Food

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

 

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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

 

The Chop House

 

 

25/03/18

 Bruntsfield, Edinburgh

The Bruntsfield Chop House is new. We’ve walked past the renovations countless times, and are keen to investigate this new addition to the local restaurant scene. It certainly looks inviting enough from the outside: all trendy industrial-style decor and some appetising smoky smells. So we book in for late lunch/early dinner on Sunday afternoon, and boy, are we hungry when we arrive!

Things don’t get off to an auspicious start though. The high tables and fixed booth-style seating look fantastic, but they’re not exactly super-accessible. It’s actually a bit of a scramble to climb up there: the design doesn’t seem to take much account of human anatomy. Still, once ensconced, we’re comfortable enough, and we’re soon drinking wine and perusing the menu.

Philip has crab cakes to start. There are two of them, generously filled with tender crab meat and served with a tangy chipotle hollandaise sauce. I opt for a single scallop served with pig cheek and an apple and celery slaw (I’m saving myself for the main course); the starter is small but it’s perfectly prepared, the pig cheek in particular ticking the ‘guilty pleasure’ box.

On to the main course. We’ve opted for a sharing cut of bone-in-rib steak with Sunday dinner trimmings, and we’re relishing the thought. Just as we’re expecting to be served, however, the waiter appears to tell us that the chef has prepared the wrong meat for us – he’s prepared a porterhouse instead. He’s very apologetic, but it’s fine – we don’t really mind – and opt to take the ‘wrong’ cut rather than wait for another to be prepared.

And honestly, it’s absolutely not a problem, because the steak we’re served is the best that either of us can ever remember having. Yes, it really is that good, medium rare, as requested, and so soft and succulent, it’s almost buttery. All the beef served here is 35 day aged and cooked over an open flame charcoal grill and, my goodness, it works! We’re in meat heaven. The sides of roast potato, al dente veg and Yorkshire pudding are delicious too – but the meat is very much the star of the show. Then there are the sauces: a decent peppercorn, a tangy béarnaise and, best of all, a delicious bone marrow gravy that’s as dark and rich as anyone could wish.

We devour every mouthful and are consequently too full for pudding but we do have more room for wine – and find that the cost of the bottle has been deducted from our bill to make up for the chef’s ‘mistake’. It’s a lovely gesture, and one we appreciate.

Would we come back? Well, maybe. The food is absolutely spot on and the service is friendly. But they really need to do something about those seats.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Wagamama

08/03/18

Lothian Road, Edinburgh

When we first decided to feature food reviews on this blog, we agreed that we wouldn’t be covering any chain restaurants. We really didn’t think there was much point. But I suppose there has to be a notable exception to every rule and when, after a particularly fraught day’s work, we decide there’s really only one place we both fancy dining, then this review becomes inevitable. Because as chain restaurants go, Wagamama is, in our humble opinion, the best of the bunch. You can see the food being freshly prepared in the open kitchen, the staff are friendly and attentive and I love their open approach to specialist tastes – there’s a huge choice of both vegetarian and vegan meals and even some gluten-free options. We have eaten in Wagamama venues all over the country and the quality of the food never falters.

It’s a Thursday evening and the Lothian Road branch is pleasantly bustling with post-work diners. We take our seats, order drinks and peruse the menu, though I already have long-established firm favourites here. One of them is the chicken katsu curry. To me, this is the ultimate ‘hug on a plate,’ not at all challenging, you understand, but so very satisfying. There’s something about that big mound of sticky rice bathed in a kind of gloopy ‘chip shop curry’ sauce that is so compelling. There’s also the tender strips of chicken in their breadcrumb coating and that perfectly judged crispy salad dressed in a zesty sauce. I’ve often said that, when I find myself on Death Row (presumably sent there for crimes against humanity), this is the dish I will send out for.

I will also ask for a portion of duck gyoza, those succulent, flavoursome steamed parcels which are so delicious on their own and taste even more so when dipped into the accompanying bowl of  sweet chilli sauce – my mouth is watering just describing it!

We also order a portion of yasai yaki soba, a big plate of sizzling noodles with mushrooms, egg, peppers, bean sprouts and much more. There’s a fabulous gingery kick to this dish and a wonderful contrast between the softness of the noodles and the crunchiness of the vegetables that just compels you to keep eating until the plate is clean. Sprinkle it with soy sauce and it’s even better!

One more main dish, we decide, something we haven’t tried before and it’s prawn raikusaree, a mild coconut and citrus curry, served with a mound of white rice, peppers, red onion, red chillies and lime. The decently sized prawns are perfectly cooked and almost melt in the mouth. It’s sublime, and we realise that we’ve just discovered what’s destined to be another firm favourite.

After all that, can we possibly find room for pudding? Well, it has been a particularly tiring day… we were up at 5am for goodness sake! We decide to share a coconut and fig cheescake and a bowl of salted caramel ice cream. The former is light and adorable, based on a crunchy biscuit base and, of course, ice cream is just ice cream, right? Well no, as it happens, even this has its own unique flavour, sprinkled with caramelised sesame seeds and liberally dressed with a chilli toffee and ginger sauce. Yum!

Wagamama seems to me to be almost unique amongst chain restaurants, displaying levels of invention married to standards of quality you won’t find in many  establishments. Oh, and did I mention it’s also excellent value for money? Little wonder you rarely see the restaurants empty.

This was a great idea and it certainly won’t be the last time we dine here.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Ivy on the Square

11/02/18

St Andrew Square, Edinburgh

Let’s be honest, we’re here because of The Ivy, the famous London restaurant none of our party has ever visited, but which is synonymous with celebrity and exclusivity. Not that we’re expecting either of these tonight, but we’re keen to see what this Scottish outpost has to offer, and perhaps to gain some insight into why its progenitor is so talked about.

We’re with good friends, so we’re off to a promising start: we’re predisposed to enjoy ourselves when we’re in their company. True, we’ve looked at the menu on line and found it pretty uninspiring, and our companions have read some mixed reviews. But we’re here with open minds (and mouths); we’ll give it a fair chance.

And we’re glad we do, because it’s hard to find much fault. The decor is idiosyncratic, all busy prints and reflective surfaces, but it works: it’s modern and traditional and quirky all at once. Okay, so the tables are crammed a little closely together, and it’s busy and bustling so they’re a little slow with our drinks orders, but that’s no problem really; there’s a lively atmosphere and we’re in no rush. The service is attentive without being overbearing, and the food is really rather good.

I start with the tuna carpaccio, which is yellowfin tuna served with ponzu dressing, avocado purée, toasted sesame and coriander shoots. It’s a thing of beauty, and the standout of the meal for me. It’s spicy but delicate, and the fish is melt-in-the-mouth soft. Lovely! Philip has the warm crispy duck salad, which comes with five spice dressing, toasted cashews, watermelon, beansprouts, coriander and ginger. He’s especially impressed by the textures, and by the surprising addition of the watermelon, and declares it a winning way to begin.

His main is line-caught swordfish with red pepper sauce, Provencal black olives, fregola and chimichurri dressing. It’s a simple dish, but a well-executed one, the fish seared to perfection. I opt for the ‘classic’ Ivy on the Square shepherd’s pie, which comprises slow-braised lamb shoulder with beef and Isle of Mull Cheddar potato mash. It’s not like any shepherd’s pie I’ve had before, its elevation completed by the robust gravy that accompanies it, which is rich and densely flavoured.

Do we have  room for pudding? Of course we do. And, having seen it delivered to a neighbouring table, we both opt for the chocolate bombe,  a delicious dome of milk chocolate, which – under a torrent of hot butterscotch sauce – melts into a vanilla ice cream and honeycomb centre. It’s as theatrical as it is sinfully delicious, and we’re suitably impressed.

All in all, we’ve had a great evening, relaxed and unhurried, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Will we be back? I’d say it’s highly likely.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield