness sake, do I have to tell you lot everything? Oriental radishes and mushrooms, since you ask.) I went for the pork rillettes with spiced plum jelly and pickles. In each case the presentation was a masterclass in how to combine elegance and simplicity. Both dishes were flavoursome. If I have to pick one flaw, it would be that rillettes in this country never reach the same heights as they do in France, probably because of our British aversion to fat.

Main course saw the Athanor double planchas in action. This is the season for slow cooking. I suspect my blade of beef had been cooked sous vide and possibly finished on the plancha. The charred shallot certainly had been, as had the little gem garnish to the GB’s sea bass fillet with tarragon fregola. (What? You demand more explanations? Sardinian pasta about the size of a grain of polystyrene – do keep up.) Incidentally, if you tell an Italian friend you have una fregola, be prepared for a bemused or amused reaction – it also means that you “have the hots”. Not sure how many of the good middle class, middle aged diners (of whom there were a healthy number for a Wednesday in mid January) would be aware. A shared dessert was a very rich and dense chocolate delice off set with a passion fruit sorbet and a fruit salad of mango, passion fruit and possibly something else. I rather wish I had had more room, but any available space had been occupied by very splendid walnut bread and good butter.

Many websites are anodyne marketing speak: not this one. You can tell by reading it that this is a family run place which cares about all of its clientele. Children, vegetarians and people with special dietary requirements are not freaks, just customers like any others. These levels of attention and care are what have brought a slew of awards, including Best Restaurant at the Scottish Restaurant Awards in 2013. Such plaudits don’t grow on trees.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch – terrific food and great value. A three course lunch plus coffee for two will leave you with change from fifty quid, and they have plans to introduce a prix fixe dinner soon. The village of Muthill may not be worth a special trip, but Barley Bree certainly is.

January 2016

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Fixed Price

2 courses £15.50

3 courses £19.50

A la carte

Starters

£6 – £7.50

Mains £11.50

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

Dinner

Starters

£7.50 – £12.50

Mains

£21.50 – £24.50

Desserts

£7.50 – £8.50

 

 

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

Tom Eats!  Review of 2015

This has been a terrific year, the first full year of the Tom Eats! column. Standards across the board are, in the main, incredibly high. The economics of the times have had a certain effect: it is no longer possible for the happy amateur to attract external funding to set up. Once established, would be Terence Conrans discover that it is an incredibly competitive business. You are literally as good as your last meal (or last service). Dissatisfied customers would always tell five times as many people as would satisfied ones. With social media, the impact of that is magnified many fold. Make sure you keep your eye on the main ones and give reasoned feedback to all negative comments.

Not all meals out attract a review. The column has developed into a commentary on restaurants where the chefs are, in the main, trying to produce serious food. A decent local café might feed me perfectly well, but would score lower because of the marking criteria, which would not be a fair reflection on what it was trying to achieve. In other places I have felt that the individual circumstances of the experience might skew the review. The most memorable of these was Gamba in Glasgow, which would have scored zero. When a group of respectable middle aged people voice a complaint in moderate terms they do not expect to be harangued and shouted at, let alone by a chef who has not shaved for some days, and whose personal cleanliness leaves something to be desired.

Fortunately, out of this year’s bunch there were only two substandard meals. Contini Cannonball in Edinburgh served the worst food, and (Gamba apart) La Parmigiana in Glasgow provided the worst service. Credit to everyone else, but the year’s top scores to Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles and Brian Grigor at Number One, Edinburgh. Both expensive, but worth every penny.

If you also enjoy time at the cooker as well as enjoying others’ efforts, check out the weekly recipes in the Tom Cooks column of the website. These are for home cooks, not professionals, but flavour and (usually) seasonality are guaranteed. Buon appetito!

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Gleneagles 24
Number One, Edinburgh 24
Brian Maule at Chardon D’Or Glasgow 22
Ox and Finch, Glasgow 20
The Wee Restaurant, North Queensferry 20
Wedgwood, Edinburgh 20
Arbutus, London 19.5
Ondine, Edinburgh 19
Chinatown, Edinburgh 19
Café Montmartre, Cupar 19
Locanda Di Gusti, Edinburgh 18.5
Kilted Lobster, Edinburgh 18
Cleveland Tontine, Staddlebridge 18
The Printing Press Bar and Kitchen, Edinburgh 18
Contini Cannonball, Edinburgh 14
La Parmigiana, Edinburgh 13.5

 

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie

Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perth & Kinross  PH3 1NF

01764 694267          http://www.andrewfairlie.co.uk

 

Gleneagles Hotel was always intended for the well to do. One of the latest in a distinguished line of railway hotels, it was planned before the Great War, then opened in the roaring 20s to serve those in search of the pleasures of North Britain. It may come as a shock to those younger than me to realise that the term “railway food” used to have connotations of luxury, and that one of the best lunches (and wine lists) to be had was to be found in the dining car of a long distance British Rail train. Gleneagles, along with the other railway hotels (which included the North British and Caledonian in Edinburgh, and the Central in Glasgow) was sold off in the 60s and, like the railways, they all enjoyed mixed fortunes for the next couple of decades.

Gleneagles has for some time now enjoyed a steady return to glory and subsequent incremental rise in fame. Host in recent years to events as diverse as the G8 summit which agreed significant debt relief for parts of Africa and the Ryder Cup which secured significant embarrassment for American captain Tom Watson, it is an internationally known name. It was one of the earlier of the 5 star hotels to sublet its prime fine dining space to a star chef, though for the life of me I cannot recall who was Andrew Fairlie’s predecessor in the space which currently bears his name.

One could spend the full length of this column listing Fairlie’s achievements and awards. Winner of the first ever Roux scholarship aged just 20, a Michelin star at 1 Devonshire Gardens nearly twenty years ago, and owner of the only 2 Michelin star restaurant in Scotland (one of only 15 in the UK). There is lots more, but you get the picture. All of which simply increases the pressure every time, as diners expect perfection. I know I did. Reading up on the development of the restaurant over the 15 years since it opened, it is interesting to study its journey. Ten years ago, a reviewer slated the obsessive detail which serving staff were expected to pass on. That has gone (although my heart did sink when our waiter offered to “explain” the menu to us. No thanks, I can read.) Fairlie went through the phase of trying to emulate the molecular gastronomy of Ferren Adria, but then wisely listened to his customers who had come to sample the very best of Scottish produce, and therefore some of the finest in the world. He now has his own walled garden from which vegetables and herbs arrive daily.

Some of his interviews will suggest that he has tried to create an informal space. If that is truly the aim he has failed, but I suspect he means a step or two down from the formal starched way of some of the French establishments where he learned his trade. One of these was at the stoves of  Michel Guérard, pioneer of cuisine minceur, a revolt against the huge amounts of butter, flour and cream used in classical French cuisine. We went for the dégustation menu, minus any cream for L. It was interesting to note  how few adjustments had to be made.

The dining room is quirky and designer, but still unmistakably grand hotel.  Our table for two had two seats at the end of a banquette at ninety degrees, ensuring each had a view, but there were one or two offering only a view of a blank wall. No fewer than four sets of amuse-bouche arrived before the main event started. The range of techniques dazzled early on, from a mini choux bun to salmon mousse in a doll’s house sized ice cream cone to something remarkable with a parsnip cream, a horseradish ice cream and something beetrooty. I also enjoyed the playful homage to Scotland’s less haute cuisine, a venison sausage roll with brown sauce. Both homemade, we were assured. Probably the only quibble I have about the whole night was the first contact from most of the staff. They seemed initially nervous, as though we were famous or frightening. Once they loosened up they were, without exception, lovely, but it was odd that we were the ones trying to put them at ease and not vice versa.

To the food. Put very simply this is the finest dining to be had in Scotland. The attention to detail was breathtaking. Dishes were not on the face of it over fussy, yet the multi layers of flavour, colour and texture, belied the clean lines. Were I to attempt a detailed analysis of everything we ate I should be surprised if I got 80% of it. Accompanying a ballontine of foie gras was a deep fried bonbon with a liquid centre, which burst like a firework onto the taste buds. And that was just the beginning. The crab and butternut squash accompaniments to a roast scallop (which the staff pronounce correctly, praise the Lord –  the third letter is a not o) included band of squash no wider than a typewriter ribbon, and circle of brown crab jelly no larger than a 1p coin. A combination of wild mushroom ravioli and truffle might be too earthy but both were lifted by the sweetness and smoothness of a pumpkin velouté. There was of course the signature dish of smoked lobster with herb and lime butter. Surprisingly this was probably our least favourite, slightly masked by a sweeter flavour (vanilla?) which detracted somewhat. Roast lamb came with kale and celeriac, the former hiding a surprise package of the most delectable braised lamb shoulder imaginable. The main pudding event was a hazel and muscovado cake with poached pear. Surprisingly light and not overly sweet. We declined coffee and petits fours as we felt it would be rude to burst in public.

It must be great to be front of house here. If you get any complaints, the customer is criminally insane and should be put away. There is not a high staff turnover. Head chef Stephen McLaughlin has been with Fairlie for 20 years. There are always spots for short term chef secondment (as Fairlie himself enjoyed) but otherwise any potential new recruits have to put in a couple of shifts and win the team’s approval before they are recruited permanently. It sounds like a recipe for harmony on a par with that served up in the restaurant. For this quality and quantity the hefty price is irrelevant. Everyone who loves food should come here once for perfection on quite a lot of plates.

 

 

The Bill

Dinner

3 courses £95

Dégustation

(7 courses) £125

 

The Score

Cooking 10/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value

(Dégustation

menu) 5/5

TOTAL 24/25

Kilted Lobster

112 St Stephen Street, Edinburgh EH3 5AD

0131 220 6677          http://www.kiltedlobster.com

 

Naming children is one of life’s more difficult tasks. How will the school bully be able to twist it? Does it spell anything? Might it spell something if a girl changes her name upon marriage? (Top tip – avoid middle names beginning with a vowel). Likewise a tricky business naming a restaurant. The difference, however, is that you know your kids are going to cost you a fortune, whereas you hope that a restaurant might make you a half decent income. So how daft to choose a name that suggests to the world that you are solely a fish and seafood restaurant, thus putting off the significant number of non-fish eaters out there, Without exception, everyone to whom I have described this wee gem of a Stockbridge newcomer has made that assumption.

In fact chef-proprietor Colin Hinds has dishes to delight everyone, carnivores and vegetarians included. We know little about him from his website, other than that he has spent twenty years in the business. One source says that’s been in the UK. Another says Australia and Indonesia have featured. I can also trace him as chef in a poker club and feeding Heather Mills in an upmarket skiing hotel.

But to the food. It is, in a word, wonderful. The place itself is a little hard to find, at the very far end of St Stephen Street, round the corner. It is done out in simple, cheery seaside style, which seemed a little incongruous on a dreich Wednesday night. The food changed the mood. A huge bowl of Alba Skink of Scottish Seafood Chowder (that’s Cullen Skink to you and me) was hearty, generous and satisfying. Mussels with white wine came with a garlic emulsion. We were told it contained no cream (L has an intolerance), though her insides later suspected differently. The food is seasonal, leaning as is proper at this time of year towards the Slow Food movement. Mains included Slow Cooked Confit Belly of Pork, Tender Lamb Shank (the alternative of Tough Lamb Shank did not feature that night) and Venison and Beef Shin Stovies. Warming and delicious. I went for halibut, one of the sea’s princes. It came with a carrot and cumin purée, salsify and sea vegetables. The latter included samphire which, pleasingly, is becoming more common and, a new one on me this, sea aster. The eponymous lobster is an ever present on the menu, at the very reasonable price of £27.50 for a whole, £15.50 for a half. Even greater bargains are to be had on Lobster & Champagne Fridays – a whole lobster and a glass of champagne for £28.

It takes a lot to attract me to the dessert section, but a rich Chocolate, Pistachio and Dark Cherry Terrine made the journey worthwhile. Service was neither good nor bad and time will smooth some of the rough edges (the dog eared sheet of paper with the drinks list, for example.)

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this venture is their aim to return all the profits to a community charity Cooking Up A Storm, a local organisation dedicated to offering job training and work placements. So whether your motives are hedonistic or altruistic you have no option but to go and taste for yourself. I do hope that before calculating the profits to give away Mr Hinds ensures there is enough to reinvest. For a restaurant to be this good at this stage of development without obvious outside backing and without a massive PR machine is remarkable: I hope we are just witnessing the infancy, and that this venture (perhaps with the name tweaked) not only survives, but matures and develops to a hearty old age.

November 2015

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£3.95 – £6.95

Mains

£11.95 – £21.50

(Whole lobster £27.50)

Desserts

£2.95 – £4.95

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or

176 West Regent Street,

Glasgow G2 4RL

0141 248 3801          http://www.brianmaule.com

 

 

When ye visit auld Glesga toun, be sure tae sup at the sign o’ The Golden Thistle.

 I do apologise. I have no idea where that piece of cod Burns came from; however, anyone being given advice to visit this Golden Thistle (Chardon d’Or) would be well advised to take it.

Brian Maule became head chef at the Roux Brothers’ Le Gavroche at the ludicrously early age of 24. It is therefore reasonable to assume that his cookery skills were at near genius levels. But did he peak too soon? Was he the Macaulay Caulkin of the cheffy stratosphere? Nope to both questions. Now read on.

A curious street, West Regent Street. I know, as I used to have an office there. Many traditional buildings. Some downright decrepit: some, like 176, modernised to very good effect. The restaurant is on two levels. On the night of our visit, the upper part was housing a wine tasting. We dined on the lower level, a long pleasant room, designed to become four private dining rooms or one small conference room as needed. Unlike most such hybrids, it worked as a dining space, helped by the warmth of the welcome. Although L and I arrived early on a Wednesday, the space was soon filled. I would say “and buzzing”, but the clientele were a little muted. It is perhaps a side effect of serving food this good that people’s concentrations focus on it instead of normal dinner activities such as politics, current affairs, gossip, and sex (not necessarily in that order).

I have to say that when the food arrives, it does tend to be the focus for everything. Chicken roulade is typically something made the day before and served over refrigerated: not this one. It was advertised as featuring parma ham and foie gras. Far more flavours than these sprang out at every mouthful. A tour de force. When you read of a starter of cured duck and foie gras, you expect a dottle or two of the latter  and a sliver or two of the former padded out with some leaves. Instead the generosity of this kitchen presents you with copious amounts of the promised ingredients, of the highest quality. What a start.

Our mains confirmed the skill levels in this kitchen. To take relatively familiar produce and cook it in apparently straight forward ways while hitting culinary high notes is a remarkable skill. Take roast monkfish tail with chickpeas and red peppers. How hard can that be? Well, if anyone else can make the mundane sounding as wonderful as this, then full marks. And what about a pan fried duck breast? Even I can fry a duck breast for heaven’s sake. So how can it be that each bite of this is divine by itself, even before you get to the confit leg, beetroot pureé and a few other delights?

Come the pudding, a tiny note of dissent. We had room for only one, so one dessert, two spoons, two opinions. Poached pear is one of my favourites. This one came with a Breton biscuit, a caramel sort of sauce and a mulled wine reduction. L loved her share: I was less impressed, but that’s a quibble.

Researching this a little I noticed a couple of things. Firstly, the website declares that this is “the best fine dining restaurant in Glasgow”. Secondly, there is much debate about why Brian Maule does not have a Michelin star. This being Glasgow, the debate seems to be fuelled by the Glasgow/Edinburgh, Celtic/Rangers, who shot JFK paranoia.

Allow me, as non Old Firm supporting Fifer boasting complete neutrality to answer these. Yes, it is Glasgow’s finest restaurant and, based on my recent visits to most of Central Scotland’s Michelin restaurants, yes it should have a star.

 

 

The Bill

 

Lunch/Pre-

Theatre

2 courses £20.50

3 courses £23.50

A la carte

Starters

£7.25 – £12.50

Mains

£27 – £28.75

Desserts

£9.75 – £10.95

Tasting Menu

£59.50

 

The Score

Cooking 9/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

The Printing Press Bar & Kitchen

21 – 25 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PB

0131 240 7177          www.printingpressedinburgh.co.uk

 

Jove’s tuneful dochters three times three

Made Homer deep their debtor

But, gi’en the body half an e’e

Nine Ferriers wad done better

You may wonder at the relevance of this Burns’ homage to author Susan Ferrier (Scotland’s Jane Austen, according to Walter Scott). No surprise, of course, at oor Rabbie casting his eye at a pretty Edinburgh woman. But you probably didn’t know that she lived at 25 George Street, once an Edinburgh town house, the last addition of the five addresses which now comprise The George Hotel. Part of the space which is occupied by this restaurant used to be the entrance vestibule to the George’s Assembly Rooms, one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious wedding venues.

The other part, now the bar, has been for a long time That Difficult Hotel Space. Since the demise, years ago, of the splendid but of its time Le Chambertin, the management of The George have struggled to provide a decent food and drink experience for non residents. Latterly this space was home to the depressing Tempus. The other central hotels have upped their game over the years in this respect. The George took its own sweet time but has, I think, outshot the lot of them with this latest venture. The décor is brown ragged paint with Georgian style features. Some found it a little dark – I thought it appropriate.

We know that a relative of Susan Ferrier was involved in one of Edinburgh’s famous publishing hoses, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier. Was the printing done here? Highly unlikely, but who cares when the food is of this quality? The hired gun here is one Des McDonald. A rare bird, one who can both produce great food and sell it. In his time he has been head chef at The Ivy, moving on to become CEO of its parent company, Caprice Holdings. Now with a handful of London venues under his belt he has been tempted to Edinburgh to very good effect. The chef, Colin Fleming, is ex Nick Nairn and Martin Wishart.

I suspect the format may be modelled on that of The Wolseley in London’s Piccadilly, opening for breakfast at 0700 and closing at 0100. On my lunchtime visit with L and the Emeritus WS, there were great similarities – a menu from which you wanted to eat simply everything, all at sensible prices. Starters included scallops with ink barley, “hand picked” crab with sieved egg and Eyemouth langoustine thermidor tart. No quibbles at all with the first, though I have yet to ascertain what, colour apart, squid ink brings to any dish (apart from the capacity to create a huge mess when trying to share). It will be a rare crab dish indeed with which I fail to fall in love at first sight and this was no exception. The egg was, I think, softish boiled, avoiding the disappointing dryness which a hard boiled one often brings to crab. The tart was quite simply the finest thing I’ve eaten all year. An exemplary short crust shell contained glorious plump langoustine in a sauce which was perhaps nearer to a Béarnaise, but who’s caring? No exaggeration to say that a visit would be worthwhile for this alone.

The kitchen clearly hit a glitch at this point. We were served with spot on lemon sorbets to fill a gap which, to be honest, we hadn’t really noticed. The time was happily being spent watching people and staff. In the case of the latter, pondering the bewildering hierarchy of uniform. Who is entitled to a waistcoat, who gets a jacket and who is allowed to wear civvies?

L’s order of roast cod with lentils was sublime, the fish packing bags of flavour, an all too rare experience. A shoulder of lamb pie, hearty and substantial , was crammed with meat unexpectedly enlivened with chunks of earthy beetroot. Roast carrots and parsnips (an extra) added the perfect autumnal finish. I suspect the kitchen hiccup related to the EWS, s grouse. Advertised as spatchcock, it came as a roasted crown with two delicious game legs, probably a confit. I have my doubts whether the legs matched the breast – grouse legs are notoriously sinewy and bony. No criticism. The breasts would have been perfect had they been allowed to rest. The accompanying red cabbage also showed signs of having been finished off in a hurry with an overzealous slug of vinegar added at the end. Truffle chips (a generous helping) were not to our taste and were mostly uneaten.

Having eaten our dessert midway through, we had room only for a lemon tart, which came with Katy Rodger’s crème fraiche. (No, I don’t know who she is either). She made no real difference to a perfect pud, just the right balance of sharp and sweet in the most delicate pastry I have ever seen.

Our waitress was very new and very sweet. A few of the comments she came out with were gauche and inappropriate. This is the sort of thing that usually irritates me: I forgave her because of her charm. She’ll learn.

The place was hotching on a Saturday lunch time just a couple of weeks after opening. Great food, an interesting space, a good vibe. This will soon become a regular source of great pleasure for many.

November 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bill

Starters

£4 – £11

Mains

£12 – £28

Sides

£3.50 – £4

Puddings

£5 – £5.50

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

 

Ondine Restaurant

2 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1AD

0131 226 1888  http://www.ondinerestaurant.co.uk

 

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 after her beauty faded. After her vengeful curse 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 been together for some while, but everyone is dressed up to the nines. The leading lady removes her jacket revealing a strapless top, then thinks the better of it and puts it back on. There is an author and a publisher, a couple of young men in love and, at the next table 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.  This 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? Well, 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.

Anyway, if you need to ask the price… 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 Fridays 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 it’s golden syrup) fell into the former category. A chocolate delice 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, and  enjoying every second of the experience. And thereafter sleep did not escape me. Ondine and I are still on the best of terms.

Summer 2015

 

 

The Bill

A la carte

Starters £9 – £15

Mains £20 – £65

Dessert – I forget

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 4/5

Flavour4 /5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

Cafe Montmartre

29A Bonnygate, Cupar, KY15 4BU

01334 650505                    www.cafemontmartre.co.uk

 

Cupar no longer has the cachet which it enjoyed half a century ago as the county town of Fife, home to the County Council and the county set, but there are still a number of good reasons to visit. Not least of these is opportunity to drool over the stock at Luvian’s Bottle Shop, ably managed by the amiable and highly knowledgeable Stuart Easton.

On one such jaunt L & I decided to do a bit of social work, so we took the EmeritusWS. A jaunt doesn’t count as such without a spot of lunch. That was when the flaws in the plan became apparent. With the exception of the perennial Ostler’s Close, which doesn’t do lunch, Cupar is not high on our list of gastronomic destinations. In this part of Fife of course one is not short of options, whether in St Andrews or the East Neuk. With time at a slight premium Mr Google and Ms TripAdvisor pointed us towards Café Montmartre in  one of the many interesting little closes to the north of the Bonnygate.

If you have ever tried to eat well  in the district of Montmartre, near the Sacre Coeur in Paris, you probably don’t have fond memories. Poor food at rip off prices is the norm. An odd name, then, for a bistro specialising in French Mediterranean cuisine, especially for one whose patron, Thierry Haddanou, hails from Provence. Any such daft doubts are immediately dispelled on entering. The dining room is low ceilinged, lined with photographs of famous French people. The welcome is warm and genuine. You feel immediately at home.

I have had so many disappointments over the years with restaurants which profess to offer that genuine French brasserie experience (one which, it must be said, is increasingly hard to find in France) that my expectations are never high. This enhanced even further the pleasure of this lunch on a wet Saturday. Starters included standards of mussels, terrine and soup, each created with a touch of individuality. A smooth duck liver terrine can be one dimensional and bland. The addition of figs in this example lifted it to new heights. When you add a lot of cream to a mushroom soup you can lose flavour – not here. The basic stock must have been turbo powered. L’s mussels were as I have never eaten them. Instead of the usual shallot base, these were flavoured with carrots and leeks, resulting in a salty vegetable broth. Unusual and lovely.

For mains a jarret de porc was a pork shank slow cooked with prunes in a cream sauce. How I managed to walk after this, never mind order a pud, is one of life’s great mysteries. Merguez sausages are spicy and wonderful. Thierry explains that his wife Anne, who produces all this terrific grub, couldn’t source merguez that was up to her standards, so she makes her own. The accompanying harissa sauce is unnecessary: the excellent chips are not. A ballontine of chicken is stuffed with porcini mushrooms and Toulouse sausage. Very large and very satisfying.

After all this no sensible person would have looked at the dessert menu. Ever mindful of our responsibilities to you, gentle reader, we forced ourselves. Enquiring about the tarte du jour, we were given a choice of three. EWS enjoyed his pear and almond: I went for my favourite of all desserts, tarte tatin. To cater for a busy bistro these are prepared individually, and perhaps thereby lose a little of the character of the traditional, but still very tasty. The vanilla ice cream was exemplary. If it wasn’t made on the premises (which I don’t know), it tasted as if it were.

The first Café de Montmartre was opened in Broughty Ferry some twenty years ago, then moved to Aberdeen, before relocating to Cupar. The Granite City’s loss is Fife’s gain. Twenty years on there is no world weariness or loss of edge. One can tell from the attention to detail that corners are not cut in this kitchen.  M. et Mme. Haddanou count many countrymen among their regular customers, and rightly so. This is one of the best and most authentic examples of a French bistro I have encountered for a long time. The dinner menu looks fabulous too, and is enhanced by numerous daily specials. One small word of warning – it’s best to be hungry when you visit, but visit you must.

September 2015

The Bill

Lunch

Set lunch

2 courses £15.95

3 courses £17.95

Lunch specials

£5.95 – £9.75

Set Dinner

2 courses £17.95

3 courses £19.95

A la carte

Starters

£5.25 – £9.85

Mains

£15.95 – £24.95

Desserts

£5.95 – £6.95

The Score

Cooking  6/10

Service   4/5

Flavour   4/5

Value      5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

MICHELIN AND ME: A DAY IN THE KITCHEN AT NUMBER ONE

It is early evening and I have just finished my meal at the Michelin starred Number One restaurant in Edinburgh’s prestigious Balmoral Hotel. Pizza and orange juice. Tastes good.

Let me explain. A simple enough exchange on Twitter has led to an invitation to visit Brian Grigor’s kitchen. I arrive at 1.00 pm as invited, expecting a quick tour and to be home by 2.30. That was before the day morphed into something so amazing that it still feels surreal. After a chat with Brian and legendary Executive Chef Jeff Bland I am led into the kitchen, and issued with an apron. I am set to work prepping girolles while Brian patiently answers a stream of daft questions from me. After a while of this I am passed on to sous chef Dan who is on bread and dessert section today. In the bread and pastry room three vast tubs of very different dough are whipped out of the proving cupboard and my newly found bread making skills put to the test. To my considerable amazement they seem to be up to scratch, my loaves, plaits and baguettes being added to Dan’s for the next stage.

Back to the main kitchen. Nick gives me a guided tour of a relatively small space which is by now buzzing quietly. Number One has no lunch service. The team come in at 12. Brian has been in since 10 for meetings with the executive team. In containers the size of small coffins roasted veal bones simmer for 24 hours to produce the mother stock. Today it is refined into a pork and port sauce and a sauce made with grouse bones which will accompany the Borders grouse with truffle and celeriac, bramble and bread sauce and, (although not featured on the menu) my girolles. Pride swells and soon reaches bursting point when Nick asks me to help him with the crab tortellini. A simple little detail which will accompany the sea bass. You know the sort of thing. You make two different pastas, one green, flavoured with herbs, the other black from squid ink. You then join them to form a perfect harlequin square, which you fill with a piping bag, seal and shape. Expecting my effort to be laughed at I pause. Nick, however just nods to me to put mine with his. We fill the tray. Nick checks my work – I seem to have passed his quality control test. By the time this is read some diners at a Michelin starred kitchen will have eaten food made at least in part by me!  I do apologise. I truly attempt to avoid the use of the exclamation mark, but sometimes simply nothing else will do. Incidentally, Nick cooks one for me to try – pretty darn good, though I say so myself.

My bread has undergone its second prove. I really I feel I should be going. Dan says I need to stay until the bread is baked; then to share that pizza, the staff meal, made from the surplus bread dough. Nothing goes to waste in this kitchen. There is a short quiet time before service, but first the briefing session with chefs and waiting staff. Everyone knows precisely who is dining that night, and any specific requirements. One party has expressly requested haggis. Not normally on the menu, but nothing is too much trouble.

Brian prepares the cheeseboard. A selection of fifteen out of a total of two hundred which the dining room will feature in the course of a year. The area just outside the dining room has a card with tasting notes and wine suggestions for each one. Service starts at 6.30. Orders called out from the pass, with a short “oui” response to each. Every sauce and foam has already been tasted by Brian: no detail of the assembly of a dish passes him by. I watch from the relative cool of the dessert area where I have been tempering chocolate and doing some prep for Dan and his colleague Lydia. (Strawberries and cucamelons, if you must know. No I hadn’t heard of the latter either, but sensational in a syrup with gin and mint.) My chocolate is used to finish off the petits fours which have been made in a three stage process since my arrival.

It is eight o’clock when I take my leave, just before the dessert station springs into service action (as if  they’ve been twiddling their thumbs all day). I have been here for seven hours, Brian for ten. They will get cleared up by 11.30 or so.

Sundry people have noticed me in the kitchen, from the General Manager down. No one bats an eyelid – indeed most smile and say hello. This is Brian’s kitchen. He may not look old enough to have left college, but he is the latest wearer of the Head Chef’s jacket and in charge of a brigade which produces exquisite food. See my review below. I am truly privileged. What a day, what a team, what a man.

Number One
The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2EQ
0131 557 6727  http://www.roccofortehotels.com

 

Sadly, for the vast majority of us, dining experiences such as these are beyond the pocket on a regular basis. Still, no matter your budget, a dining experience such as this should be savoured at least once, even if it takes a little time to fill the piggy bank.

I have long been a fan of the Forte dynasty. I felt a proprietorial air when I discovered that Sir Rocco’s Dad set up one of his first ice cream parlours in my home county of Fife. And darned fine ice cream it was, so I have been told. There followed one of last century’s success stories with the rise of the Forte group, ending in acrimony with a hostile takeover of Trusthouse Forte. Lord Forte’s son Rocco carried on the baton and has now established a chain of luxury hotels in Europe. All the design (each hotel is completely different) is done by his sister Olga Polizzi, whose daughter Alex is a regular feature on our screens as The Hotel Inspector.

Number One is in a basement, which brings design limitations. The space has just had a makeover, resulting in an intimate but spacious, luxurious yet quirky restaurant and bar. A splendid first impression enhanced by the front of house staff.

I suppose if you dine out a lot, a tasting menu may become a little too fussy. I have certainly had very dull experiences where staff wanted to list each one of the twenty two ingredients on each plate. If you make an introduction to a well respected friend, you don’t repeat his life story. After an introduction he can speak for himself. The same approach is taken here. We decided to go with the matched wine options. Lawrence the sommelier became our main guide for the night on both food and wine, a task carried out with panache, flair and a lightness of touch.

Where to begin on the food? Everything reached or approached perfection. Highlights included salmon smoked over Balvenie whisky casks. Probably the best smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten, and that’s from a very large sample. Heirloom tomatoes came with a Bloody Mary sorbet topped with a wafer made of powdered dried tomato that burst in the mouth with brief but dazzling intensity. The fish course was turbot, for me the king of the sea, its freshness complemented, not masked, by a green sauce whose provenance I forget. Beef was served in fillet and stew forms, the accompaniments with a Moroccan style seasoning.

The sweet toothed are well catered for, although I enjoyed a pre dessert more because of a welcome tang of apple. I did not inspect the vanilla pod’s passport. The main dessert was billed as a Tahitian Vanilla Soufflé, and I’m happy to take chef’s word for it. The kitchen here was raised to its Michelin star standard by the inappropriately named Jeff Bland, who is now executive chef for the whole hotel. The stoves at Number One are presided over by head chef Brian Grigor. Hats off to both of them and their highly talented team.

So do I have reservations or quibbles? Perhaps, but so few and so tiny it would be churlish to mention them. This is the best food I have eaten in Edinburgh. An evening of pure and unalloyed enjoyment.

The Bill

Dinner

3 courses £70

7 course

Tasting menu £75

The Score

Cooking 9.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 24/25

 

The Wee Restaurant

17 Main Street, North Queensferry

 Fife KY11 1JG

01383 616263           http://www.theweerestaurant.co.uk

 

 

Craig and Vikki Wood celebrated opening their aptly named establishment by producing their third child. Both the offspring and the restaurant are maturing nicely. The fame of the restaurant has spread far and wide attracting patrons from all over the world to dine in the shadow of the iconic Forth Bridge. Hardly surprising, given the quality of the fare on offer. Craig’s CV reads like a summary of the Scottish section of the Good Food Guide, with stints at Number One, Edinburgh, The Royal Scot train, and Aird’s Hotel, Port Appin, before becoming assistant to Martin Wishart when he opened his eponymous restaurant in Leith. From a tiny kitchen he produces food of a consistently high quality at bafflingly low prices. A recent lunch in the company of a famous former politician was a pleasure as ever. FFP raved about her rocket, potato and parmesan soup, as smooth as Alex Salmond, but much tastier and much better received (FFP was in the No camp). Mussels with a twist. Bacon yes, but pine nuts and basil? All worked a treat, though. I stayed on the carnivorous side. Rillettes of duck, followed by a piece of slow cooked pork which melted into its flavoursome bed of cassoulet style haricot beans. I’m not a huge pudding hand but was forced to sample FFP’s very chocolatey thingy. Enough to convert a man. It is a mark of quality that such a short menu (three choices at lunch) regularly leaves one spoiled for choice. Dinner typically features a choice of five starters and five mains. Despite the bargain prices there is no stinting on ingredients. This is family run in the finest continental tradition. Vikki is often to be found front of house, and Craig has minimal assistance in the kitchen. Despite the relentless demands of maintaining such standards, he barely looks old enough to have left catering college, never mind driving a kitchen of this standard. There are many reasons to visit my home county of Fife. This is one of the very best of them.

Update September 2015

This place just gets better and better. After ten years at the Queensferry coal face you might have thought things might go off the boil. The reverse is true, and the value for money is even better. On a recent unplanned visit the signature mussels were off and “replaced” by scallops and French black pudding. Three scallops in a starter on a set menu for £17.50! Unbelievable. This column usually avoids wine, but the blackboard announced house champagne at £8 the glass, two thirds of the price I paid in Edinburgh the other week. French black pudding, incidentally, because chef wants to avoid the significant quantities of oatmeal contained in its Scottish cousins. For my own part I prefer Spanish morcilla – isn’t it wonderful how the good Lord made us all that little bit different. There are many fine things to do with smoked haddock, but not many better than the risotto with saffron and herbs. Not only is Mr Wood a genius in the kitchen, he is also a marriage counsellor. L requested an extra spoon to “help” with my warm chocolate tart. What arrived were two plates, with half of a (generous) slice on each, the flavour of the accompanying berries enhanced by an ever so subtle syrup. If you haven’t been yet, why not?

The Bill

Set lunch

2 courses – £17.50

3 courses – £22

Set Dinner

2 courses – £28.50

3 courses – £36

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

 

 

The Cleveland Tontine

Staddlebridge, Northallerton, North Yorkshire DL6 3JB

01609 882671               http://www.theclevelandtontine.co.uk

 

A former coaching inn, situated on the east side of the A19 a few miles north of Thirsk, this jewel can prove elusive for those seeking it for the first time. Tricky enough to spot arriving from the north: returning to it from the south after a day at Thirsk Races can be even harder. But if you get lost and your arrival is delayed this will simply prove the truism that the best things in life are worth waiting for.

I have been making a pilgrimage here on a regular basis for the last twenty years to the shrine of the McCoys. This was an undistinguished roadhouse (remember them?) when it was taken over in 1976 by Mrs McCoy and her three energetic sons, Tom, Peter and Eugene. Its reputation for food was already stellar when I first visited following lavish praise bestowed by Jonathan Meades of The Times. I loved the slightly chaotic, shabby chic of the place: I loved the warmth and eccentricity of the welcome. But most of all I marvelled at the food. As the years went by, the chic completely overtook the shabby, but the fundamentals never changed.

Expectations were therefore sky high when we pulled up in June on the first leg of a UK road trip. Something, however, was different. After pondering the elegance of the recently refurbished reception, newly formed bar and lounge, it took us a little while to register the fact that the words “McCoys At” were missing from the title, Eugene having sold it in 2013 to local businessman and loyal customer Charles Tompkins. It appears that Mr T has spent a fortune on the place, but has no experience in the hotel or restaurant trade whatever. On learning that a management company was in place, our spirits dipped a little. Without much cause as it happens. The surroundings were even better and the welcome still as warm, with some staff still there from last time, including, importantly, head chef James Cooper.

Once upon a time there was the basement dining room or, at weekends, the Edwardian grandeur of The Cleveland Room. The latter is now used primarily for functions and the basement has been extended and lightened by the addition of a conservatory. The kitchen is situated below the main entrance to the hotel, the aromas titillating the taste buds and adding to the pleasure of the first impression. The cooking style is, as it has always been, modern French using the best of British. Many try to achieve that these days. Does Mr Cooper pull it off? The fact that the place is often packed seems to answer that eloquently enough. Basements can be a little claustrophobic, but I have found this to be a comfortable and comforting space both in winter and summer. Service is mostly local and invariably friendly. So what of the food?

Pressed terrine of rabbit is served with langoustine and nasturtium leaves, a nice take on turf, surf and the turf’s food. Ham hock ravioli were served with pea soup and crisp pancetta. One criticism here, The ravioli had been made in mini tart tins resembling more a mini pie than something from an Italian kitchen. Pork fillet and belly were served with celeriac and a toffee apple. I believe the toffee is now salted and this is fast becoming Mr Cooper’s signature dish.  Sea bass comes with an oyster Rockefeller. He is not afraid to mix up influences. Yorkshire lamb is served with polenta and samphire in addition to the more traditional anchovy. The roast veal and its sage and pine nut butter sauce comes with sweetbread tortellini and braised baby gem lettuce. In short, this is not a kitchen which is afraid to mix and match. The same trait permeates the dessert menu. Lavender panna cotta comes with a poppy seed tuile: flavours and textures are crowded together with apple jelly, custard, blueberry ice cream and cinnamon doughnut. In summary, not many flavours missing, something for everyone and good value.

Is it just nostalgia for the days of Eugene McCoy with his wild flowing hair and red specs? He was permanently on duty at dinner service surveying with beady eye everything which emanated from the kitchen. Would the ham hock ravioli pie have passed his scrutiny? If you follow in my footsteps will you accuse me of being hyper critical? On the basis that my fiercest critic L agrees with me I will, after much thought stick by my original conclusion. The Cleveland Tontine is a lovely place serving great food in wonderful surroundings: but it’s no longer quite the real McCoy.

June 2015

 

 

The Bill

 

Set Lunch

2 courses £16.95

3 courses £20

Sunday Lunch

2 courses £22

3 courses £25

Dinner

Starters

£6.95 £11.95

Mains

£17.95 – £35

Desserts

£5.95 – £8.50

 

 

The Score

Cooking  7/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 3.5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 18/25

 

 

Chinatown

3 Atholl Place, Edinburgh EH3 8EP

0131 228 3333          http://www.chinatownedinburgh.com

It is extraordinary to think that in post war Edinburgh, if you exclude hotel dining rooms and tea rooms, there were approximately four restaurants. Excluding, that is, those new exotica, the “ethnic restaurants”. It seems to be accepted that the first Indian restaurant was Khushi’s, opened in 1947, and still with us. The provenance of the first Chinese is shrouded in mystery. The Rendezvous at the West End claims it; however, as it is but a pup at age 59, this is doubtful. Scotsman readers recall one at the end of Chambers Street from the 1940s. (If you can cast any more light, please let me know).

The point is that Chinese food has featured in most of our culinary lives for most of our culinary lifetimes. It has overtaken fish and chips as the nation’s favourite takeaway. The problem is that most Chinese restaurant menus look much the same as they have done for years. Is familiarity beginning to take its toll? I confess I rarely eat it these days. I will put up with workaday Italian, artisan French, even run of the mill Thai, but after fifty years of exposure my standards are higher when I enter a Chinatown or see the script and symbols announcing the wares of an oriental eatery.

The problem with the problem is that we have been horribly spoiled for all of these years. Not for no reason did the legendary Paul Bocuse pronounce “Chinese” (whatever he meant by that) to be one of the world’s great cuisines. In a country of such vastness there is of course no such thing as a single cuisine. The purveyors of such grub are offering us primarily combinations of Cantonese, Shandong and Szechuan, with the addition of some bastardised dishes from San Francisco (eg chop suey), which must have been unknown to eastern chefs arriving in the country for the first time. Noodles are northern in origin: rice southern, and so on.

So, even in a humble establishment, we can expect frying, deep frying, steaming, baking, grilling and roasting. And that’s just the starter menu. Don’t forget the soups, the braising, the salads, the pickling, the brining and the marinating. There is one heck of a lot of work that goes on in a Chinese kitchen. All of which we expect to have on our plates five minutes after the prawn crackers, and for under a tenner. If you do only one good thing today, go back to your favourite Chinese restaurant and offer sincere apologies for taking it for granted for all these years.

I paid a couple of visits to Chinatown (the restaurant) recently, once with L, the other with my Distinguished Literary Editor. L and I were lazy and went for the set menu for two. It contained the standards, the time proven classics for the conservative and those too unadventurous (or too time stretched) to delve into the eight pages of the a la carte. Even the lazy choice was pretty good. The deep fryer was on form, with excellent spring rolls and wafer paper wrapped prawns (the actually latter tasting of prawn, as opposed to the frozen squash balls so often produced elsewhere). Chicken, beef and pork mains were all enjoyed. More importantly, they all had distinctive styles and flavours, not all being masked in a one flavour fits all gloop. The only downside was the chicken and sweet corn soup. No excuse for a restaurant not to have a decent stock as a base.

The DLE had recently successfully entertained Taiwanese clients here and on this visit we put the kitchen to more of a test. I have never seen the point of steamed pork buns. Something redolent of a warm used nappy does not appeal, but the DLE pronounced himself satisfied. The steamed prawns in garlic would have been welcome in any fine dining fish restaurant and the spiced and salted ribs could have been a meal in themselves. Szechuan beef delivered on flavour and kick and the chicken Kung Po was so so: but the star for me was the sliced duck with plum sauce. Forget any similar sounding sauce you may have plucked from a supermarket shelf. This was perfectly balanced, the fattiness of the pork off set with some pieces of pickled plum. A treat.

I don’t know anyone beyond the age of twelve who bothers with a dessert at the end of a Chinese meal. If you have a sweet tooth you will have to visit for yourself to learn what was on offer. Which would be no bad idea at any time.

Most of those who complain about the off handedness of the service in many Chinese restaurants have no clue as to the language issues. There are no words for please and thank you in Cantonese. It is not a culture which sets store by those subtleties upon which we base our notions of service. Critics can rightly complain about lack of a smile – but not here. Peter (he tells me that is the name on his passport) and his colleagues will greet and serve you with charm. After food of this quality you too will have a smile, a broader one if you take the time to explore the depths of this satisfying menu.

 

 

The Bill

 

Lunch

3 courses £9.30

(A la carte is

available)

Pre Theatre

3 courses £14.30

A la carte

Starters

£3.20 – £18.50

Mains

£7.50 – £38

 

The Score

Cooking 6 /10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4.5/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

Arbutus

63- 64 Frith Street, London W1D 3JW

020 7734 4545     http://www.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk

 

 

One must visit the capital from time to time to keep up to date in culinary matters. Giles Coren tells us that for every x miles north of London, one goes back y years in cooking terms. I must confess that food fads have largely passed me by. I keep up to date with them from frozen North Britain, by reading the scribblings of my betters in the broadsheets. I doff my cap to those who have mastered new techniques to tingle my tastebuds – but I despair at meaningless paint on a plate and pointless additions. Mini meringues with savoury food are a current bug bear and foams are, for me, no more than mere froth.

Similarly, the idea of a night out which involves queueing for an hour for a burger or a lobster roll, does not excite, and I can eat better steak or roast chicken at home than the offerings in those so called “specialty” dives. So the excitement of the “new” for me focuses almost entirely on pleasant surroundings, decent service and real talent in the kitchen. Arbutus has been on the must go to list for a while. When it was also recommended by a well respected foodie friend it seemed a logical destination for L’s birthday dinner. A gentleman never reveals a lady’s age, but The Beatles wrote a song about this one.

Arbutus, in case you were wondering, is a genus of at least 14 species of flowering plants in the family Ericaceae, generally small trees or shrubs with red flaking bark and edible red berries. I was ambivalent about first impressions. A pleasant enough space, but the wall with some fatuous scribblings by a pretentious designer was an irritant. Arbuti were absent.

The birthday fizz arrived promptly enough, but we were then left alone for what seemed quite some time. A lot of the menu seemed off putting to our tender sensibilities. Octopus, tripe and cow’s milk burrata are not things we care for. The fingers were about to start drumming, one of the many irritating features I inherited from the late Aged Parent. Never a good sign. Then suddenly everything clicked.

A bearded Italian charmer took control. The food started to flow and the world became a better place. A menu of which we had been unsure was transformed into a Book of Good Things. Warm crisp pig’s head was a sort of Chinese spiced brawn, the crispness enhanced by (I think) shards of crackling like pig’s ear. It was offset perfectly by some piccalilli and heritage radishes. Peas and broad beans feature on most seasonal menus in early summer, but they are seldom presented better than here in a simple but effective starter with fresh ricotta for a little body and Moroccan lemon for zest.

Both our mains came from the sea. Turbot came with some girolles and Morteau sausage. Sensationally good. Sadly the carbohydrate came in the form of gnocchi. Not even a chef of this calibre can make these dull things any better than OK. The monkfish with brown shrimp and asparagus shouted the virtues of traditional combinations and flavours. Nothing wrong with tradition if you’re this good in the kitchen. A shared pudding was the mysterious sounding “warm chocolate soup”. Were we destined for a bowl of chocolate sauce? It turned out to be an extremely good mousse served on a piping hot plate with salted caramel ice cream oozing over it. If you can’t indulge in a little guilt on a birthday, when can you? (Not sure what my excuse was, mind.)

Anthony Demetre is chef patron. Along with business partners Will Smith they now run Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons. One hears that more ventures are planned, consultancies and that sort of thing. These bring risks but whatever the plans no one has taken an eye off a single pot or pan in the kitchen. This is high end imaginative cooking at affordable prices.

 

The Bill

Lunch

Set lunch £23

(3 courses)

Dinner

Pre Theatre £25

(3 courses)

A la carte

Starters

£7 – £15.50

Mains

£19 – £27

Puddings

£6.50 – £8.50

 

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 3.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19.5/25

 

Wedgwood The Restaurant

The Royal Mile, 267 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8BQ

0131 558 8737          http://www.wedgwoodtherestaurant.co.uk

 

Sometime in April my friend the Very Famous Former Politician and I agree to meet post election “to pick over the bones of the Labour Party” (her words not mine). Reasonable enough, then, to meet not too terribly far from the other Parliament building. Paul and Lisa Wedgwood’s agreeable establishment sits just up the hill from Enric Miralles’ masterpiece, and seemed an eminently suitable place for a spot of bone picking. Even the VFFP seemed a little stunned by how few bones we had left to gnaw on, so the conversation turned to more congenial topics, aided in no small measure by a lunch of very high quality indeed.

There is a relaxed feel to the place, aided perhaps by its cosmopolitan clientele. On one side, an Australian lawyer holiday making: on the other a knight of the realm, a former senior civil servant. All around, a few random tourists. Everyone treated exactly the same, with a smile. This ties in perfectly with the Wedgwoods’ stated aim that “dining is a time to be enjoyed and a time to relax.”

Lunch is shockingly good value. Only the table d’hote is on offer. Two courses for a mere £12.95, with a pud for an additional £4. René Redzepi at Noma has made foraging fashionable, but canny chefs have been at it for years – nearly twenty years have passed since Nick Nairn was producing his Wild Harvest and Island Harvest books. There is more than a nod to this on the menu here. Among the four starters one finds wild garlic, crisp nettle and “spring beauty”. (No, the latter is not Miss April from the WI Calendar Girls). Perhaps the most “standard” offering was my dish of duck rillettes with cornichons and celeriac remoulade. In this country we tend to get rillettes horribly wrong because of the modern fear of fat. No such issues here – a beautifully worked classic. The VFFP’s leek and potato velouté with goats’ cheese, almond and wild garlic took some unlikely dating partners and arranged an excellent marriage.

It is possible to go horribly wrong with pigeon breast. Overcook it and you have something akin to tough liver: undercook it (as those who think Masterchef is a culinary bible are wont to do), and you have what looks like a road accident which could be resuscitated by a skilful vet. Done correctly, seared at a high heat and rested, the end result pink but not bloody, and you have a thing of beauty, as here. Fortunately VFFP doesn’t eat pigeon so I didn’t have to share. Three cheers! That didn’t stop me raiding her butternut squash risotto – and attempting to go back for more. In unskilled hands these ingredients can spell bland: here, paired with spinach, fennel and toasted pumpkin seeds, the outcome was one of the best risottos I’ve eaten. The only down side was the shared wild foraged salad. My dining partner said she thought someone had cut a swathe from the path where she walks her dog. While no doubt carefully selected (and washed), it tasted of grass and, at £4.95, jarred.

Neither of us is much of a pudding person but we were tempted today. Pineapple carpaccio came with coconut panna cotta and, just to show that the foraging hadn’t stopped, it was adorned with sweet cicely. A bitter chocolate ganache was in the top ten of these things. While I didn’t detect the douglas fir, the classic orange combination and soil-like chocolate crumble were first rate.

If you thought the Royal Mile was just tartan tat and deep fried haggis balls, think again. Don’t just be swayed by the raft of awards and the constant innovation on the website. Don’t be put off by the swarm of bewildered and overwhelmed visitors or the chaos of the Festival. Take my word for it – this restaurant is a destination in its own right.

The Bill

Set Lunch

2 courses £12.95

3 courses £16.95

Dinner

Starters

£8.45 – £12.95

Mains

£16.50 – £29.95

Puddings

£7.25

 

The Score

Cooking 7 /10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 20/25

 

OX AND FINCH
920 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G3 7TF
0141 339 8627               www.oxandfinch.com

 

 

You really do learn something new every day. While I knew that Argyle Street stretched west forever, I had no idea that as I was driving through the leafy loveliness of Glasgow’s West End, past Newton Place, Sandyford Place and the like, that I was really in Sauchiehall Street. Keep going until you hit Finnieston and it reannounces itself with a bang. The food scene here is burgeoning, with serious new players such as Crabshakk and Sisters joining grand old ladies such as Mother India. Few, however, will have made such a bang as Ox and Finch, currently celebrating its first anniversary.

The appearance is that sort of studied casual that you just know has had no detail unplanned. Stripped wood, open kitchen, Victorian tiles, reclaimed scaffolding. The logo is ingenious – see how long it takes you to spot the finch. First impressions might have you believing that you’ve just popped into one of those local bistros set up by one of those arty folk who has always fancied a bash at running an eatery. You know the type – and you also know the patchy results on the plate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Owner Jonathan  MacDonald was formerly chef to the McLaren F1 team. His kitchen staff have on their CVs spells with Martin Wishart, Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton, and it shows in the quality of the cooking.

I hate to use the word “concept”, but the food here is served as sharing plates which arrive in no particular order. The cynic might say that this is a cop out by the chef – no need to coordinate timings at the pass – but it is a fun way of eating, and allows you to sample more of the delights on offer. I lunched with a Very Important Licensing Person (VILP) and we shared half a dozen dishes. King prawns were served with harissa and chickpeas topped with feta. A terrine of rabbit ham hock and foie gras was moist and succulent. I was going to write delicious, but stopped myself, as that adjective can be applied to every single thing we ate. A smoked haddock brandade with poached egg was a thing of beauty, if anything an improvement on the usual salt cod version.  A bit of chilli and mango added zing to a crab and crayfish noodle dish. Slow roasted lamb shoulder with anchovy came on a bed of mashed smoked potato. Chips were top drawer. Finally there was pea, broad bean, courgette and lemon orzo. A critic might say that only in Scotland would you find a pasta dish in the vegetable section, but he will be silenced as soon as he takes one mouthful of this taste of spring. The menu changes constantly. The first asparagus of the year were about to make their entrance the week after us.

The prices are astonishing. Our six plates, which left us fit to burst, cost less than forty quid. The most expensive dish on the menu (scallops) comes in at £9.50. Small wonder that it is usually full to capacity.

 So what can I find to pick fault with? The atmosphere? No. Cool and laid back. The service? Even cooler than the décor – easy, friendly and professional. The food? I am simply running out of superlatives. Both the VILP and I were bowled over. If you do not add your name to the long list of people who strive for reservations here it will be your loss, a most grievous loss.

The Bill

Sharing Plates

£6.00 – £9.50

Vegetables

£3.50 – £4.50

Desserts

£4.50 – £5.50

The Score

Cooking 8/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 5/5

TOTAL 22/25

 

 

 

TO COMPLAIN, OR NOT TO COMPLAIN?

 An interesting question. Dining out, when and how should one voice one’s displeasure? For years I was one of those who railed against the waitresses who would arrive, (invariably two seconds ahead of a punchline) to ask if everything was all right. That was until I met an experienced operator who educated me in the devious ways of Joe and Jo Public, who look to chisel restaurant owners out of such little profits as they can make. Their trick is to scoff everything, then to complain, at the point of paying, that the food was in some way sub-standard. Much more difficult to get away with that if you have told your server that all in the garden is lovely.

I recently wrote an unfavourable review of a restaurant which served me poor food. Not inedible, not raw or burnt, simply less than good. The concerned chatelaine contacted me shortly thereafter. Having done her research, she pointed out, correctly, that I had not complained at the time. She was at pains to try to make things up. She undoubtedly felt slightly aggrieved that I had not given her people the chance to do so at the time. I was offered a free meal, which I declined.

But it did get me thinking. I will explain my position thus. L and I had been doing a little business uptown. We decided to try a new restaurant for lunch. The menu looked good: the venue was lovely: the service was charming. Sadly, the food was less good. The cooking had significant flaws and the food was pretty tasteless. Had it been up to standard it would have been great value. We ate most of it: it filled a gap: we were in no danger of food poisoning. After a most pleasant morning, I will confess that I was not in the mood for any sort of wrangling or negotiation. So when we were asked, as we were, timely and at appropriate intervals, how things were we gave the anodyne answer, “fine”.

What would have happened had we said things were not up to scratch? I think our lovely waitress would have been mortified. But what would have been the reaction of the chef? I have found myself in shouting matches before, as some prima donna of the stoves tries to tell me that I know nothing. Equally I have endured the embarrassment of the sackcloth and ashes response when someone offers to slit his wrists and sacrifice his first born in an attempt to make amends. It would have taken time and effort and angst. We probably would have ended up saying, there, there, we didn’t mean to upset you.  If a chef sends out an overcooked or raw steak it is easy enough to get another one. But if the chef sends out four poorly cooked plates, is it likely that his fifth and sixth will be any better? So we would have left with an unpleasant taste (no pun intended) and no better food. In short you cannot win, unless you are one of those who delights in trying to get some monetary gain, as I could have done. And if you have scoffed it all, you run the risk of being categorised as one of the many chancers who are the scourge of the restaurant trade.

I paid the bill and left a decent tip (you are rewarding the service, not the food). I recorded the experience, as I saw it, in my restaurant review column. Admittedly not everyone has their own review column, and of those not everyone can write (yes, fishy-wishy, piggy-wiggy, Gaby-wabby, I do mean you). I defend my approach. If things are horribly off kilter I will complain, but sometimes you just eat up, pay up, and tell your pals.

 

Contini Cannonball
Cannonball House, 356 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NF
0131 225 1550  http://www.contini.com/contini-cannonball

 

We are in the middle of an election campaign in which, sadly, some parties are trying to make an issue out of immigration. This column does not comment on politics save to say that there are very few of us who can say that every single one of our traceable ancestors came from this country. Go back a few hundred years and the English came from Scandinavia or Normandy, and the Scots came from Ireland. Fast forward another few centuries and we were fortunate enough to welcome people from all over Europe: even our royal family is German in origin. Nowadays no one even notices that Italian surnames are different to those of Anglo-Saxon origin (whatever that is). With their business acumen and sheer drive those of Italian descent are part of the fabric of Scottish society, none more so than the hard working Continis, whose family has been feeding Scots in one form or another for about 100 years.

Fitting, therefore, that Victor and Carina Contini have taken over a piece of Scottish history to create this, their third restaurant in the city. Cannonball House is the last building on the left as you head up Castlehill towards the Castle itself. According to the records of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland the building was originally erected in the early 17th century, reconstructed a couple of times, then restored as part of a school a century ago. The name comes from a cannonball embedded into the west wall. The gullible may believe it was a missile fired from the Castle at Bonnie Prince Charlie in Holyrood Palace in 1745 (with that trajectory it would barely have reached what is now George IV Bridge). It is more likely a measure used by engineers of the former Castlehill reservoir across the road, to help measure the water levels.

The most accessible part of the building has been converted into a gelateria, with café above. The entrance to the restaurant above these is, confusingly, via a side entrance a couple of storeys lower. On our visit the greeter was otherwise engaged and we did get rather lost en route to the restaurant itself. The internal signage is in need of a rethink. Once you are installed, however, you appreciate that the journey was worth it. To those of us of a certain vintage this was clearly once a school classroom, simply and elegantly fitted out, with views on three sides. And what views! The Castle and Esplanade to the west (although I suspect that view will be masked for some of the year by the Tattoo seating): to the north, Ramsay Garden and the Kingdom of Fife: and an eastern vista down the High Street (which is not as straight as you might think from the maps).

On the day of our visit, the place was sadly quiet, despite large throngs of visitors enjoying the sun. It was presided over by the delightful Sarah, who is normally in charge of Contini Ristorante in George Street. The sun was shining and the set menu looked both appealing and good value. We learn that every purchase helps to support the Edinburgh Tattoo and Armed Forces Benevolent Funds. A great start.

The reality was a little different, but let’s begin at the beginning. As the Italians invented the when in Rome saying, the starters lived up to the maxim. Yes, much play is made of the Scottish provenance of the ingredients; however, I am referring to that other proverb, when in the Royal Mile, serve deep fried haggis balls. Or cannonballs as the menu described them. Three very nicely cooked grapeshot sized balls were served with a little mustard mayonnaise, and very good they were. The accompaniment of pickled radish on the other hand tasted as though it was in the early stages of a fermentation process. Salad of smoked Dunlop cheese came with tiny cubes of beetroot which were apparently salt baked. The candied walnuts turned out to be hazelnuts, and the accompanying Dunlop curd took the form of a few deep fried orange things with the texture of another Dunlop product.

On to mains. My pork belly squares were well enough cooked but under seasoned, as was the smear of green puree (I see from rereading the menu it was Musselburgh leek – I thought it was pea). Mashed potatoes were delicious, but I failed to detect the advertised wild garlic. Deep fried (you’re noticing a theme here, aren’t you) black pudding balls provided some crunch, but the whole plate was a little dry. Up until now the chef had proved to be a dab hand with a deep fryer, so we expected good things from L’s fish and chips. The fish came in a good light batter; however, it was both unseasoned and tasteless. The chips may have had a hint of crisp life when laid on the board that was their last resting place, but they sighed and died, soggy and flaccid,  before they could be transferred from fork to mouth.

Maybe, we thought, puds are what they excel at. As we seldom eat sweet things at home, perhaps the lunch would end with a decadent flourish. L fared better than I. Her IQ chocolate pudding (we never did find out what the IQ stood for) turned out to be a delicious sort of brownie. It came with a fine lemon sorbet, but lemon and chocolate was not a combination high on St Peter’s list when he was compiling his book of best matching flavours. The less said about mine the better. Scottish rhubarb posset was a dollop of pink cream which tasted of cream. The rhubarb jellies were three pink lozenges which tasted of nothing and the “Madagascar vanilla shortbread” was a sprinkling of the crumbs which you find at the bottom of the empty tin. I am still unsticking parts of the Amalfi lemon “meringue” from my teeth, and the honeyed Knockraich Farm yoghurt had been given the day off. Not even the service and charm of the redoubtable Sarah could make up for this unacceptable offering.

This is a lovely venue, with a good looking menu, run by a well-respected family, but they need to take the chef to task. It is unusual indeed to find an Italian kitchen so shy of flavour. The place has been open for a few months now, so this can’t be put down to teething problems. Signor Contini himself was in the background while we were there – I would suggest he should sample his own wares and raise the food to a standard which the venue deserves.

The Bill

 

Lunch

Set lunch

2 courses £18

3 courses £22

Dinner

Starters

£6- £10

Mains

£16 – £35

Desserts

£4.50 – £8

Tasting Menu

5 courses £50

 

The Score

Cooking 4/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 2.5/5

Value 3/5

TOTAL 14/25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Parmigiana

447 Great Western Road, Glasgow G12 8HH

0141 334 0686         http://www.laparmigiana.co.uk

 

At no time did Charles Darwin write that only the fittest would survive. His thesis was based on the premise that those less likely to survive were those who were unable to adapt. In business, of course, there are many more factors than mere Mother Nature. Keep providing the service that your customers want and you live for ever… But of course your customers get older. Are you catering for the next generation?

The last review dealt with another Italian restaurant, a new kid on the block: La Parmigiana celebrates its 37th birthday this year. Two dinners, each on a dreich midweek night: in the former the place heaving, the latter empty. But leave comparisons aside and concentrate on fundamentals. First things first, like first impressions. When I disclosed our destination to L, she was less than impressed, recalling how rude the reception had been on our last visit some years ago. My memory was of a meal which was pleasant in spite of a “welcome” by a tuxedoed tyrant who had made me think I had brought in something unpleasant on my shoe.

Arriving at 8.15 we were met by the same charmer, with a greeting barely warmer than the blizzards which had been sweeping the city all week. Having handed out menus which included a set menu (I think for the pre theatre option which finishes at 7), he then returned and literally snatched all four set menu sheets away without explanation or apology.

Fortunately we were passed on to a real waiter to start the business of the day. K and Oxfam L know their vittles and can always be relied on to test a menu. L, on the other hand wimped out on starters and desserts (although with mitigating circumstances for the latter). Her place in the Tom Eats Starting XI may be at risk. The menu boasts of the provenance of their steak, but one doesn’t go to a specialist upmarket Italian place for steak and chips.

Let’s start with the good. K’s starter of tagliolini with scampi, tomatoes and vegetables was a thing of loveliness and lightness. All the pasta is home made. OL had the lobster ravioli (the blighter always gets his order in first). The ravioli themselves were a delight, the flavour of the generous lobster filling perhaps masked rather than enhanced by a 1980s style heavy cream sauce. My pumpkin ravioli were promised with a classic sage and butter combo, but the kitchen must have been out of sage that night. The idea of adding a bit of crunch to ravioli in a pool of butter is a sound one, but crumbling a sweet amaretto biscuit onto a sweetish veg such as pumpkin is just plain weird and, more basically, not very nice. Even more fundamentally, charging £11.40 for three veg-filled ravioli is having a laugh at the customer’s expense.

On to the main event. Venison was perfectly cooked and served with a rich pork and salsiccia ragù. That came with grilled polenta croquettes. Not only is this one of the few edible ways of serving an overrated peasant food, it also filled the carbohydrate shaped space nicely. No such luck for the rest of us. Mains of salmon and guinea fowl came without any accompaniment whatever. Again a throwback to the 1980s. Looking at the menu initially I didn’t think the pricing of the mains was unreasonable, but it is rare these days to be served a main with nothing at all on the side. For your classic potatoes and two veg add a tenner  for a true price indicator. The salmon came, surprise surprise, in a cream sauce, this time with tarragon. My guinea fowl had been cooked with grappa soaked grapes. An interesting combination – this time one which worked well. We ordered garlic and rosemary potatoes and salad “dressed by the chef”. The potatoes tasted of little and had clearly been hanging about for a while. The salad was “dressed” by our waiter pouring over some oil and some vinegar on to some lettuce, half a tomato and a few chopped things. For £3.70 is it too much to expect a decent vinaigrette?

L did look at the dessert menu. She can’t eat cream. As a result every single one of the six on offer would have made her ill, although, in fairness, an off-menu apple crumble was offered instead. Deciding to stick to classics we opted for cheese cake and tiramisu. Both were OK, lifted by the accompanying ice cream, including, with the former, an unctuous homemade vanilla – was that a hint of rosemary we detected?

As we were the only customers all night, the place lacked atmosphere. I gather it has a lively regular clientele every weekend. For me the menu would not have looked odd when the place opened in 1978. Other set menus which feature on the website (where they modestly proclaim themselves to be Glasgow’s Best Italian Restaurant, and “probably one of Britain’s top ten”) seem to be fresher and more appetising. L had made her choice quickly and expectantly from a good looking pre theatre menu before it was torn from her grasp. Perhaps a menu more in touch with the 21st century would fill tables during the week. If you have a weekend formula that ain’t broke (and there is a separate Sunday menu), then who I am I to tell them to fix it? What I can say is that I certainly would not rush back to choose from this particular menu. If you choose to  stick with classics you need to pull them off to absolute perfection, a feat not achieved here. This kitchen is technically sound, but the whole experience smacked of an establishment resting on its laurels.

 If they are still making profits, I suggest they use some of them to send the appalling maître d’ to a beginners’ hospitality course. Sadly La Parmigiana has four underwhelmed customers.

 

 

 

The Bill

A la carte

Starters £6.20 – £12.50

Mains £18.30 – £31.00

Desserts

£6.00ish

Pre Theatre

Two courses £17.90

Three courses

£21.50

Set Lunch

£18.50

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 13.5/25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Locanda de Gusti

102 Dalry Road, Edinburgh EH11 2DW

0131 346 8800     http://www.locandadigusti.com

 

Some years ago I attended a meeting of Edinburgh based Italian business people, many in the restaurant trade, at the Italian Consulate. Having been instrumental in setting up the meeting, I was more than a little discomfited when the Consul decreed that the proceedings would be held in Italian. My one year of night class study was very stretched, but I did manage to follow one veteran restaurateur who complained loudly about the regular stereotyping of matters Italian in the media, citing in particular the Dol Mio puppets in the ads for sauce “as made by-da mamma”.

My sympathies for this might have lasted for more than a nano second, had I not experienced years of metre long pepper mills and kilos of pre grated parmesan, delivered by men whose accents had to be Italianesque, no matter their country of origin. So when one encounters a Neapolitan chef whose motto is to be “honest, sincere and simple”, there is an immediate sense of refreshment,

Ironically, the stereotypical “Italian food” (there is of course no such beast) to which we have become accustomed over the past half century owes much to the cuisine of Naples, with pizza and a preponderance of tomato among the mainstays.

Put all that to one side when you enter the realm of Rosario Sartore. His chef’s trousers may be on the flamboyant side but his careful and delicious food lives up entirely to his motto. Honesty and simplicity: what a good start. Add to that layers of flavour, care and detail. Pasta is home made, and is coated with sauces which are rustic, robust and flavoursome. Eat his pizzas and imagine yourself in his home town. Both of these sections are wonderful, but please, please treat yourself and journey further through the menu or sample the daily changing delights from the blackboard.

Veal and chicken are, of course, well portrayed here in a menu that delivers on to each plate every one of its mouth watering promises, but for me the smart money goes on the fish. It is hard to beat a classic starter of grilled seafood, especially when as well executed as here. If I as a prawn had to meet my maker, I would be happy to for the end to come on Locanda’s chargrill.

I have lunched here a few times. L, my frequent fellow diner and harshest critic of my scribblings, was the first to sample the dinner menu and came back raving about it. Our latest foray at dinner was with a Former Media Mogul (FMM) and His Gorgeous Wife (HGW). Splendidissimo. A classic of ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta served with butter and sage was pronounced darn fine by HGW. My pasta in the Genoese fazzoletti style (“handkerchieves”) was served with a creamed chickpea sauce, livened up with tiny cubes of piquant Italian sausage. A mixed seafood starter was both satisfying and generous, not padded out with semi edible calamari rings as these dishes so often are. A whole sea bass was stuffed with cherry tomatoes and herbs and an exemplary fritto misto from the blackboard defeated even a seasoned trencherman such as the FFM. Little room was left for the dolce section, but the panna cotta was pronounced excellent. Other offerings include standards such as tiramisu, chocolate mousse and a surprisingly light lemon cake.

What can I say about the service? Like the place itself, busy, charming and full of character. Your table is likely to be visited at some stage by Signor Sartore himself, so you can check out the trousers at first hand. This restaurant moved here from larger premises at the foot of Broughton Street. I have seldom seen it less than packed – perhaps another move will be on the cards? If you are looking for good food with rather more authenticity than you might expect, served with flair and fun, don’t miss this.

The Bill

 

Starters

£6.95 – £8.95

Pasta/Pizza

£6.95 – £13.50

Mains

£9.95 – £18.50

Desserts

£4.95 – £6.95

The Score

Cooking 6/10

Service 4/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4.5/5

TOTAL 18.5/25

 

 

 

 

Tom Eats! Review of 2014

2014 saw the launch of my restaurant review column. Its launch was derided by some as a vanity project (the current Mrs Johnston blushes as I write), but the readership is steadily increasing. More feedback would be welcome, as would any suggestions or recommendations for future reviews. You can post on the website at the end of the Tom Eats! page, or contact me by email tgj52a@outlook.com or via Twitter @TomJohnston52A. There is a tendency for reviewers to focus on new places to the exclusion of established ones. In rejecting that approach I would point to the incredibly short life expectancy of a new eatery. If your dining venue of choice has stood the test of time it must be doing something right. Here is a summary of the year. Marks are out of 25. Standards are high. Anywhere that achieves a pass mark will generally be worth a visit. Congratulations to Mark Greenaway and his team, this year’s winners. Happy 2015.

Restaurant Mark Greenaway, Edinburgh

22.5

Bentley’s, London

21

The Wee Restaurant, North Queensferry

20

Two Fat Ladies, Glasgow

19

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, London

17.5

Scotts, Troon

17

L’Escargot Blanc, Edinburgh

17

The Paper Mill, Lasswade

15

Bistro du Vin, Edinburgh

10

 

L’Escargot Blanc

17 Queensferry Street,

Edinburgh EH2 4QW

0131 226 1890          www.lescargotblanc.co.uk

 

For a country which boasts an Auld Alliance with France, Scotland’s experience with French restaurants has been mixed. High end dining is now truly international, with no one country able to claim a predominant influence. Indeed with the universally acknowledged excellence of our natural produce, and the ever increasing numbers of top quality chefs, Scotland can now lay claim to be one of those influences in its own right.

It might be thought that it is harder than ever for French provincial cooking to make its mark in our cluttered culinary capital. Our love of all things eastern is now extended to Malaysia, Vietnam and Korea. North and South America and Africa are all striving to make an impact. So what chance France?

Owners Fred Berkmiller and Betty Jourjon would respond that the classic dishes are time tested. So true. How many food fads have we all seen arrive and (thankfully) disappear in the last decade? After a spell with the ill-fated Pierre Victoire empire, Berkmiller co-founded Petit Paris, then in 2009 set up L’Escargot Bleu in Broughton Street, where he mans the stoves. L’Escargot Blanc, in the West End, followed shortly thereafter. His stated aim is to maintain a link between himself as a chef and food produced in Scotland.

I have been a semi regular for many years. Maintaining standards in an empire (even one with only two outposts) is tricky, and it is fair to say that the pots went off the boil a little a year or two back. I am happy to report that, like a good classic, the kitchen has bounced back and is simmering nicely, but with inconsistencies. I have lunched and dined over the past year with an eclectic cast of characters, including L (of course), a Captain of Industry, Big Cheese Legal Editor, the Emeritus WS, the Curmudgeon and D, his long suffering other half.

The first course of one’s first lunch in France should always be terrine with cornichons. L’EB will always oblige, although on a recent visit the terrine wasn’t up to its usual standard and was unaccountably cornichon-less. There will be soup of the day. Fish soup is another classic, with all the accoutrements. Salads, especially warm salads, are inventive and flavoursome. At dinner upgrade your terrine to some foie gras. (If you disapprove, write to your MSP, not to me.) Fish lovers may start with mussels done in varying styles, and there will always be a poisson du jour. The EWS is particularly fond of the casserole of the day, which would bring a smile to any French farmer’s wife. The menu d’hiver included caillettes de boeuf (meatballs) and rabbit in a mustard sauce, both shining examples of the French provincial repertoire. Even the Curmudgeon has been known to clear his plate here, provided no one makes him eat his greens.

To follow, cheeses, a specialty, are from Hervé Mons. Desserts include Gallic classics such as îles flottantes and crème brulée. British favourites include the good old fashioned sticky toffee pudding (though I have never understood how a confection based on dates came to be regarded as a staple of Merrie England.) On our last visit, the base of a chocolate tart would have served as an ice hockey puck, but was accompanied by an exquisite raspberry ice cream.

Service is French. Staff come and go, as is customary, but the smile of the delightful Deborah has been illuminating this bustling, slightly cramped dining room for as long as I can recall.

A little more quality control wouldn’t go amiss, but overall I say, vive Fred and Betty! Vive Deborah! Vive L’Escargot Blanc!

The Bill

Lunch

Set lunch £10.90

Dinner

Set dinner

From £12.90

A la carte

Starters

£4.90 – £7.90

Mains

£14.90 – £19.90

Puddings

£5.50

The Score

Cooking  5.5/10

Service   3.5/5

(Deborah 5)

Flavour   4/5

Value     4/5

TOTAL 17/25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand

100 Strand, London, WC2R 0EW

020 7836 9112

http://www.simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk

 

If London is the home of British tradition, then Simpsons must be its epicentre. It was founded as the Grand Cigar Divan in 1828 and found fame as a chess club. Howard Staunton, England’s first world champion, played out of the Simpson club. Details of inter club matches were relayed, move by move, by messengers around the city. Copies of the original Staunton pieces which he designed are still on display. One can feel his ghost in the august wood panelled Grand Divan dining room, featuring some of the original benches.

Curiously, the founder was one Samuel Reiss. John Simpson was brought in twenty years later to oversee the catering. Appropriate then, that his name still graces this elegant restaurant in the Strand. The roast beef of Old England features prominently, wheeled around under solid silver domes, carved in front of you and served with Yorkshire puddings the size of a child’s head. Or saddle of lamb if you prefer, or in December, turkeys by the flock. It is still traditional to tip the carver, but sadly on the day of our visit few seemed to be aware of this. O tempora, o mores.

Tradition can have its down side. Producing food of this type won’t get you into the next round of Masterchef, but producing food of this flavour and quality will keep discerning diners very happy indeed. The dining room was packed on a Tuesday lunch time, with regulars, business people, tourists, Essex girls of a certain age, and L and me. Potted shrimps actually tasted of crustacean, the butter and mace complementing the flavour, not masking it. Potted salmon, by contrast, was creamy and unctuous.  Red legged partridge was pot roasted with leek and cabbage to excellent effect. Individual beef Wellingtons were cooked to order, with the duxelle of mushroom topped with foie gras for extra luxury. Roast potatoes, those most fickle of creatures, were a delight, with simple side dishes such as creamed spinach of the highest order. The puddings section of the menu maintains the traditional theme, included spotted dick, sticky toffee pudding and treacle sponge. If you have room for one after the first two courses you’re a finer trencherman than I.

 The service was a little surprising. I had expected gnarled retainers who had been on nodding terms with old Mr Staunton. Instead there was a mixed bag, from a charming front of house, to a nervously shaking waiter. Pleasant enough but not quite matching the rest of the atmosphere. The dining room is overlooked by an oil painting of the King from the nursery rhyme enjoying his pie of four and twenty blackbirds. Perhaps inappropriate – Simpson’s dishes are hearty but not dainty. The ambience is redolent of a London club, and the net result is very satisfying in every respect. Everyone who loves tradition should try Simpsons once.

December 2014

The Bill

Breakfast

£7 – £19

Lunch

Fixed Price

2 courses £26.50

3 courses £32

A la carte

Starters

£8.50 – £14

Mains

£26 – £35

Puddings

£7.35 – £8.50

The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 3.5/5

TOTAL 17.5/25

 

 

 

Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill

11 – 15 Swallow Street, Mayfair, London W1B 4DG

020 7734 4756

http://www.bentleys.org

 

He knew how to pick ’em, did old Keith. Reruns of Floyd in Britain and Ireland reveal young versions of very well known chefy faces, including Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein and the outrageously talented Richard Corrigan, owner of Bentleys. There has been an oyster bar on this site just off Piccadilly for nearly a century. The middle of the Great War must have been an odd time to open a restaurant, but it has outlived the average London restaurant by 90+ years. Richard Corrigan seems to have enjoyed his spell working here in the 1990s so much he came back and bought it in 2005.

On the first floor there is The Grill, also variously used for private dinners and for the monthly Beef and Oyster Club lunches, but the best action is downstairs with an oyster bar and a narrow bustling dining room. Let me declare an interest here. Bentleys is one of my favourite places on the planet. I would no more have a trip to London without a meal here than I would fly from the top of The Shard. When all hope is gone from my condemned cell, I shall insist on my last meal coming from Swallow Street.

True to its origins the emphasis is on fish. The classics are well represented, prawns, Dover Sole and the like. “Roof smoked salmon” is just that, smoked up top next to the herb garden. Simple ingredients somehow acquire extra flavour dimensions. I always find it hard to go beyond the Universe’s Finest Dressed Crab. When L & I lunched with the Glamorous Parish Councillor, it surpassed both expectation and memory. The frivolity of the festive season was evident on the specials board. Foie gras accompanied a mince pie: scallops and morcilla were served with chestnuts. The GPC’s fish pie oozed class as well as comfort, wrapped in a delicately flavoured mustard sauce. The fish stew, on the other hand, packed a kick of chilli and fennel. Turbot was served with stuffed leeks and truffle oil.

By this time we were far too full, so puddings will be reviewed another day.

The venue is fantastic. On the service side, the delightful Rita from Sardinia headed up the exemplary waiting brigade. This is one not to be missed.

December 2014

 

The Bill

Starters

£6 – £21.95

Mains

£12.50 – £75

Desserts

Who cares?

 The Score

Cooking 7/10

Service 5/5

Flavour 5/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 21/25

 

 

 

 

Scotts

Troon Yacht Haven, Harbour Road,

Troon, KA10 6DJ

01292 315315        http://www.scotts-troon.co.uk

 

One takes websites with a pinch of salt. Those very experienced and very talented Buzzworks folk describe Scotts as being “a stunning bar and restaurant which looks out towards the picturesque Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig”. While I can’t quibble with the general description, I have to tell you, gentle readers, that on a dreich November Friday, the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig were nowhere to be seen. And that is probably the only criticism I have of the whole experience.

The Blair family, two brothers and a sister, have been at this game for a very long time. That is not per se a recommendation, as businesses can become stale or rest on their laurels. Not this one. Having endured highs and some lows over the past thirty five years, the Blairs have moved on from pubs and (disastrously) a nightclub, to what Colin described in a recent interview as high aspirational casual dining. This is one of seven venues, with plans to expand to eleven in the not too distant future.

Scotts is a modern building overlooking the marina at Troon. On a clear day, not only can the aforesaid island and crag be seen, they can be viewed from a terrace with retractable roof. Cosy and snug in winter: a delight in summer.

The menu ties in with the casual dining theme. One might think, therefore, that standing out from the crowd would be harder. On the basis of the lunch that L and I enjoyed, they’re doing a pretty darned good job. A tomato and chilli soup was just right for the weather. A seared portion of mackerel fillet came atop a fine portion of potato salad. If the haddock which arrived truly was just a goujon, the whole fish must have been of Moby Dick proportions. A lot of the fish is landed locally. While I suspect not much haddock comes in to Troon, the freshness of this was a treat (and a lesson to others). The deep frying was exemplary. We were sufficiently encouraged to venture into the dessert menu, to very good effect. The filling of a lemon tart lived up to its name, balanced by some nicely sharp raspberry coulis, sorbet and berries. The word light is not often juxtaposed with chocolate brownie, but it is here.

The place is open from 0900, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as drinks, coffees etc. It looks great, (though avoid the seat in front of the open gas fire unless you really enjoy heat). Staff are attentive, friendly and unobtrusive. Attention is given to the little things – micro leaves in garnishes, a drop of balsamic on the soup, a hint of dill in the home made tartare sauce, sesame tuile with dessert. One suspects that the same level of detail is applied throughout the organisation. A terrific experience. When we left, the Friday seemed much less dreich.

 

 

 

The Bill

Lunch

Set Lunch

Two courses £10.95

Three courses £14.90

A la carte

Starters

£5.45 – £8.95

Mains

£10.95 – £24.50

Desserts

£3.95 – £6.45

Dinner

Starters

£5.45 – £8.95

Mains

£10.95 – £24.50

Desserts

£3.95 – £6.45

 The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 4/5

Flavour4 /5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 17/25

 

 

Bistro du Vin, Hotel du Vin & Bistro

11 Bristo Place, Edinburgh EH1 1EZ

0844 736 4255

http://www.hotelduvin.com/locations/edinburgh/bistro

 

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade is an eternity in the life of a hotel chain, even one which purports to keep faith with the standards of its founder. Gerard Basset, former sommelier at Chewton Glen, and his business partner Robin Hutson established the first of these hotels in 1994 in Winchester. The birth of this, and the five siblings which followed in fairly quick succession, was universally lauded. The group was sold in 2004, expanded and sold again in 2013. The group now also includes Malmaison Hotels. In the meantime Basset went on to win a string of awards in other ventures, including the title of World’s Best Sommelier in 2010.

The Edinburgh outpost opened in 2007, and very fine it looks, reflecting none of the site’s history as a lunatic asylum, then science laboratory and blood transfusion centre. Entrance off Bistro Place is via an elegant courtyard with Cigar Bothy. The Bistro is a high ceilinged, well decorated but informal space. Bistro is exactly the right word for it. It is also the Russian word for “quickly”. It is believed that the term passed into the French language from the cry of impatient Cossacks waiting to be fed during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815. While speed of service is not necessarily a criterion in judging a restaurant, slowness (especially in a room where we were for a while the only occupants) most certainly is.

A bottle of sparkling water arrived at once, but the aperitif ordered at the same time was five minutes behind. A glass of wine ordered specifically to go with a starter arrived as the empty plate was being cleared. When requested tap water eventually came into view, the jug was left, tantalisingly, on a side table for several minutes. All the while there was a lot of hectic activity sorting out cutlery drawers.

As L and I were there for an unhurried lunch with the Emeritus WS, time was not of the essence, but initial irritations take a bit of shaking. Food, by contrast, arrived very promptly. Had it been of the quality which was apparently standard in Mr Basset’s day, all might have been forgiven. L’s starter of whipped goat’s cheese with heritage beetroot was colourful and fine. While the EWS’s steak tartare seemed a bargain at £7.95, it tasted of very little. While one cannot expect prime fillet for that price, much more attention should have been paid to the seasoning. In retro mode I ordered prawn cocktail and was reminded why that potentially wonderful dish fell into disrepute. Flabby, minute and tasteless slivers of pink protein mixed in a perfectly fine Marie Rose, struggling to stay afloat in twice the volume of shredded iceberg. Not worth the effort. L’s loin of cod was perfectly OK, but its bed of lentils was under cooked (and I do like mine al dente). Liver, by contrast, was overcooked. The duck “shepherd’s pie” was a portion of shredded duck drowning in a small vat of sauce topped with mash. The sauce was completely one dimensional, so much so that I harboured suspicions that it had been made with a flavour enhancer which rhymes with the hotel’s address. While the list of puddings was an appetising sounding collection of standards, we had all lost confidence in the kitchen by that time and settled for perfectly acceptable coffee.

Considering the fine surroundings and the great history, all a great disappointment.

 

The Bill

Starters

£5.95 – £12.95

Mains

£13.95 – £29.50

Desserts

£6.95 

The Score

Cooking 3.5/10

Service 2/5

Flavour 2/5

Value 2.5/5

TOTAL 10/25

 

 

 

 

Two Fat Ladies at The Buttery

652 Argyle Street, Glasgow G3 8UF

0141 221 8188          www.twofatladiesrestaurant.com

 

To any of you who believe history to be an exact science, let this be a lesson. My researches into the wonderful establishment that is The Buttery have uncovered, variously, that it opened as a merchants’ pub in 1856, that it opened in 1861 as a pub for Irish dockers, and that it has been trading since 1869. Whatever its origins, various things are certain. It has been the site of one of Glasgow’s favourite restaurants for a very long time, it was taken over by Ryan James in 2007, and it is now better than it ever was.

Oh yes, and two days before my visit (coincidentally) it won the Scottish Licensed Trade News Best Fine Dining Restaurant Award. The “fine dining” tag can be a curse. As both Gordon Ramsay and Michael Caines have found out, a visit to a high end dining room can be regarded as a one off experience. Without regular repeat business, a restaurant in Glasgow’s competitive marketplace (more restaurants per head than anywhere else in the UK) is doomed. Mr James’ track record proves he is well aware of this, and the packed tables early one Saturday night are testament to its success. A final piece of history. The Two Fat Ladies moniker has nothing to do with Mesdemoiselles Dickson Wright and Paterson: indeed it long predates their fame. A long forgotten but talented antipodean opened a tiny bistro at 88 Dumbarton Road in the early 1980s. For those unfamiliar with the Olympic sport of bingo, TFL is the catchphrase for the number 88 – work it out for yourselves.

But to our table. I visited with K and Oxfam L, both knowledgeable trencherfolk. Food is mainly fish, with a couple of nods to the more carnivorous. As the enterprising Mr J also owns a wholesale fish merchant’s business, everything piscine is of the freshest and best. My scallop starter had the sweetest queenie sized specimens seared to perfection, beautifully offset with some beetroot and beetroot puree. Less sure about the warm fennel and dill. How could anyone resist ravioli with lobster and ricotta, on a scampi and dill cream? The fight over who would order this was won by OL. He was not disappointed. K’s home smoked duck had a wonderful subtlety of flavour, with a counterpoint provided by a raspberry gin dressing. Mains continued the piscatory theme. My generous helping of sea bream was cooked to perfection and served on a bed of sauté potatoes. Nice to see the humble potato getting a look in without being demolished to some anonymous puree. K raved about her king prawns, though the accompanying “smoked fish paella” was a sort of risotto whose seasoning was a bit out. More excellent scallops for OL with a cauliflower puree, crayfish salad and coral powder. In contrast to the art work of the plates, the side veg were a bit of a let down with large chunks of carrot and broccoli beside some mangetouts and boiled spuds.

Puddings were a bit more hit and miss. Extreme force was required for the meringue part of the pavlova with Sambuca roasted plums, and I struggled to locate the advertised caramelised pineapple in an otherwise exemplary Bakewell tart. The star was undoubtedly K’s chocolate and ginger pot, served warm with toasted almond ice cream.

But quibbles aside, everything feels good about this place. Stepping in from a November downpour to the fabulous interior of Victorian wood panelling with a unique mahogany and marble bar is the first impression to beat all first impressions. Old wood, tartan and stained glass can be dark and forbidding: this is warm and welcoming. Whoever it was who said British people can’t do service never came to Glasgow, and even by Glasgow standards the service here is splendid. While I can’t work out the hierarchy – who gets a waistcoat and kilt, who gets a jacket, who is in tartan and who is not – it really doesn’t matter. The best thing that can be said about the service here is that you are aware simply of friendly professionalism and an unforced willingness to please. Easy? Well, as everyone ought to know, it takes an awful lot of work to make things look this effortless. This is a restaurant which is comfortable in its own skin, and it has the right to be so. Would it have had my vote as best in Scotland? Probably not. But will I be back? You betcha.

November 2014

The Bill

Set Price Lunch

2 courses £16.95

3 courses £19.95

A la carte

Starters

£5.50 – £9.95

Mains

£18.95 – £27.95

Desserts

£6.50 – £7.50

The Score

Cooking 6.5/10

Service 4.5/5

Flavour 4/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 19/25

 

 

 

 

The Paper Mill

2 – 4 West Mill Road, Lasswade, Midlothian

EH18 1LX

0131 663 1412         

http://www.thepapermill-lasswade.co.uk

 

Views over the River Esk would have been very different even half a century ago, when the St Leonard’s Paper Mill, on whose site we find this charming eatery, and the neighbouring  Springfield Mill, were both still in production. You didn’t need to be a modern day conservationist to complain about the effect of industrial pollution on the river and its hinterland. Today, from the delightful riverside terrace, otters may be glimpsed, one of the major signs that an eco-system has been fully restored.

While the same cannot be said of much of Midlothian, the pretty conservation village of Lasswade remains a jewel. The good citizens have been trying to play down the association with neighbouring Bonnyrigg ever since their official union in 1929. The majority of the residents are retired or commute to Edinburgh. If you were looking to design something to appeal to that local market then, on paper, it would be hard to better this conversion which opened a couple of years ago. The entrance, via a pair of lavender beds, to a beautifully stocked and welcoming bar, could not make a better first impression. A 140 cover bistro is no small operation: housed in a former industrial space it could easily have lacked soul. Instead the space is artfully broken up. The range of knickknacks is eclectic, yet nothing jars.

Looking at the menu one can see why the awards already won include Best Family Outlet. Open from 0900 till late, The Paper Mill caters for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, and everything in between. Midweek lunch can be had at two courses for £10: at dinner two for £20. Prices like these put bottoms on seats, which generates a good atmosphere, which puts more bottoms on seats. The owners cut their teeth at the Montpelier Group: the chef was formerly sous chef at The Kitchin. So what’s not to like?

On a recent visit, L enthused about her liver with Lyonnaise potatoes and a pepper sauce. My own experience was less successful. A potted ham hough was slightly dry ham meat which had been shredded and served in a Kilner jar. Literally “potting”, I suppose, but not what the palate was expecting. Neither the promised pickled gherkin nor the wholegrain mustard relish materialised, being replaced by some OK onion marmalade. It screamed out for some good bread and butter, but came only with dry oatcakes. Toulouse sausage was billed alongside butter bean and chorizo cassoulet. I have heard of a five bean stew, but that referred to the varieties of pulse involved. This “cassoulet” contained a total of five beans. The whole was served in a tasty broth with plenty of lardons and chorizo providing both flavour and kick. It came with the decent bread missing from the starter, much needed to soak up the liquid.

Puddings offered variations from the usual suspects. The ubiquitous sticky toffee features (and why not?), but with more unusual companions such as rhubarb, apple and ginger trifle and lavender honey crème brulée. The bees may even have fed in the garden – this is a restaurant which does its best to support local producers. The motto is Eat Seasonal, Meet Local.

Service was smiley but slow. If you are not pressed for time (or if, as in our case, you are recovering from a visit to a nearby Swedish emporium) it is a very pleasant place to linger. On a summer’s day the river facing terrace must be idyllic. We were even tempted out to enjoy the rays of an Indian summer.

Overall, a pleasant experience in delightful surroundings, albeit not a great culinary one; however, judging by the way it’s reported to be mobbed at weekends, it looks as though these good people have gauged their market just right. How many in this difficult trade can say that?

The Bill

Lunch

Starters

£4.95 –£6.95

Mains

£8.95 – £14.95

Puddings

£3.95 – £5.50

Midweek Special

2 mains for £10

Dinner

Starters

£4.95 – £6.95

Mains

£9.95 -£21.95

Puddings

£3.95 – £5.50

Midweek Special

2 mains for £20

 

The Score

Cooking 5/10

Service 3/5

Flavour 3/5

Value 4/5

TOTAL 15/25

 

 

 

Tom Eats!

 The Scoring System Explained

I deliberately began this review page with a couple of establishments which I knew would score highly. Scores of 20 (The Wee Restaurant) and 22.5 (Restaurant Mark Greenaway) will not be the norm. Many very good eateries, serving delicious food, will score way below that, yet will still be well worth your custom. While a brief guide to the scoring system appears at the top of the page, I thought it would be worthwhile setting out my approach in a little more detail.

Many well respected critics, such as Joanna Blythman in The Sunday Herald, consider a scoring system unnecessary. (I suppose it forces you to read their column.) For my own part I believe some sort of tally is appropriate, if only to focus the reviewer’s own mind on the highly important task in hand. A simple single figure is employed by the excellent Richard Bath of Scotland on Sunday, and was the modus operandi of my all-time hero in the field, the estimable and sorely missed Jonathan Meades of The Times. It can work well if the reviewer is knowledgeable and scrupulously fair.

But I despair of some of the scoring systems which are currently used by other scribblers in this field. One lady currently (and inexplicably) employed in a Scottish daily scores for food and ambience. Let’s take the first part first. Is a restaurant reviewer truly considering “the food”. If so, a plate of top notch pata negra Iberico ham would score top marks in most books. If served in that reviewer’s perfect “ambience”, is a perfect score not inevitable? I believe that it is the combination of the food and how it is prepared that is the true subject for a serious reviewer. One can eat fabulously well in a New York deli: most of us have memories of that perfect picnic. But I would argue that these are not on a par with the work of the highly talented chef. Great cooking, I agree, need not be complex – many of the finest cooks will tell you that simple is best, less is more. But cooking is what I will assess.

I have real problems with ambience as a criterion. The atmosphere in any restaurant will usually differ markedly between a lunch and a dinner service, and, indeed, can change from hour to hour. It is hardly the owner’s fault if the reviewer visits on a quiet Tuesday lunchtime as opposed to a hectic Saturday night. This tag is totally meaningless unless you are recommending the place to your best chum. Then and only then will you know if she likes the raucous background of large tables of happy diners, as opposed to a more restrained background hubbub. One person’s soothing mood music is another’s grating muzak.

I have even more problems with capriciousness. Yes, Giles Coren, I do mean you. The problem with Giles is that he has done the job for far too long, eaten everything and long since realised that nothing would ever surpass Ferran Adria at El Bulli. So he plays games with his scoring without warning. For a while he awarded points for water, then it was sustainability. The nadir came last week (4 October 2014) when he added a new tag, “Random thing to bring the score down a bit.” Words fail. The bottom line on a review score really does matter. With influential critics it can have a major impact on the economic bottom line.

Of my four parameters I concede that Value for Money is a purely subjective one. In my defence I respond that it is one way of bringing together all of the other factors which go to make up the eating out experience, and it is only twenty percent of the total; however, if you feel as strongly about my system as I do about those used by others, let me know.

People running restaurants do a bloody hard job in an incredibly competitive market, catering to a capricious public. Those of us who believe we have a right to go public with our opinions have a duty to do so in a manner which is fair and consistent. But bear in mind that in most exams a mark of 70% (17.5/25) would put you in the top ten per cent, and a pass mark will often be 50% (12.5/25). Scores must be considered in that context. I will always call it as I see it; I will never accept freebies; and I will always welcome your feedback, provided it is not accompanied by threat or by violence. Happy eating.

  

 

Restaurant Mark Greenaway

69 North Castle Street, Edinburgh EH2 3LJ

0131 226 1155          http://www.markgreenaway.com

 

I’m often asked for recommendations for where to eat in the capital. How hard can that be, I hear you cry? Tell them where you had a good feed recently and all will be well. Not so fast, my little naïve chum. Replying to such an apparently simple query is fraught with danger. Your reputation and future friendship may be on the line. Your skills in emotional intelligence, psychology and international relations may all be brought to bear, with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

For example, a significant stratum of Scottish society will question your sanity if fried potatoes in some language or other do not feature on the menu: others may feel their culinary quest to have been a disaster if stomachs are not swollen fit to burst at the end of the evening. Or if your recommendation of a sophisticated new wave eastern establishment fails to live up (or down) to the standard of the accustomed Madras with two naan breads. I could go on, but you get the drift. And do remember that when you are accused by the disappointed ones, it will all have been your fault. Recommendation: a difficult exercise with friends, impossible with a mere acquaintance.

Remember that as we enter the pleasant halls of Restaurant Mark Greenaway on the corner of Queen Street and Castle Street. The set lunch menu is the best bargain in the universe. A recent foray with a Distinguished Italian Teacher featured a celeriac veloute with celeriac crisps and truffle oil, a lemon sole main and an astonishing selection of chocolate work, all of which are still being shouted about in Milan. All for twenty two quid!

A celebration dinner saw the kitchen pull out every known stop, then  a few more. Crab “cannelloni” were served in a jar billowing with the smoke used to flavour the cauliflower custard, together with lemon pearls and herb butter. A beef main dish looked as though it should be in one of the city’s galleries, adorned with osso bucco presse and beetroot pickled shallots. Desserts are often Greenaway takes on classics. So baked Alaska might include salt baked pineapple and green tea sponge. A dish prosaically named “jam jar” includes fruit compote, sorbet, rice pudding and jelly.

This kitchen can cook fast and it can cook slow. What it cannot do is produce something which is not bursting with flavour on every forkful. Every dish is beautifully presented in the modern idiom. One of the many things which set this restaurant apart is that everything is intended to be eaten. No smears that look like something you would rather not find on your shoe: nothing which fails to add to the total taste experience.

The dining room is simple and elegant. Staff are a delight. They know they are there to serve great food and make sure the customer is happy. They appreciate that we can read, know how to use a knife and fork, and don’t have to have a “food concept” explained. The restaurant was recently awarded three AA rosettes, and further recognition can’t be far away.

Where to eat in Edinburgh? Simple. Restaurant Mark Greenaway.

The Bill

Market Menu

2 courses £17

3 courses £22

A la carte

Starters

£8 – £13

Mains

£24 – £29

Desserts

£8- £10.50

Tasting Menu

(Eight courses)

£65.50

 

 

 

The Score

Cooking   9/10

Service    4.5/5

Flavour   4.5/5

Value      4.5/5

TOTAL 22.5/25

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Tom Eats!

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