Food

Ondine

13/02/20

George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

It’s almost Valentine’s day and Ondine has been on our ‘go to’ list for quite a while. (And by the way, we haven’t got the date wrong, it’s just that we never go out to eat on February the 14th, when every restaurant is packed to the rafters and standards inevitably suffer.)

We’ve read good things about Ondine, though – mostly from Jay Rayner, who says that he always eats here whenever he’s in Edinburgh. So we decide to act on his advice and here we sit in the calm, spacious dining area, sipping glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and all ready for a gastronomic blitzkreig. We’re brought a couple of slices of good wholemeal bread to keep us going and there are cod balls as an amuse bouche, although they are a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for my liking.

The starters are reassuring though: a light and citrusy baked brown crab, with cheddar crumb, served on miniature crumpets, which manages to taste a whole lot better than it looks (like a pair of demented eyeballs). There’s also a delicious treacle-cured salmon, with horseradish sauce, though the chunk of treacle bread that accompanies it isn’t quite as fresh as I want it to be.

For the main course, there’s a generously sized chunk of roasted halibut with creamed potato; the fish is perfectly cooked, soft, flakey and pleasingly charred. There’s also a half lobster with fine herbs and butter sauce. The latter is accompanied by a small helping of triple cooked chips and there’s also a side dish of creamed spinach, the latter served disagreeably cold.

And, oh dear, is there any other meal that’s quite as disappointing as lobster? It squats on your plate, looking like something from the late jurassic period and you’re provided with a set of metal tools that wouldn’t seem out of place on a medieval torturer’s bench. You set about the creature with much gusto, scattering fragments in every direction but it all comes down to a couple of spoonfuls of (admittedly delicious) flesh, after which you’re reduced to searching disconsolately through the debris in search of a few more scraps of anything edible.

(This isn’t a criticism of the restaurant, by the way, but of the very nature of lobster itself. So much effort for so little return. Ah well…)

For puddings we have a treacle tart served with a scoop of ice cream – actually, we can’t help noticing that it’s half a treacle tart, which niggles a little when the price is eight pounds – and there’s a light, tangy rhubarb and custard dessert, encased in soft meringue. Both of these are nice enough, but somehow fail to deliver the triumphant knockout punch that we are hoping for.

It’s been a perfectly agreeable evening, and the food is mostly good, even if some of the details could be improved upon. I can’t help wondering what Mr Rayner sees in this place that I’m missing. Unlike him, I won’t be in a great hurry to return.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

L’Escargot Blanc

25/01/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

Edinburgh boasts so many good restaurants it’s sometimes hard to know where to try next. So recommendations are always useful and L’Escargot Blanc has recently been mentioned by top Scottish chef, Tom Kitchin, in a roundup of his favourite places to eat. So, here we are on a busy Saturday night, suited and booted and ready to dine.

Fred Berkmiller’s restaurant is located at the top of a steep flight of stairs, above his wine bar, Bar À Vin. When we arrive, the restaurant is already bustling with eager customers and it’s clear that it has many fans. Waiters hurry back and forth, talking French to each other, which somehow adds to the atmosphere. We find ourselves seated by the window, sipping the first glass from a bottle of Domains Des Lauriers and enjoying the amuse bouche that’s promptly put in front of us, a couple of slices of crispy bread, topped with garlicky goat’s cheese mousse.

We peruse the menu. It would help the review, of course, if we each wanted something different for a starter, but we soon discover that we’re both fixated on the Soupe de Poisson and neither of us is willing to budge on the matter. Ah well, c’est la vie.

The soup  arrives in double quick time, a hearty portion, accompanied by crispy croutons which we are invited to cover with rouille and grated Comté cheese and float on the surface of the soup. This is richly flavoured, satisfying and exactly the kind of fish soup you’ll find in those little cafés scattered across the South of France, only there, they are accompanied by better weather conditions. Still, it’s a promising start.

Susan’s main course is camembert en gratin, and it’s clear by now that the style of this place is one of rustic simplicity, rather than haute cuisine. There’s a huge wedge of oven cooked cheese, with chunks of potato and mushrooms scattered across it and an accompanying bowl of green salad. It’s good, but the dish lacks finesse and it’s probably worth mentioning that this appears to be the only vegetarian main course available.

I have opted for le lapin à la moutarde, which arrives in its own cast iron dish, bubbling enticingly and aromatically. (Non-carnivores should look away now.) The dish comprises a slow-baked organic rabbit in a strong Dijon mustard sauce, accompanied by red and white potatoes and button mushrooms. The waiter brings me chunks of wholemeal bread, which he tells me I’ll need to mop up the sauce and he’s absolutely right on that score. This is a stunning dish, quite possibly the nicest rabbit I’ve eaten outside of France and certainly the star of the show tonight. It’s a cliché to say that the meat just falls off the bone, but I do wonder why I’ve been issued with a sharp, serrated knife, when a gentle prod with a fork does the job perfectly.

Is there room for pudding? Mais oui! But we’ll certainly skip that cheese course we’ve been planning – blame it on the hearty portions!

Once again, we’ve both taken a shine to the same thing, the chef’s special which is a pear far Breton, a lovely custardy flan, sprinkled with fresh almonds and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s nicely done, even if it lacks that certain wow factor that makes the best puddings stand out from the crowd.

Overall, this has been a very enjoyable meal, though it would be nice to see a few more vegetarian options on the menu. Lovers of lapin, this is something you really need to sample!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Dishoom: Breakfast

05/12/19

St Andrew Square, Edinburgh

We’re having breakfast out today and unusually (at least for us) we’re having it in an Indian restaurant. I’m sure I’m not the only person, who  – when the word ‘breakfast’ comes up – fails to automatically think of Bombay food, but Dishoom may be just the venue to change my mind.

Of course, we already know about this fabulous eaterie on St Andrew Square. Indeed, it’s one of our favourite places to eat dinner in Edinburgh, but lately it’s been annoyingly popular, and the last time we ‘dropped by’ for food, we were faced with the prospect of a  long wait for a table. And the problem is, Dishoom don’t take bookings (except for large groups) after 5.30pm. Then, the other day, a friend casually asked if we’d ever tried their breakfast menu. What the…? There’s a breakfast menu? How the chumping rollick did we miss that?

As you’ll no doubt have gathered, we didn’t need much persuasion.

So here we are, and actually, it’s gone 11am, so this is going to be more like brunch. There’s a convivial buzz about the place and the staff are, as ever, warm and welcoming. We take our seats, order coffees and peruse what’s on offer. Oh boy. We quickly realise that the main problem is going to be making a choice because everything sounds super-tempting but, eventually, final decisions are arrived at, and the food comes promptly on reassuringly large plates.

I’m having the wrestler’s naan roll, which is essentially a big, oven baked naan, all flakey and crispy and scrumptious, liberally stuffed with rashers of smoky bacon,  pork sausages and runny-yolked eggs. The meal comes with a little bowl of sweet chilli sauce on the side, which is particularly good on those peppery Ayrshire sausages and there’s also a scattering of fresh coriander. Umm. While this might not be the most photogenic meal I’ve had, boy is it good! I don’t so much eat it as fall upon it like a ravening wolf.

Susan’s vegan Bombay is certainly better looking than my dish and, happily, it’s equally mouth-watering. It comprises Beyond Meat sausages, vegan black pudding, tofu akuri, grilled field mushrooms, masala baked beans, grilled tomatoes and (whew!) a couple of home cooked vegan buns. The sausages and black pudding taste convincingly like meat, but the real revelation here is the tofu. I’ve eaten no end of flaccid, tasteless lumps of the stuff over the years, but this is a game-changer. It looks and tastes like spicy scrambled eggs. This may not be the point, but it certainly wins me over. (Confirmed carnivores should note that a non-vegan version of this meal is also available.)

The portions are definitely on the generous side, but I’m soon mopping my plate with the last scrap of naan, and already planning what I’m going to try next time. Finally, it would seem, Loudons has some serious competition in the breakfast/brunch arena.

If you’re bored with your morning toast and cereal options, this is a great tasting alternative and it comes at prices that won’t break the bank.

Go on. You know you want to…

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Southside Scran: Festive Set Menu

01/12/19

Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh

‘Tis the season for festive dining, and here at B&B, we’re always on the lookout for good deals, so the announcement of a new festive set menu at the Southside Scran is something that needs to be investigated at our earliest opportunity. So here we are at lunchtime on December 1st (can’t get any earlier than that!), all ready to eat, despite the fact that the two friends due to accompany us have bailed at the last moment because of a not-so-festive lurgy.

We love the Scran; part of the Tom Kitchin group, not only is it a short walk from where we live, but – more importantly – we’ve never come away from this place disappointed. We take our seats and enjoy the fresh ciabatta, butter and goose liver paté that’s always served here. Then the starters arrive. I’ve been missing paté, due to the fact that it seems impossible to buy in this country, unless it’s encased in layers of plastic. So I’m happy to opt for the rabbit rillette, which proves to be light and creamy and full of flavour. It’s accompanied by salad and toast. Susan has the goat’s cheese vol-au-vent, a delightfully flakey pie, which comes with tangy red onion marmalade and drops of basalmic vinegar.

We both want the turkey ballotine for the main course (though we’re torn between that and the roasted pumpkin risotto, which we’ve had before and loved.) But turkey wins the day and it looks and tastes amazing, with chunks of brussel sprout, potato, crispy salty lardons and a pretty heritage carrot on the top. There’s a jug of rich, red wine gravy to finish things off. Those who feel a roast dinner should occupy half an acre of plate may look down on this, but it encompasses all the flavours of a Christmas dinner and is suprisingly filling.

Room for pudding? Well, go on then. It’s almost Christmas!

I choose the chocolate mousse & citrus sablé, which is satisfyingly rich, while Susan opts for the mincemeat and frangipane tart, served with brandy crème Anglaise. This too is an utter delight and I say that as somebody who has only been able to eat mincemeat for a relatively short while, due to a long childhood aversion to the stuff, now conquered.

The three course set menu (£30 per head) comes with tea or coffee, and those hearty types who still have some room to spare can add a cheese course for a little extra. Of course, you can also mix and match. We add a couple of sides from the bistro menu at £4.50 each – some warm, crunchy French beans with hazelnuts and shallots and, as ever,  a bowl of macaroni cheese, because… well, because we’re hopelessly addicted to the stuff. And don’t tell me it doesn’t go with turkey. Macaroni cheese goes with everything. Fact.

All in all, this is a superbly satisfying way to get the festive season off to a perfect start. And it’s also excellent value for money.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Gaucho

Gaucho looks as though it were built primarily to illustrate what the word ‘sleek’ might look like. It’s a combination of dark grey and mirrored surfaces, glitzy lights that hang low over the diners, quiet Latin American music pulsing in the background. It’s early evening in Edinburgh on a particularly dreich night, and we arrive like two half-drowned cats, dripping helplessly onto the carpet. A friendly attendant takes our coats and brings us a couple of tall glasses of Prosecco, which we consume in the upstairs bar, before descending to the dining area. Here, our waiter brings us a tray, where various cuts of meat are laid out for our inspection, so we can properly appreciate the differences between them.

We are brought a plate of bread and some herb butter. The slices of wholemeal are fine but there’s a couple of crunchy white rolls that have a satisfyingly homemade flavour to them, particularly when they’re plastered in that butter.

I start with a potato and salmon salad – the salmon flakey and perfectly poached, surrounded by crispy Ratte potatoes, endives and onion purée, the whole thing drenched in tangy lemon mayo. It’s an excellent start. Susan opts for an Empanada, a dainty pastry parcel filled with sweet corn and mozzarella. This is also nice, though I suspect mine is the more satisfying of the two

Next up, for me it has to be a steak. I choose what the Argentinians call a chorizo, which is just a succulent sirloin, served medium rare and bordered by a strip of juicy crackling. It cuts easily with an ordinary knife (always a good sign) and has a pleasing strip of crispy fat along one edge. I’ve certainly had more impressive steaks than this around Edinburgh, but I make short work of it and have no complaints. It’s accompanied by a side of chips, cooked with the skin on and there’s  a pleasantly spicy pepper sauce. There’s nothing wrong with Susan’s chicken Milanese, topped with a fried egg and garnished with rocket and Parmesan, but it’s perhaps a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for her taste. 

We both order a side of mac’n’cheese – I know, I know, it doesn’t really go, but we’ve have a crap couple of days and we both feel like being indulgent. These are fairly hearty portions and perfectly nice in their own way, but not quite as spectacular as those offered at The Bruntsfield Chop House, where the sauce is thick and gooey and loaded with cheese. (You don’t order this dish for its health benefits.)

However, when it comes to the puddings, ‘indulgent’ is definitely the word to choose when describing them. My sticky toffee pudding comes with a generous helping of dulce de leche sauce, a dollop of clotted cream and delicious chunks of honeycomb. It’s absolutely mouthwatering. Susan’s salted dulce de leche cheesecake is also a winner, super sweet and so filling, I have to help her with the last couple of spoonfuls. (I’m useful like that).

We’re thoroughly sated and reluctantly head back out into the downpour as full as two ticks. 

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Maxies

12/09/19

Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh

Maxies is a bit of an Edinburgh institution, but we’ve sort of dismissed it as ‘a tourist place’ and not bothered to check it out. This attitude makes some sense now that we’re actually living here, but – let’s face it – we were regular tourists to this fabulous city for a good seven years before we made the move, so I’m not quite sure what made us turn our noses up, especially as it boasts an impressive outside terrace with views over picturesque Victoria Street. But now it’s time to rectify the situation: a too-good-to-ignore Groupon offer has come to our attention, and we decide to take the opportunity to see what we have missed.

We’re getting two courses and a glass of Prosecco each for £32, so we’re not expecting high end ingredients or fancy flourishes. We’re hoping for tasty food and a lovely atmosphere, and – to be fair – we do get some of that.

The restaurant is surprisingly small, a series of stone-walled rooms and corridors, a fascinating warren of an old building. It’s cosy: an old-fashioned bar nestles next to the main seating area, where benches are covered in embroidered cushions and throws. I like the look of the place, although it could be a bit cleaner (the surfaces are all okay, and we see the tables being thoroughly wiped, but it doesn’t look like the woodwork has had a good scrub down in quite some time, and the loos leave quite a lot to be desired).

The food isn’t bad for the price; it’s the details that let it down. Philip’s starter of warm duck and mango salad is really tasty, the duck cooked very well. My deep-fried crispy brie with cranberry jelly is also nice, if uninspiring, but the accompanying salad has no dressing at all. The bread we order is fresh, but the butter is straight from the fridge, hard as rock and completely unspreadable. That’s a rookie error, isn’t it?

My main (vegetarian enchilada with hot chilli sauce) is delicious: spicy and generously portioned. It’s a simple dish, but they do it well. Philip opts for a special: lamb chops with haggis, neeps and tatties. The chops are a crispy, fatty, lip-smacking indulgence, and the haggis a savoury delight with real depth of flavour. The spuds are a bit lack-lustre though, and he can barely tell the neeps are there.

It’s a school night, so we don’t drink much: just a bottle of Peroni and a small Pinot Grigio between us besides the glass of fizz. It’s a good job, because there are no draft beers, and the wine is expensive compared to the food; the two price lists don’t seem to match.

We’re impressed with the service, which is friendly and unfussy, the staff clearly well-motivated and good at their jobs. But it seems a shame that so many tourists will have this meh experience as their lasting impression of Scottish cuisine, when there is so much better to be had in Edinburgh.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Tasty Buns

Bread Street, Edinburgh

It turns out Scotland’s Bakery of the Year is less than 200m from our flat. How can we have overlooked it in the three years we’ve been here? I love cake (and Philip tolerates it happily); what wonders have escaped our gluttony?

We’ve walked past Tasty Buns countless times, but the unprepossessing exterior offers little clue as to what’s within. True, there’s often an intriguing sandwich board outside advertising the day’s offerings, but as we can’t actually see them, we’ve ignored what’s before our eyes.

We’ve not, however, found the recent press coverage so easy to ignore: since winning The Food Awards Scotland 2019’s coveted prize, this little bakery has been firmly in our sights. Their speciality, we learn online, is ‘boozy bakes’ – and this dismays us a little, as – although we’re definitely fans of booze – we don’t tend to like it in our puds. Still, it seems silly not to take a look at a the temptation on our doorstep, so we decide to head on in and take a look.

Tasty Buns is much bigger than it looks from the outside, the narrow interior stretching back, with space for twenty-something cake-lovers. It’s attractive, all whitewashed brick and fancy mirrors – and the display cabinet at the front reveals the wonders we have missed. There are about eight bakes on offer – not all boozy – and all of them look quite divine. We order coffee (an Americano and a latte, single shot by request and very good indeed), and two cakes to share.

The Tunnock’s caramel wafer brownie is the best brownie I’ve ever had – and I’ve had many. It’s rich and moist and decadent: a paragon; exquisite. A generous slice of spiced apple and salted caramel cake offers a light sponge with a robust flavour, the richness of the butter cream complemented by the tart apple filling. It’s exactly what cake ought to be: at once fresh and indulgent, a genuine treat.

The service is brisk and friendly; the atmosphere relaxed. It might have taken us a while to find, but we’ll be back again before too long.

If you’re after cake and a cuppa, I really can’t think of anywhere better you could go than Louise Campbell’s marvellous bakery. It’s easy to see how Tasty Buns has earned its accolades.

5 stars

Susan Singfield