Food

Ishka

11/08/18

Morrison Street, Edinburgh

Four years ago today, we got married – so we take an evening off from reviewing so we can celebrate (we don’t see fewer shows, we just cram them in earlier) and take ourselves off to Ishka on nearby Morrison Street, where we order a bottle of New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and plan to take things very easy. There’s a card on our table wishing us a happy anniversary, which is a lovely touch, and sets the tone for the friendly service we receive all evening.

There are some interesting flourishes on the menu: the artisanal bread, for instance, comes with tomato butter, which sounds like something we’ll enjoy. Sadly, though, this is a bit of a let down – the butter is nice enough, but the bread has been sliced too thinly and clearly left out for a while, so that it’s dry and unappetising.

Still, we fare better with the rest of what we order. Philip has a pigeon breast to start, which comes with berry jam, a black pudding croquette, diced beetroot candy and a pistachio nut soil. It’s delicious: rich and strongly flavoured, and beautifully presented. I have asparagus and chicken, accompanied by a boiled egg and a lemon and flaked almond dressing; it’s as light and refreshing as it sounds, and I enjoy every mouthful.

Philip’s main course is lamb rump; the meat is very good, but the star of the show is the pearl barley and button mushroom cream broth it’s served on, a robust yet delicately flavoured base. I have Atlantic cod: the fish is perfectly cooked, and I even find myself enjoying the accompanying garlic and coriander poached fennel, although it’s not a vegetable I usually like. The ‘layer potato cake’ is a little dry, but all in all, it’s a decent plate.

The puddings sound more sumptuous on the menu than they are in reality; there’s nothing at all wrong with either Philip’s apple and chocolate (apple compôte, light sponge with crème pat and chocolate ice cream, caramel sauce and nut clusters) or my elderflower and raspberry (elderflower cheesecake, raspberry macaron, muesli soil, peach crisps and peach purée), but nor are they as lip-smackingly, groaningly wonderful as a good pud can be.

We eschew coffee, heading out to the pub instead, for a final drink and a cheers to us. Ishka is a friendly, stylish place, and we’ve enjoyed our evening.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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Chez Jules

05/07/18

Northgate Street, Chester

The best Christmas presents often arrive late. This year, one of our gifts from Susan’s parents was a voucher entitling us to a visit to a restaurant, and we are finally, FINALLY in the right neck of the woods to take delivery, accompanied by said parents and ready to dine. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, so it’s hard to summon up that Christmas feeling but, after a leisurely stroll around Chester’s city walls, it’s certainly not difficult to enjoy the delights of Chez Jules, a spacious and airy French restaurant located on Northgate Street.

Susan opts to start with the heritage tomato salad, which comes with a delicious black olive tapenade, caper berries and watercress pesto. It’s zesty and refreshing, perfect for the unaccustomed heat wave. I go for a crab cake, liberally stuffed with delicious crustacean and served with sweet aioli and a cluster of green leaves. It’s nicely prepared and handsomely presented.

The hot weather persuades us to stick with the salads for the main course. Susan has the salade maison, a gorgeous combination of spicy sweet potato, giant cous cous, green beans, pecan nuts, pomegranate and watercress, all lightly sprinkled with a tangy citrus dressing. It’s a delight. I choose a perennial hot weather favourite, a Caesar salad, the crispy iceberg lettuce coated with just the right amount of dressing and sprinkled with croutons, parmesan cheese and (important this) plenty of good quality anchovies. For extra measure, I’ve had the version that incorporates a chopped chicken breast, the pieces of meat nicely judged, crispy on the outside but not too dry within. There are some people out there who insist that combining chicken and fish is a crime against humanity but, for my money, a salty anchovy agreeably nestled against a chunk of seared chicken is one of life’s little pleasures.

And so to the puddings and it’s interesting to note, that many of the items on the dessert menu are suitable for vegans, though you wouldn’t necessarily believe it if you weren’t given that information. Susan has a vegan chocolate and strawberry torte, which is wickedly (dare I use the word?) creamy,  and comes with strawberry gel, compressed strawberries and chocolate soil. My orange polenta cake is a bit of a revelation, not heavy and soggy like so many others I’ve sampled, but light as air, drizzled with miso caramel and served with a dollop of passion fruit marscapone. In a word, it’s scrumptious, and in moments, I’m virtually licking the plate clean.

Chez Jules, currently celebrating it’s 21st birthday, is a cut above many of its competitors. It proudly boasts that it doesn’t use any frozen foods, that all the ingredients are seasonal and freshly sourced each day – and, isn’t it lovely to find a place that allows vegetarians and vegans to indulge in some truly wicked puddings?

Nicely satisfied, we troop back out into the blazing sunshine, thinking that, as Christmas presents go, this has been one of the more memorable ones.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mary’s Milk Bar

28/06/18

The Grassmarket, Edinburgh

When the temperature soars, a person’s fancy turns inevitably to thoughts of ice cream. Visitors to Edinburgh’s popular tourist magnet The Grassmarket cannot fail to have noticed the habitual queues arranged haphazardly in front of a tiny, unprepossessing cafe called Mary’s Milk Bar. The place is a bit of a legend around the city and, unusually in such cases, there really is a Mary, who hails from Yorkshire, and who trained in Bologna at the prestigious Carpigiani Gelato University. She takes her inspiration from the milk bars of the 1940s and makes all the ice creams fresh every morning, then serves them until they’re gone, which – given the current heatwave – doesn’t take very long.

The place offers a few other things, of course: coffee, milk shakes, chocolates – but, frankly,  it’s the ice cream that’s king here, ranged in a handsome display case and featuring a myriad brilliant colours and some pretty unusual flavours. Peanut butter and toffee, anyone? Liquorice and passionfruit?  Green tea? Or will you just go for plain old milk flavour? There’s something here for everyone.

But, you may say, those are pretty long queues. Is it really worth the wait? Well, I have to tell you that my first mouthful of their famous salted caramel confirms that this is a reputation founded not on fresh air, but on flavour. Indeed, this just might be the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted and it’s certainly amongst the finest to be found in Edinburgh, which really isn’t short of decent ice cream parlours. It’s good value too: a generous helping, served up in a crunchy sugar cone that – important this – offers ice-cream right down to the very last bite, costs only £2.50 (£3.50 for a double scoop).

As you lick happily away, you can’t help wondering how Mary’s business does during the colder months but, like Groucho Marx, I hate hot ice cream and, anyway, while the weather’s so clement, it’s imperative to get down to the Grassmarket, tag on the end of that queue, and wait patiently for your turn to choose your favourite flavour.

Trust me. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Restaurant Martin Wishart

16/06/18

54 The Shore, Leith

We’re here because it’s my birthday, and I can’t think of any way I’d rather spend it than eating fancy food with my lovely husband. It’s raining (of course; it always rains on my birthday), so we get the bus to The Shore rather than walking from Edinburgh along the Waters of Leith as we’d originally planned. No matter: we’re feeling festive and happy and looking forward to our lunch.

The restaurant is achingly tasteful: all muted colours and hushed tones, managing to strike a pleasing balance between ‘relaxed’ and ‘formal’ – it feels special here, but there’s a convivial atmosphere nonetheless. The amuse bouches we’re presented with upon arrival really set the tone: they’re savoury macarons, bright pink (beetroot) and green (pistachio), filled with horseradish and chipotle cream respectively. They’re light and crisp, unusual and appealing, a delightful way to start things off.

The wine list is extensive – there are pages and pages of it – and, if I’m honest, a little intimidating (despite being very practised imbibers, we’re a long way from connoisseurs). We decide to play it safe and order a New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blanc, because we’ve never tried one of those we don’t like, but the sommelier steers us away from this towards an Argentinian Torrontes, which he says will better complement our food. He’s right – it’s ideal – and, as it’s considerably cheaper than our original choice, seems like a genuine recommendation rather than a cunning piece of upselling. Bravo!

We both opt for five course tasting menus: Philip’s is the ‘standard’ one with meat and fish for £75, mine the vegetarian for £70 (I’m not actually herbivorous; I just like the look of what’s on offer here). Everything we’re served is eye-catchingly presented; the precision is astonishing. And the flavours are all so intense, so perfectly matched… well, I guess they don’t give Michelin stars away for nothing, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

There are too many little plates of loveliness to describe them all here; suffice to say we’re impressed with every course. The standout from my menu is the sweetcorn and polenta, served with crème fraîche, chilli and lime, which tastes like sweetcorn to the power of ten, and really elevates that humble cereal, although the aubergine caponata with feta and herb gnudi is a close contender – and I don’t usually like aubergine at all. The gnudi in particular are a revelation, pleasingly chewy and salty against the zing of the vegetables. Philip’s especially impressed with his ceviche of Gigha halibut with mango and passion fruit, which he says is particularly light and fresh. He’s also pretty taken with the oyster blade of Black Angus beef, which is served with peas, broad beans, black garlic and a rich roast onion sauce.

But the devil is in the detail, as they say, and it’s the details here that add up to make this such a marvellous experience. The butter for example, which accompanies the twists of white or olive bread, is a homemade one, flavoured with salt and seaweed; we can hardly get enough of it. No supermarket butter will ever pass muster again. And the petit fours that come with our coffee are little gems: a tiny donut bursting with caramelised apple, a salted caramel truffle I’m still drooling over now.

So, no mis-steps, no niggles. Just a long, leisurely lunch (we’re here for two and a half hours), with friendly service and some spectacular cooking. Happy birthday to me. And back out into the rain.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Bar Italia

27/05/18

Lothian Road, Edinburgh

We’re out with friends for dinner and we’ve ended up at Bar Italia, largely because our usual haunts are over-subscribed on a busy Sunday evening, and this place can accommodate us. We’ve passed it many times over the past two years and never given it a second thought – which only goes to show that some of the best restaurants can be hiding in plain sight, right on your doorstep.

It’s a good job we’ve booked in advance. When we arrive, there’re already a lot of people queuing by the entrance and the spacious interior is busy, with a large party expected at any minute. The atmosphere is buzzy and convivial and we can see the waiters are having to work hard to get everybody served. The proprietor is keeping a watchful eye on things and he’s easy to spot, since he features prominently in one of the large (and rather good) murals that decorate the dining area.

We order drinks, peruse the menu and make our orders; while we wait, we watch appreciatively as the chefs create some pretty fancy-looking pizzas and some calzones that boast the general dimensions of beached dolphins. (Mental note: must come back and sample that dough!) It all looks very appetising and by the time our starters arrive we’re salivating.

I have opted for gamberoni ecapesante – grilled king prawns and scallops – served with a salmoriglio sauce. The generously proportioned prawns are sliced open for easy access and are cooked perfectly, the flesh tender and succulent. The sauce is rich with pomegranate which adds a fruity tang and the result is absolutely mouthwatering. Susan’s mussels in tomato sauce are equally good, a generous portion of decently sized shellfish nestling in a rich, garlic-infused stock that’s so good, you want to pick up the bowl and drink it like soup. And so she does.

For the main course, we both  want the spaghetti carbonara – useless for review purposes, but hey, that’s what we both want! Carbonara is always my default order in Italian restaurants, largely because my attempts to reproduce the dish at home have been ill-fated, leaving me with something resembling scrambled egg on pasta. No fear of that here. This is perfectly executed, rich and creamy, with a generous scattering of crispy bacon and plenty of parmesan cheese – though our attempts to photograph it simply can’t do it justice. Our guests have also opted for pasta dishes (the chefs make their own on the premises so why wouldn’t you?). We share a portion of garlic bread, which is simply done, thick slices of sourdough spread with garlic butter and lightly toasted.

This is Italian food exactly as it should be – superb ingredients, freshly prepared and nicely cooked – just what you need when you feel like spoiling yourself. Really, there’s nothing to fault here and, considering how busy the place is, the staff handle their side of things admirably.

Bar Italia is, we’re reliably informed, also famous for its Martone ice cream (they’ve won several awards for it) but we’re much too full to indulge in the multi-layered sundaes they are offering, so opt instead for a couple of simple scoops apiece. I choose salted caramel and fresh strawberry and Susan goes for salted caramel and marscapone, amearen cherry and balsamic. Perhaps predictably,  it makes the perfect end to an enjoyable meal – sweet, creamy and very nice thank you!

At about thirty pounds a head, including several drinks, there’s nothing unexpected lurking at the meal’s end to spoil things. So, yes, this is  a recommendation – and at some point we’ll definitely be back to give those pizzas a whirl.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Lebaneat

14/04/18

North Bailey, Durham

We are staying in a beautiful cottage in County Durham for an important family celebration – it’s Susan’s mum’s seventieth birthday. The area has been selected purely because it is equidistant for all parties to travel to, and tonight there are eight hungry mouths to feed. Susan’s dad has booked us in to this lively city centre restaurant offering ‘authentic Lebanese cuisine,’ so off we go. It’s a Saturday evening and, when we arrive the place is already rammed, with a lengthy queue at the door for those people who haven’t reserved a place, but our table is all ready and waiting, so in we go.

The staff are super friendly and, considering how busy the venue is, very efficient. We have two vegetarians and a vegan in our party, as well as five committed carnivores, and there’s plenty of choice for everyone. Our orders are quickly taken and, despite the fact that all the food is freshly prepared, the first courses arrive in double quick time, though it’s important to note that we are never made to feel hurried. Since the portions appear to be on the generous side, Susan and I opt to share a mixed starter, which comprises eight traditional Lebanese dishes – hummus, moustabal baba ghanoush, warak inab (stuffed grape leaves), tabbouleh, labneh (yoghurt cheese), falafel, batata harra and jebne halloumi. The dish is a veritable cornucopia of different flavours, each more appetising than the last, and is served with a garlic sauce and a plate of warm Lebanese bread, so light and paper-like it virtually melts in the mouth. The batata harra (spiced potato) is a particular highlight for me, and the falafel is light and perfectly spiced, but to be honest, it’s all very scoffable (though Susan isn’t too mad about the baba ganoush (smoky aubergine dip). That’s definitely an acquired taste.

For the main course, we both go for a lamb dish  – Susan has the lahem meshwi, freshly grilled cubes of meat, served once again with that tangy garlic sauce, some lightly grilled vegetables and a heap of crispy fries. It’s very good. I opt for chargrilled chops and they arrive, all six of them, accompanied by a heap of aromatic rice, some lightly grilled peppers and onions and scattered with delightful little shreds of Lebanese pickle. (Again, the latter are not for everyone, but I love them.) There’s something extremely primal about eating lamb chops and these are prepared exactly as I like them, the meat still succulent but blackened just enough to give them a satisfying crunch. Across from the table, the new septuagenerian is happily tucking in to hake fillets (again, a huge portion) and, to my left,  the resident vegan announces that he’s very happy with his chickpea and aubergine moussaka.

Okay, these may not be the most elegant looking dishes on the planet, but this is hearty, satisfying fare and I really cannot find fault with it. For a large group of people with different culinary needs, this is an inspired choice of venue.

We’re pleasantly full – too full for pudding, as it happens, but well aware as we troop out into the night that there are still hopefuls in the doorway, queuing for tables. Lebaneat have clearly got their proposition spot on. Offer the public generous portions of freshly cooked food at decent prices and train your staff to be both efficient and friendly and people will beat a path to your door.

Will we eat here again? Well, it’s a very long commute from Edinburgh but, next time we’re up this way, it’s certainly a place worth seeking out.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Brambles

07/04/18

Brambles Seafood & Grill, Brodick, Arran

We are on the Isle of Arran and, after tramping across moors to look at standing stones and walking the beaches in search of caves, we find ourselves in the mood for a spot of seafood. A few Google searches seem to confirm that Brambles, part of the Achrannie resort centre, is widely considered the best place to find what we’re looking for, so we promptly make a reservation. We then decide we want to change the time of our booking, but our indecision is expertly handled by the pleasant and accommodating staff and, soon enough, we’re all set. The venue proves to be a very pleasant place to dine: simple, understated and, quite early on a Saturday evening, already filling up with eager punters.

We decide to share two starters. The hand-dived Hebridean scallops are extraordinarily good. Perfectly cooked, they virtually melt in the mouth and come with a potato scone, two tangy spheres of Arran black pudding in a crispy herb crumb, apple crisps and an apple chutney puree. It is, quite simply, perfection on a plate. We also order Brambles’ version of a BLT – a lobster and crayfish pattie, sitting on a chive blini and topped with crispy bacon. It’s accompanied by seared beef tomato and lobster mayonnaise. Again, it’s expertly done and we make short work of it. This is an encouraging start to the meal.

It’s a surprise then, that the main courses, when they arrive, are a little less assured and, dare I whisper it, much less refined than what came before? Susan has opted for one of the evening’s specials, panfried seabass. This arrives in a bowl, resting on a pool of puy lentil and pancetta cassoulet and is accompanied by tender stem broccoli. The cassoulet is wonderfully earthy, if a little unadventurous in its presentation, but the skin of the otherwise well-cooked fish is disappointingly soggy.

I have chosen some fish from the grill, in this case loin of monkfish. There are two decent-sized chunks on there, nicely seared, though, it must be said, not particularly flavoursome, and I find myself wishing I’d chosen one of the two sauces – available as optional extras – to give it a bit more kick. This doesn’t feel like a dish so much as some individual items, cooked and arranged on a plate – there’s no real cohesion here. The fish is accompanied by roasted vine tomatoes, watercress and a big chunk of wet fennel – try as I might, I can never bring myself to enjoy fennel and the aniseed flavour tends to dominate here – not good when it’s a taste you don’t particularly enjoy. On the plus side, there are some chips, handcut, twice-roasted Roosters and they are very good indeed. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t bad dishes by any stretch of the imagination, but they feel a little safe and lack the ‘wow’ factor of those starters.

It’s down to the puddings to save the day and, predictably, they do manage to up the ante somewhat. My sticky toffee pudding is a deliciously gooey concoction, with a scoop of local dairy ice cream on the side. Susan’s gold and chocolate bread and butter pudding is even gooier and has the added advantage of banoffee ice cream. For extra indulgence, both puddings are accompanied by a little serving bowl of warm sauce, in my case toffee in Susan’s, chocolate. It’s a nice decadent touch, and one that almost excuses those lacklustre main courses. Almost, but not quite.

Look, this is a tourist area, and it hasn’t escaped my attention that the eight people sitting at a table behind us have all ordered traditional battered fish and chips – maybe Brambles are constrained by what they know they can sell. But one thing is certain. The invention and sheer pizzazz demonstrated in those starters is proof that the chefs here are more than capable of delivering the goods – so I’d love to see that same inventiveness extended to the main courses. It is, after all, the most important part of any meal.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney