Food

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

 

 

The Cow Shed

03/04/17

The Cow Shed, North Gate, Wakefield

We’re in Wakefield for just one night – Philip’s working here tomorrow – and, of course, we need to eat. A Facebook request yields plenty of recommendations from locals – for a small town, Wakefield certainly boasts more than its fair share of restaurants. But one place crops up in almost every response: The Cow Shed on North Gate. We check out the menu online and decide it’s a go-er, so we book ourselves in.

My parents drive over to spend the evening with us, and the four of us are soon ensconced at a table in the beautiful old grade 2 listed building, which – we learn – was the inspiration for Joanne Harris’s acclaimed novel Chocolat. It’s all white walls and wooden beams, yet with a contemporary rustic vibe. (Those who need an accessible loo should be aware, however, that the facilities are all upstairs.) There’s an early-bird set menu on offer and, as it’s Monday, we don’t even have to be early birds to enjoy it: it’s available all evening. There’s plenty to choose from, so we decide to make the most of it.

I start with the roast pepper and plum tomato grilled goat cheese with basil oil and wild rocket, which is absolutely delicious. It looks lovely, the red and white offset by a bright green basil oil, and it tastes divine, all sweet pepper and salty cheese. Philip has the fine bean, snow pea and anchovy salad with soft boiled eggs and pronounces it perfection on a plate. Mum’s a bit under the weather and not so hungry, so she skips the starter but Dad’s chicken liver and mushroom paté is so generously proportioned that he easily eats enough for two; it’s accompanied by toasted ciabatta, mixed leaf and onion marmalade. He declares himself a happy man.

Philip’s main course is the standout: a char-grilled chicken breast with button mushrooms, savoy cabbage, smoked pancetta and a white wine cream sauce. There’s depth of flavour here, and some real skill evident in the cooking of that sauce. My pan roasted cod fillet, wrapped in parma ham, is robust and well-cooked, served with a delicate pea purée, sautéed potatoes and pea watercress velout. It’s very nice indeed,  and Mum has the same, but Dad goes for the 8 oz rump steak, which is also excellent, particularly considering the keen pricing here. He struggles to finish it after his large starter but persists manfully to the very last mouthful.

Mum eschews pudding – she clearly has more willpower than the rest of us combined. For us, the selection on offer defies resistance, and Philip and I both yield to the temptations of a warm rhubarb and ginger pudding with vanilla ice cream. It’s real comfort food: all warmth and spice and deliciousness. Dad goes for the sticky toffee pudding. He seems to have an unerring eye for the plus-sized dishes; this one is swimming in more toffee sauce than we’ve ever seen on one plate before. Maybe he just looks like he needs feeding up? I sample a spoonful and it’s every bit as accomplished as the rest of the food on offer here.

It’s a school night and we’re being good so we don’t even look at the wine list. There’s a decent range of teas and coffees though, and we’re more than happy with what we’ve had. If you’re in Wakefield and in need of sustenance, this place is well worth checking out. Thanks to everyone who recommended it.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Restaurant Mark Greenaway

31/03/17

North Castle Street, Edinburgh

The last time we visited Restaurant Mark Greenaway – September 2015, as it happens… thanks for asking! – we berated it for having a ‘slightly austere feel’ and ‘glum-looking punters.’ Maybe we were just in a tetchy mood that day. At any rate, it’s time for a reappraisal and, since the restaurant is still offering an insanely good value deal (three courses with matched wines for £40 a head) and we have a visitor, now seems a propitious time to give it another try.

We’re glad to see that the dining room has had a bit of a makeover since our last visit – it looks a lot simpler and fresher – and there’s certainly nothing glum about tonight’s crowd, who are chatting happily away and tucking eagerly into their food. Like most set menus, there isn’t a great variety, but what’s on offer looks very appetising indeed, so we’re happy too.

My starter is the Loch Fyne crab cannelloni with lemon pearls, herb butter and baby coriander. Half of this is housed in a glass bowl, which covers a second bowl of cauliflower custard; this is being gently smoked even as I appraise it. It’s a neat bit of culinary showmanship, but it’s actually more than just that, because the rich smoky flavour really has permeated that custard and it’s all a delight to eat. The matched wine for this is Casa Bonita, a citrusy Spanish wine which combines chardonnay and macebeo grapes. Our visitor opts for the chicken and leek terrine which features prune compote, wild garlic mayonnaise, heritage carrots and beetroot pickled shallots. I have to say it looks pretty good too and she confirms that it tastes every bit as good as it appears.

For the main course, we all decide that we want the same, the 11 hour roasted Clash Farm belly pork, which is a bit useless in terms of a review, but we want what we want, and we’re sticking to it, so there’s nothing to be done about the situation. And none of us is disappointed with the choice because this is a regal repast, the sweet sticky pork topped with a crunchy skin. Actually, this dish has also had a bit of a makeover since I last sampled it. It’s now accompanied by a slice of blackened fillet, a pork-cheek pie, sweetcorn and a toffee-apple jus. Nothing here is as straightforward as you might expect. The fillet really does have a delightfully sooty coating, the pie’s pastry is satisfyingly crisp and even the slice of corn has been seared on a grill to maximise the flavour. All this goes perfectly with the glass of rich Casa Silva pinot noir accompanies it.

Having been unanimous about the main course, we’re equally fixed on our choice of pudding: the Great British Menu ‘knot’ chocolate tart. If you’re not mad about chocolate, this may not be the sweet for you but, to chocoholics like me, it’s a one-way ticket to heaven. The intensely flavoured chocolate (dark, milk and white varieties) comes with custard jelly, frozen cookies, creme fraiche parfait, salted caramel and kumquat parfait. My only complaint here is that it simply doesn’t last long enough, though I can’t help noticing that I finish my portion long before my companions. The accompanying wine is a thick, sherry-like Lafage Ambré, which I wouldn’t normally dream of drinking but, when matched with a dish like this, it works like a charm and makes nonsense of those people who claim that the sommeliers of the world are just making it up as they go along.

At this great value price, you’d be crazy not to nip along and give it a try – and, if money’s no object, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most adventurous and delightful cooking currently on offer in this fair city.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Signatures

25/03/17

Signatures, Aberconwy Park, Conwy

We’re in North Wales to visit family and are invited out for lunch. The venue comes highly recommended by our hosts but I’m slightly disconcerted when I hear that the restaurant is in an unusual location – a holiday park in Conwy. All manner of unfavourable memories come crowding in, of the kind of ‘egg and chip’ greasy spoon hellholes visited in my youth. But one glance around the interior of Signatures quickly sets my mind at rest. This is a luxurious contemporary dining establishment and one that clearly already enjoys a devoted following.

We settle ourselves in and decide to order from the set menu which offers two courses for £17.95 and three for £22.95. It’s a lovely sunny day and there are pleasant views of the immaculately tended gardens. The staff are very friendly, meeting us as if we’re old friends and going the extra mile to make sure we’re happy. In a perfect world, it would always be like this, but of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, which is pretty much our lunchtime conversation.

For my starter I choose the Signatures’ eggs Benedict, which instead of the more usual bacon features a slice of smoked haddock. It works beautifully, the flakey fish mingling perfectly with the soft poached egg and a thick, tangy Hollandaise sauce. Susan has the crispy belly pork which is served with a quenelle of sage mash, with apple purée and elegant strips of crunchy crackling. For us, that’s a clear round.

For my main course, I have the roast breast of chicken, which is accompanied by carrot and swede mash, sticky red cabbage, Lyonnaise potatoes and a Madeira cream. The chicken is soft and moist and isn’t overpowered by the Madeira, while that sticky red cabbage is so lovely, I could happily indulge in a whole bowl of it. Susan’s pan fried sea bass is also a delight, sitting upon a bed of creamy shrimp and pea risotto and accompanied by asparagus. Me, I’m starting to envy the people on this luxury site who have an establishment like this only a few steps away.

Puddings? Don’t mind if we do, particularly when the sticky toffee is as mouth-watering (and as abundant) as it is here. It’s accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a very nice butterscotch sauce. Susan samples the classic creme brûlée which comes with homemade shortbread and an intensely flavoured strawberry sorbet.

I guess this is a lesson on how expectations can often be so misleading. Signatures may be in an unprepossessing location, but this is cuisine that would give many grander, more expensive establishments a run for their money. We couldn’t find a single thing wrong with the food or the service here – and it’s not every day you can make a claim like that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Miller & Carter Steakhouse

24/03/17

Mirfield, Yorkshire

We’re visiting family in Huddersfield and in need of some sustenance. This place comes highly recommended by my favourite daughter and her charming partner, so the four of us take the short trip to Mirfield to check it out. A steak dinner is many people’s idea of the perfect default dining option, but it’s depressingly difficult to find a decent one. Those ‘tough-as-shoeleather-dry-as-the Sahara’ offerings are so often the norm, we begin to see them as inevitable. So it’s truly heartening to discover a place that actually gets the formula right.

At first glance, I’m somewhat doubtful, because the dining area is huge – room after room, packed with eager punters – and it’s also part of a sizeable chain, which is often an indication of impending mediocrity. With this many covers, how are they ever going to maintain their standards, I wonder? Well, I needn’t have worried. Our companions have warned us that portions here are on the hearty scale, so for starters the four of us share a plate of nachos. The hand cut tortilla chips come laced with Cheddar cheese sauce, tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole and some decently punchy jalapeños – just enough to get our taste buds going and to accompany our opening salvo of drinks.

We’re fans of ribeye steak, so we both order the 12 oz variety, while our companions opt for slices of rump. To be honest, the menu offers just about every cut you could possibly think of, including on the bone, off the bone and all points in between. The steaks arrive promptly, each accompanied by our individual choice of sauce in a separate jug. We also get a ‘wedge’ – a hefty chunk of iceberg lettuce, which comes with a choice of four dressings (I go for bacon and honey mustard, which is terrific). There are regular or sweet potato fries and a generous slice of what the restaurant calls ‘onion loaf’, which is sweet and crunchy and really nice to have on the plate. Just for interest’s sake we also try a side portion of lobster mac n’ cheese, which is everything you’d expect it to be, gooey and comforting, with hefty chunks of crustacean thrown in for good measure. The steaks themselves are perfectly cooked, thick and succulent, tender enough to cut with an ordinary knife (though we are supplied with sharper ones). All steaks are premium graded and matured for at least 30 days. What else can I tell you? It works, totally and at a decent price – a ribeye steak comes in at just under £20.

After that, we’re pretty satiated but selflessly (and purely, you understand, for the sake of this review) we order a sharing plate of four desserts and play that game of ‘not wanting to be the last person to take a spoonful’, so we each take smaller and smaller amounts until one brave individual (not me, I promise!) shame-facedly snatches up the last crumb. By this time we’re well in to the second bottle of prosecco, so I barely remember what the pudding actually comprises, but it hardly matters – the real story here is the steak experience, which is done with absolute authority. What else can we do but award it full marks?

The next time you’re in West Yorkshire and that Neolithic need for fresh meat comes over you, you’ll know a good place to go in order to satisfy it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney