Food

Cucina at G & V Hotel

17/06/17

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

It was my birthday yesterday, but events conspired to prevent us from celebrating together then (Philip was working in Yorkshire while I was at home in Edinburgh). No matter: the date is only a number, and an excuse for a treat. We’re happy to postpone our pleasure for a day.

We’re lured to Cucina with another bookatable deal (seriously, they’re hard to resist), and are soon happily perusing the Star Menu, drinking our complementary Prosecco  (this is becoming a habit; if we’re not careful, we’ll start expecting a free glass of fizz wherever we go). The decor is quirky: all bright colours and modern surfaces, not as in-your-face ‘designer’ as it used to be in its Hotel Missoni days, but definitely drawing on its previous incarnation’s style. And we’re looking forward to some stylish Italian nosh.

We’re not disappointed. The bread arrives promptly, and there’s a choice (we always appreciate a choice). I opt for a pumpkin seed, while Philip takes the sun-dried tomato. Both are lovely: fresh and chewy and distinctly naughty. We accept the offer of a second slice.

For starters, I choose steamed mussels; these are served in a light tomato sauce with garlic and chilli. They’re exactly as they should be: plump and tender and as moreish as can be. Philip’s homemade conchiglie with pork ragu is also very good indeed, the pasta served al dente with just the right amount of bite, and a deliciously herby pork sauce.

Our mains are good too, although maybe not quite as impressive as the starters. Philip’s BBQ chicken comes with roast potato and spinach, and he’s really impressed with the sauce, which is sweet and densely flavoured without being all thick and sticky and overpowering the dish. My cod with Savoy cabbage, chorizo, potatoes and lemon sauce is – in the main – beautifully cooked, although I don’t eat the skin, which is soft and flabby, and not crispy as I’d like. Still, that’s hardly a meal-ruining issue, and the rest of it is mouthwateringly good.

Would we like a pudding? Of course we would. At first, I’m disappointed with my tiramisu: it’s a light, delicate frothy thing, served in a cocktail glass, all sweetness and air. I’ve been looking forward to a thick slab of marscapone and soggy sponge, and this just doesn’t tick the boxes in my head. But it tastes divine and, actually, once I’ve eaten a few mouthfuls and got down to the sponge, I’m kind of glad it’s what it is. It’s less ‘gromphy’ for sure, but it’s a better ending to the meal we’ve had. Philip has no such qualms about his pud: it’s ice-cream. Readers of this blog might not be aware that, in some circles, Philip is renowned for being the world’s second best ice-cream eater, and he’s keen to try the liquorice, cocoa and pistachio flavours on offer here. He declares them bowl-lickingly good, although he does manage to refrain from actually demonstrating this.

Our bookatable deal even includes coffee and petit fours. Okay, so the tiny pieces of biscotti we receive are somewhat underwhelming, but we’re more than pleased with what we’ve had. Even with the (extra) bottle of Prosecco we’ve consumed, this all comes in at a very reasonable £88. Not bad at all.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Ricci’s Place

16/06/17

Crossley Street, Halifax

For writerly reasons, I’m in Halifax, a town I honestly don’t think I’ve ever visited  before. I’m staying at the White Swan hotel, so I put out a Facebook call for recommendations for somewhere to eat. Ricci’s Place proves to be one minute’s walk from my hotel, so I can hardly complain that it’s inaccessible. As I walk, I can’t help reflecting that Halifax will be much nicer once it’s finished. At the moment, huge swathes of it seem to be under reconstruction and travelling any distance requires the unwary traveller to side-step cement mixers, road drills and various other items of machinery. Ricci’s Place turns out to be one of those industrial chic establishments, all stripped floorboards and neon signs. It bills itself as a ‘modern kitchen.’ It’s still early so there are only ten or twelve diners in evidence.

For starters, I choose the crispy baby squid, served with rocket, chilli, lemon and alioli. It arrives almost before I finished ordering it, as though the chefs were waiting on starting blocks. For a moment I think that they’ve mistakenly prepared a main course, because this is a very hearty portion indeed, even by my gargantuan standards. I guess the term ‘crunchy’ should have tipped me off  to the fact that the squid would be coated with something, in this case a rather bland breadcrumb affair which unfortunately serves to mask the delicate flavour of the squid itself, but the accompanying salad is nicely spiced with a powerful punch of chilli, while the alioli is very garlicky indeed and makes me fear for the olfactory safety of the schoolchildren I shall be talking with tomorrow.

For the main course, I opt for ‘lasagna with a difference,’ mostly because I’m intrigued by the name. Changing the traditional recipe? Look what happened to Jamie Oliver when he dared to tweak the ingredients for spaghetti bolognese! There were riots in the streets! There were moves to have his head served on a plate! Clearly, Ricci (if he even exists) has no reservations whatsoever about playing fast and loose with tradition. This lasagna is made with wild boar and has an intense gamey flavour. It’s layered with buffalo mozzarella, duck eggs, speck (whatever the hell that is) and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s not exactly the handsomest meal you’ve ever seen but I have to say, it’s very satisfying indeed, particularly when you have a side order of hand cut chips to mop up that spectacularly herby sauce.

Again, the hefty portion size means I struggle to finish and though the sweets sound enticing, I am sadly quite beyond sampling them, so I head out into the half-finished streets and make the long, arduous trek back to my hotel.

So, a reasonably decent starter and a very satisfying main course. If you should happen to find  yourself in Halifax, for whatever reason, (perhaps you live there!) this is a decent dining experience – something to take your mind off all that building work.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Chez Mal Brasserie at Malmaison

28/05/17

Leith, Edinburgh

We’re here because some of bookatable.co.uk’s deals are just too good to ignore, and this one – three courses and a glass of Prosecco at the Chez Mal Brasserie for a mere £19.95 – seems like particularly good value for money. It’s in Leith too, which is an added draw: it’s a rare part of our adopted hometown that we’ve yet to explore. So we plot a route on google maps, lace up our walking boots, and set off through the city and along the Waters of Leith. Eight kilometres and ninety minutes later, we arrive at Malmaison, feeling more than ready for this little treat.

Its location is wonderful: a cobbled street on the waterfront. The building dates back to 1883, and its maritime history is echoed in the quirky artwork that decorates the bare stone walls. Service is friendly, and our Proseccos arrive quickly. The Spring fixed-price menu offers four options per course, all of which sound interesting (and, even without the bookatable deal, it’s still only £24.95). We order promptly – being hungry makes us decisive – and select a bottle of French languedoc to accompany our meals. The wine is soon delivered, and is sliding down very nicely… but something seems to have gone awry. Where is our food?

Just as we’re getting to the neck-craning stage (did the people at the next table come in after us? They seem to be on their second courses already), a waiter appears with some complementary bread and apologises for the delay, citing a mix-up in the kitchen. We’re glad of the bread, which is absolutely delicious, and served with both a rich salty butter and an olive oil/balsamic combo. But we do devour it a little too enthusiastically (did I mention that we’re hungry?), perhaps spoiling our appetites for what’s to come.

The starters appear soon afterwards, and they’re good. Philip’s grilled masala spiced mackerel with sweet potato and lime pickle and a cumin raita is especially tasty: the robust fish perfectly enhanced by the sharply pickled veg. My spring lamb Benedict is also nicely done, but there’s a reason it’s usually made with ham, and that’s the saltiness. The lamb and egg together, especially atop the brioche toast, are perhaps a little too rich, with nothing to cut through it all.

Philip’s main is a chicken Milanese, which is a breaded chicken breast with a Burford brown fried egg, truffle mayonnaise and rainbow chard. It’s indisputably well-cooked, and there’s not much here to criticise, but neither is there much to laud. It’s, well, okay. Quite nice. Y’know. My pan-fried river trout is a bit better: the fish is beautifully cooked with a crispy skin, and the pea and broad bean purée accompanying it is lovely. But it still feels like it could do with… I don’t know what, just to elevate it into something better, something more.

The puddings are delicious though; hats off to the pastry chef. We share two. The first is a warm Valrhona caramel chocolate brownie, a rich, sumptuous temptation, which is served with the most more-ish ice cream I’ve ever tasted, a brown butter pecan concoction. Yum. Second is a rhubarb trifle, the creamy vanilla custard and rhubarb jelly offset perfectly by sharp, almost sour pieces of the eponymous fruit, and a spicy ginger crumble. These make for a very satisfactory end to our evening, and we wander off into the Leith evening, ready to walk off our excess.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

La Cantina

13/05/17

Heaton Moor, Stockport

We are back in our old stamping ground and meeting friends for dinner, so it’s all good. Back in the day, of course, the logical choice would have been Steve Pilling’s Damson, a fine-dining venue that – in our humble opinion – was up there with the very best of them. But sadly, it is no more and, in its place, Steve has established not one but two new venues: Roost, a rotisserie chicken and wood-fired pizza place, and La Cantina, a tapas bar – and it’s the latter that we have chosen to visit tonight.

It’s Saturday around 7pm and the joint is busy. There’s a lively, rustic feel to the place. You cannot book seats here but, luckily, our friends have got here early enough to commandeer a table for four, so we’ve no worries on that score. We are able to enjoy a drink (Estrella Dam on draught!) and some conversation while we peruse the menu, also taking notice of the specials chalked on a board above our heads. Tapas selections cost from £4 to £6 each and we go ahead and order. The service is fast and, considering how busy the place is, really well organised. Okay, so this isn’t going to be in the same league as Damson, but clearly it’s not meant to be. This is somewhere to enjoy a drink and a tasty nibble with friends and, on that score, it succeeds.

The food is uniformly good – a grilled squid dish is particularly delicious: lemony, peppery and just chewy enough, a whole beastie served with crispy tentacles. Yum. All the usual suspects are here – a nicely spicy patatas bravas; boquerones that are fish to the power of fish; a vibrant pork and chorizo stew; a decent paella (which is also available as a takeaway from a van parked just by the entrance). But I should perhaps point out that the portions are, well, tapas-sized. Those who possess a hearty appetite (and I would proudly include myself amidst that splendid horde) may want to ensure that they select several portions apiece if they want to be sure to fully quell the hunger within.

So, come to La Cantina for boozy good times. Damson may be done and dusted but this is the perfect place to catch up with old friends – and, judging by the crowd tonight, it’s already a roaring success – so much so that another la Cantina has just opened in neighbouring Didsbury. It’s almost as though Steve actually knows what he’s doing…

As for Roost, we’ll have to leave that until the next time we’re on ‘the Moor.’

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Blackwoods Bar & Grill

20/04/17

Gloucester Place, Edinburgh

One of the nicest things about dining in the Scottish capital is that  so many of the venues we visit have illustrious histories to consider. Take Blackwoods Bar and Grill, for instance, tucked away on an almost eerily quiet Stockbridge street. Could this place possibly have anything to do with Blackwood’s Magazine, the venerated literary quarterly founded in the early 1800s – the  magazine that counted amongst its regular contributors writers of the calibre of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Samuel Taylor Coleridge? A vintage print on the wall as we enter seems to hint at the possibility and the young waitress I ask about it is proud to confirm my suspicions – and even brings me some printed material about the magazine to peruse while we await our meal.

But of course, we’re not here to consider literary history but to enjoy one of Blackwoods’  specialities, Chateaubriand for two. This is a term used to describe a four inch chunk of tenderloin filet, thickly sliced, crisply seared on the outside but with a pleasingly rare centre. Since the meal has a reputation for heartiness, we decide to eschew starters and we’re glad we do because when the meal arrives, pleasingly presented on a wooden board, it does indeed look like it’s going to be everything we expected. It’s accompanied by thick, flavoursome, hand-cut chips, al dente green beans, pea shoots, a lovely moist pile of mushrooms and a sprig of vine tomatoes, gently roasted and as flavoursome as you could possibly ask. Oh yes, and two pots, one featuring a thick sauce Bernaise and another a tangy red wine jus. Okay, so it’s not the most adventurous cuisine we’ve ever tasted, but sometimes you just want something simple done well, and this fits the bill nicely.

We are, for once, too full for pudding, but Blackwoods does offer an intriguing selection of alcohol based puddings – a raspberry and Bourbon creme brûlée, for instance and a chocolate and Nira Caledonia whiskey marmalade tart. There’s also a selection of Scottish and International cheeses by George Mewes, but all that will have to wait for another time. If you’re looking for a hearty dining experience, the Chateaubriand could be just the thing. And while you’re there, you can also swot up on Edinburgh’s rich literary history – and ponder what might have happened to the apostrophe in Blackwood’s.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Dishoom

15/04/17

St Andrew Square, Edinburgh

It’s Saturday afternoon and Dishoom is buzzing. We’ve heard good things about this place, located in a former department store warehouse, and the only way we can manage to book a table for four people is by agreeing to eat late afternoon. When we arrive, the place is still packed with punters enjoying the tail end of a long lunch, so we’re issued with a pager and sent down to the basement bar. No sooner have our drinks arrived than the pager flashes, and we’re escorted up to the top floor, where we’re given a superbly located table overlooking St Andrew Square. (I tell one of our guests it’s because he’s been mistaken for Bill Nighy, for whom he’s a dead ringer.)

The ambience at Dishoom is distinctly colonial (it’s interesting to note that they offer Bombay street food, rather than Mumbai). It’s all ceiling fans, pot plants and vintage daguerreotype prints. A note on the menu informs us that the restaurant is dedicated to Scottish botanist Sir Patrick Geddes (1854 -1932), who visited Bombay in 1915 – which explains why we keep spotting vintage display cases dotted around the place. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve never heard of Sir Patrick, but hey, it’s a nice touch, and at least he’s a real person. (I googled him to be sure!)

With nearly every table packed to the limit, there’s an atmosphere of happy chaos here, though, as it turns out, the service is anything but chaotic. The staff are clearly highly trained and, it would seem, chosen for their infectious affability. Take our waitress, Masa, for instance. She’s delightful, full of advice and information about the food and kind enough to laugh heartily at my terrible jokes. She tells us that most diners like to order a couple of courses apiece and then everybody shares what’s on the table. This sounds like good advice, so we put together our order and settle down to wait. I tell myself that, given the busy dining area and the complexity of the order, this could take some time but, on the contrary, everything arrives promptly and exactly as ordered. Plates are arranged on a multi-tiered trivet, rather like an afternoon tea, so it’s easy for everyone to dig in – which, encouraged by the wonderful aromas emanating from the combined dishes, we’re all more than happy to do.

The food is extraordinarily good – the dishes include Murgh Malai – chicken thigh meat marinated overnight in garlic, ginger and coriander – and a delightfully succulent Chicken Tikka. There are Spicy Lamb Chops, which are just falling off the bone – and Masala Prawns, lightly charred and wonderfully chewy. We also enjoy some spectacular side dishes: Bhel, a bowl of puffed rice, Bombay mix and fresh pomegranate; some superb Vegetable Samosas, light, crispy with not a hint of greasiness; and, for me the star of the show, a Chicken Biriani, cooked in a sealed clay pot with cranberries. Oh, and lest I forget, there are some of the best Nan Breads I’ve ever eaten: light, crispy and (lovely touch this) you can even order them with or without butter. As we eat, all four of us are of the same frame of mind – there’s not a thing here that we don’t think is perfectly cooked and presented. What’s more, this approach to cuisine is unlike any other Indian restaurant I’ve visited in the UK.

We persuade ourselves that we’ll have a look at the pudding menu, and we order a couple of things just to see what they’re like. Susan and I opt for a Kulfi On A Stick – a delightfully simple idea: an ice lolly standing on end in a glass tumbler, the rich creamy flavour the perfect way to cool down the gullet. Susan has the pistachio flavour and I go for the mango. Our companions both order the Kala Khatta Gola Ice – ice flakes steeped in kokum fruit syrup, blueberries, chilli, lime and salt. I sample a taste and it is indeed, quite delicious and, once again, completely new to me.

You might expect an extensive repast like this to cost big money but, despite the fact that we also consume a full bottle of Prosecco and a couple of pints of Kingfisher lager, the bill comes in at around £40 a head – and that includes an (optional) 12% service charge. Little wonder that Dishoom is proving so popular. There are already four branches in London – this is the first to step outside the English capital – but I fully expect to see more of these establishments in the near future.

Would we go again? Oh yes, we would. If you’re looking for a fresh approach to Indian cuisine, get yourselves down to St Andrew’s Square with all haste… and tell them we sent you.

 

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Colquhoun’s Restaurant

11/04/17

Lodge on Loch Lomond, Luss

We’re near Loch Lomond for holiday purposes and, despite the fact that we’ve read ominous advance predictions of near biblical rainfall for our entire visit, the weather has been mostly very pleasant. We’ve spent the days yomping to the top of hills, sailing the loch, wandering along remote forest trails and visiting historic sites, all of which tend to promote a healthy appetite. After a couple of days of happily self-catering, our thoughts inevitably turn to the prandial and we decide that dinner out is in order – and wouldn’t it be a shame to visit this part of the country and not sample the culinary wares? That’s our excuse, anyway.

Colquhoun’s is housed in a hotel, The Lodge on Loch Lomond and, as the name would suggest, dining there does offer customers a special perk, namely a grandstand view of the loch itself, in all its shape-shifting glory. As we sit there perusing our menus, the loch runs effortlessly through a varied selection of weather conditions, from brilliant sunlight, to all misty and mysterious; if we were rating this place purely on its setting it would easily achieve top marks.

The starters are somewhat short of top marks, though. Susan has the Queenie scallops, which look delightful, prettily served on sea shells. They are delicately flavoured and nicely cooked – but the chef has seen fit to cover them with a crunchy savoury topping which is unpleasantly oily; this mars the experience somewhat. Likewise, my starter of rabbit and leek terrine, though tasty enough, comes with two thick slabs of dry oatmeal bread and a handful of undressed rocket. It’s not awful, you understand, but neither is it top notch fare.

Happily, the main courses prove to be a big step up from this. Susan opts for the pork shoulder, which is cooked Chinese-style, floating in a thick bacon broth, richly aromatic with soy and ginger. It’s accompanied by noodles, squid, kimchi and crispy pig ears. It’s all nicely done, though those pig-ears (more chewy than crispy) certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. The squid however is perfect, quite the nicest we’ve had anywhere. My buttermilk-fried Galloway pheasant is also beautifully prepared, succulent and tender and served with roasted pheasant boudin, plums, figs, parsnips and a hazelnut dukka.  These two dishes are much more complex and satisfying than their predecessors and we start to think that maybe we chose a keeper after all.

And then along come the puddings and once again, if this review was based purely on them… Susan’s apple comprises a delicious vanilla apple mousse, accompanied by a tiny toffee apple, a sweet sugary doughnut and a scoop of apple sorbet. (The tiny apples are Kenyan, a friendly waitress tells us, as is the pastry chef and this is, apparently, his signature sweet). I go for chocolate and that single word fails to do justice to what actually sits on my plate – a gooey dark chocolate pave, with peanut butter, banana ice cream and cocao nib tuille. These are seriously good confections, which quickly banish memories of those inferior starters. Plates are very nearly licked clean.

If you’re around Loch Lomond at any point, and in the market for a spot of fine dining, this is worth further investigation- especially those magnificent desserts.

4 stars

Philip Caveney