Food

Maxies

12/09/19

Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

Tasty Buns

Bread Street, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Tommy’s Banglacafé

28/07/19

South Charlotte Street, Edinburgh

We’re not supposed to be eating out tonight. The ingredients for a delicious oven-baked risotto are waiting for us at home. But we’ve had a few errands to run in the New Town and, on our way back, Tommy’s Banglacafé catches our attention. This is hardly surprising, as there is a brightly painted tuk tuk bike on the street outside, and the entrance is festooned with gorgeously gaudy flowers and, yeah, a tiger. It looks vibrant and enticing, so we head up the steps. Just to look at the menu, mind.

The member of staff who greets us is friendly and enthusiastic, handing us fliers and giving us time to peruse what’s on offer. We walk away, cheerily informing her we’ll be back another day. But we’re barely two hundred yards away before Philip starts up. ‘I mean, we really shouldn’t go there now, should we?’ he says.

‘No.’ I’m holding firm.

‘There’s that risotto at home,’ he continues. ‘Although…’

‘Although what?’

‘Well, it’s not like I couldn’t make that tomorrow instead. No, no, we shouldn’t…’

I laugh at him. ‘Come on then,’ I say. We turn around and head back to the restaurant. The woman at the door doesn’t look remotely surprised.

‘Table for two?’ she grins.

Tommy’s Banglacafé is the latest venture from Tommy Miah, and offers a range of Bangladeshi cuisine. The focus is on street food; this is a relaxed, informal room, with a huge, glitzy bar and a bold colour scheme. It’s modern and fun, and we’re glad we’ve come inside. As soon as we’re seated, we’re offered ‘free chai’ – of course we accept.

Sipping on the nutmeg-rich chai, we’re not sure how much food to order, but go for two small plates, one house special and some meat from the grill. It’s more than enough; the portions are very generous. They all arrive together, and we dip in and out of each dish, relishing the distinctive flavours and robust spicing.

The standout is probably the Fakruddin Kacchi Biryani, which is both familiar and unusual. There’s cassia bark in it, I think, which adds a singular perfume-y note. It’s delicious, packed with slow-cooked lamb; it’s bursting with flavour. It comes with a side of raita, which complements it perfectly. The portion is huge – probably enough for four, I’d say. We do our best to finish it between us, but can’t quite manage it.

There’s more lamb (of course) in the Lamb Shatkora Kebab, this time cooked with ‘Bengali lemon’ and caramelised onions. It’s utterly delicious – a smaller dish, this one, and a superior cut of meat. It’s great.

We also have some Bagerhat Prawns (fried in gram flour and chilli) and Tommy’s Jhal Muri (which is a mixture of spicy puffed rice, dried lentils, peanuts and chickpeas). These are lovely too. Philip is especially taken with the Jhal Muri, and keeps making appreciative noises as he devours it. We have some Paratha Bread too, which is nice, but we’ve more than enough food, so a tad unnecessary perhaps.

With a glass of Pinot Grigio and a pint of Cobra, the bill (including service) comes to just over £50. Tommy’s Banglacafé is a welcome addition to the Edinburgh food scene, and one that doesn’t break the bank.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Townhouse

09/07/19

Lower Bridge Street, Chester

We’re visiting my parents in North Wales, and have planned a day out in Chester. Mum’s on the case, and has sussed out a TravelZoo (nope, me neither) voucher for a lunchtime meal. It’s at The Townhouse on Lower Bridge Street, right in the middle of town, and she and dad have eaten there before. So far, so good.

The Townhouse is a boutique hotel, and the brasserie – where we’re eating – is in an attractive space leading off a velvet-sofa-ed bar. It’s quite formal, all pale linen and plush upholstered seats, but it’s fresh and inviting, with French windows opening on to a plant-filled patio.

The voucher affords us four three-course meals for just £58. (Some options carry a small supplement, as you’d expect.) My starter of goat’s cheese and honey bonbons is a lovely blend of sweet and salt and, although the quinoa, beetroot and balsamic salad that accompanies it is a little gritty in texture, it tastes divine. Philip has the smoked haddock and spring onion fishcake, which is robustly made, with a real depth of flavour.

My main is oven baked breast of chicken, with giant couscous, charred carrots and courgettes, broccoli, crispy kale and red pepper pesto. It’s delicious: the chicken is beautifully cooked, and the couscous concoction is bursting with flavour. The only mis-step – and it is a serious mis-step – is the crispy kale, which dissolves into an unpleasant pool of oil as soon as I crunch down on it. Urgh. I push what’s left to the side and enjoy the rest of the dish.

Philip has the carved Welsh lamb rump, which carries a £4 supplement. It’s served with a mixed bean cassoulet, fondant potatoes, minted garden peas and a sticky rosemary jus. The meat is succulent, and he’s especially impressed with the savoury taste of the cassoulet.

To finish, Philip has the sticky toffee pudding, which comes with butterscotch sauce and Cheshire Farm vanilla ice cream. It’s a decent example of the classic pud, but maybe not as moist and decadent as it might be. My trio of flavoured crème brûlée is fantastic though, with strawberry and chocolate alongside the classic vanilla. It’s gloriously, lip-smackingly good, and ought to appear on more menus.

We have a glass of wine each (a serviceable sauvignon blanc), and coffee to finish; all in, the extras come to £26. An affordable treat in a central location – you can bet we’ll be back before too long.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

21212

15/06/19

Royal Terrace, Edinburgh

It’s my birthday. Actually, it’s my birthday tomorrow, but Paul Kitching’s Michelin starred restaurant isn’t open on Sundays, so we’re celebrating a day early. We’re booked in for a one-thirty lunch, and enjoy the walk through the city and across Calton Hill.

21212 is a ‘restaurant with rooms’ – a quirky boutique hotel, with a clear emphasis on the food. We don’t see the rooms, because we’re just here to eat, but the whole place is charming: a tall townhouse, with a pretty garden and beautiful decor. The dining room is formal, but there’s a relaxed atmosphere nonetheless. The service is friendly and unstuffy, informed but not intrusive.

The conceit here is simple: the numbers in the name refer to the choices on offer for each course. So there are two starters available, then a soup, two mains, cheese, and two puds. The kitchen (screened off by a glass wall) is small; perfecting a limited number of dishes makes absolute sense. We opt for the full five courses, because what’s the point in coming here unless you’re going to embrace the experience? We apply the same logic to the drinks menu, and go for a package of matched wines. And, for good measure, a glass of rosé cava to kick things off.

Olives are swiftly brought to our table: eye-watering, so-strong-they’re-almost-unpleasant olives that work well with the pink fizz we’re sipping. Then there’s bread, a brioche topped with a medley of Mediterranean vegetables – tomatoes, courgettes, etc. It’s delicious and utterly irresistible.

To start, I have pigeon cree, which is not, in fact, pigeon at all. “It’s made from the stuff you feed pigeons,” explains our waitress – thus summing up the idiosyncratic nature of the entire menu. Pigeon cree, it emerges, is a kind of barley risotto, studded with seeds and… um, blueberries. There’s also a mozzarella bonbon and some cubes of intensely flavoured pork, neither of which I’m certain feature prominently in a pigeon’s diet. No matter: this is a stellar dish, each mouthful a little adventure.

Philip has ‘Kidnapped’ in Scotland, which is haggis, served with salmon caviar and a beetroot pancake. Again, it’s not a combination we’ve ever heard of, let alone sampled, but it’s weirdly rather wonderful.

Next up for us both is rainy allotment soup: a curry base with white cabbage and pasta, topped with a carrot and saffron froth. It’s delicate and creamy, and we’re both enchanted by it. This course also comes with the standout wine of the day: a sparkling chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. I’ve already got my parents on the case, trying to source some more for us while they’re in France.

My main is bass and peas, which turns out to be sea bass topped with a scallop, with egg mayo and peanuts on the side. There’s a mustard crisp too, and radishes, and a sauce whose ingredients I can’t recall. This is complex food, with daring combinations. I eat every morsel. I’m enjoying the challenge.

Philip has chicken ‘surprise’ – but I’m not sure which element constitutes the surprise as, predictably, none of it is predictable. There’s a succulent piece of perfectly cooked chicken, with hazelnuts, pear mayo, and – wait for it – honeycomb. It’s all superb.

The cheese course (‘A Fine Brexit Selection’) comprises twelve small cubes of a wide variety of cheeses, served with crackers and dried pears. The pears are an inspired addition, but the crackers provide the only off-note of the day. True, there are two delightful slivers made from the bread we tasted earlier, but the rest are of the shop-bought kind, and disappointing in comparison with everything else. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and we make short work of the plate. The creamy Langres is our favourite.

Before pudding, we’re brought a little cow-shaped jug of malted banana milk, which is poured into tiny paper cups, and drunk like it’s a shot. We’re cynical, but it tastes great. The disposable cups are an odd choice, though… surely reusable tableware makes more environmental sense?

For pud, we both have yellow, pink, white. As ever, the title reveals little, but we’re confident by now that we’ll be wowed by whatever this is. And we’re right. There’s a little glass of strawberry something-or-other to drink, and a portion of rice pudding, layered with lemon sauce. There’s a strawberry meringue on top: it’s a medley of sweet and tart, creamy and fresh. A very good way to end the meal.

The wines all work well too, a series of excellent suggestions, complementing each course effectively.

Will we come back? Oh yes – once we’ve saved up our pennies again. If you haven’t tried Paul Kitching’s cooking yet, I urge you to give it a go. I can promise that you won’t be bored!

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux

03/06/19

Princes Street, Edinburgh

We’re here today because… well, we haven’t really got a reason. It’s a run-of-the-mill Monday (we don’t work Mondays). It’s lunch time. Usually, this would signal some kind of soup or salad eaten in our own kitchen, but today we feel like eating out.

So here we are. Brasserie Prince is a relative newcomer (it opened last year, in the renowned Balmoral hotel), but its pedigree is excellent, being a joint venture between veteran chef Michel Roux and his son, Alain. We’re keen to see what they have to offer.

As you’d expect from this cooking dynasty, the focus is on classic French food, with a healthy respect for local produce. There’s an extensive à la carte selection but, as this is an impromptu visit with little to justify it, we decide to stick to the express menu, where two courses cost £19.50 and three £25 per head. The options here look perfectly acceptable.

We order a small glass each of Pinot Grigio, and tuck into the tapenade and crispbreads that are placed on the table. Delicious! Who can resist the salty tang of an olive dip? Not us, that’s for sure.

The pace here is leisurely, which we like, so it’s a little while before our starters arrive. Not too long, just long enough to make the meal feel like an event. I have the Quinoa, sunflower seed and spring vegetable salad with minted soya yoghurt dressing, which is fresh and delicate with a lovely zing. Philip has the beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with red pepper vinaigrette, which is an absolute delight. It’s deceptively simple looking, but the beetroots – both red and golden – are served in a variety of ways (pickled, roasted and crisped) and the goat’s cheese is mellow and creamy. So far, so (very) good.

Philip has the Armoricaine monkfish, Camargue wild rice and tenderstem broccoli for his main. The fish is well cooked, deliciously meaty, and served with a lip-smackingly savoury sauce. My Shetland mussels with white wine and parsley are pretty good, although, coming so soon after last week’s mussels extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Food Studio, perhaps they are destined not to wow. Still, it’s a generous portion – more than I can eat – and the sauce is rich and decadent. I order a side of fries to accompany the shellfish, and these are fine too (although suspiciously akin to the frozen variety…).

We go off-piste for pud, because the à la carte options are just too appealing. Philip has the classic tarte tatin with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; this is faultless, exactly as you’d expect. I opt for the warm lemon madeleines and cherry compote; this unassuming-sounding dish turns out to be today’s star. There are five madeleines (we could easily have shared; we do, in fact, share…), all hot lemony loveliness, the sponge as light as can be, and the thick sweetness of the cherry compote contrasts with it perfectly.

We order a second (small) glass of wine, and sit contentedly for a while, enjoying the ambience and bustle of this friendly, attractive restaurant. It’s formal without being fussy, busy without being loud. All in all a lovely place to while away an early afternoon.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Edinburgh Food Studio

26/05/19

Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh

Let me begin this review with a question. When was the last time you ate out and were genuinely surprised by the food you were offered? The Edinburgh Food Studio manages to surprise us on many levels and, I’m happy to say, always in a positive way. We’ve been hearing promising word-of-mouth about the place for a while, so when we spot a really timely Groupon offer –  a four course lunch for just £25 a head – we’re straight onto it.

We arrive right on time and take our seats in the large, light, open plan café. The first thing we notice is that the room is dominated by two long wooden tables with chairs arranged along each side, so it’s probably important to say is that, if you’re the kind of diner who demands your own space to enjoy your meal, this may not be the place for you. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and there’s a pleasant, relaxed buzz in the room, people enjoying their meals and maybe a cheeky drink or three. We order a bottle of reasonably priced French Muscadet and the chatty, super-friendly waitress brings us a plate of fresh ciabatta and some whipped, cultured butter.

Another thing to mention is that you don’t choose from the lunch menu; rather, you are brought what has been prepared that day and is still available. The first course arrives and it’s instantly clear that both the wine and the bread will make perfect accompaniments for a generously sized bowl of mussels and cider butter. I’ll level with you and admit that I rarely choose mussels in normal situations, because it all feels like a lot of effort for not much return, but these particular ones are spectacularly plump, and melt-in-the-mouth tender, sitting in a tangy broth that just cries out to be mopped up with hunks of fresh bread. I’ll go so far as to say these may be the nicest mussels I can remember having and I’ll also add that, by the time we’re finished, the white bowl they were originally housed in looks like it’s already been through the dishwasher.

Surprise number two comes, apropriately enough, with the second course, which is something we’ve never eaten before. This is Passatelli, with St George mushrooms and new season garlic. Passetelli is rather like pasta, except that it’s made from a mixture of bread, eggs and parmesan cheese. Resting in a delicious savoury broth, its unusual, slightly crunchy texture proves an instant hit and, pretty soon, it’s been devoured.

The third surprise is that the next course is rather special, in that it is 12-year-old rump steak, with aliums & yoghurt. (Please note, the twelve here relates to the age of the cow from which the meat comes, not how long its been stored in a deep freeze!) Thinly sliced and lightly seared, the meat is full flavoured and as tender as the night, sliceable with an ordinary knife. At first, I’m slightly suspicious about the pool of natural yoghurt on one side of the plate but, once dipped into it, the meat becomes even more delicious. ‘Inspired by kebabs,’ the waitress informs us and we have to admit, though on paper it sounds strange, it works a treat.

And so we end, as all things must, with pudding – and we are brought lemon thyme & butterscotch, which sounds fantastic but, once again, my first impression is one of profound disappointment. Can this bland-looking white mound actually taste of anything very much at all? Well, as it turns out, yes it can! The revelation here is when you dig into that snowy heap with a spoon to discover hidden layers of zesty ice cream built over the top of a crunchy, chewy butterscotch base and a tangy lemon cake. Turns out the final surprise is the best one of all (and please note our rather poor photograph doesn’t even come close to doing this dessert justice).

The Edinburgh Food Studio somehow manages to cut through all the pretensions of high end dining, offering brilliantly inventive food with the emphasis firmly on flavour. Will we go again? Well, we’ve already noted on a whiteboard above us a seven-course evening tasting menu, and this is something we mentally file away as a possibility for the next time we’re looking for an excuse to celebrate. Birthday, wedding anniversary… Thursday? We’ll think of something!

So go along, enjoy the atmosphere – and be prepared for some surprises!

5 stars

Philip Caveney