Edinburgh

Ishka

11/08/18

Morrison Street, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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Garrett Millerick: Sunflower

10/08/08

The Tron, Edinburgh

Garrett Millerick is a bit of a favourite with Bouquets & Brickbats. Last year, with The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of, he seemed to be in a very dark place indeed, delivering a set that pulsed with anger and derision. It’s a happier, healthier looking man who steps onto the tiny stage of the Tron, to deliver his latest creation, Sunflower, a title that also seems to suggest we’re in for a brighter experience, this time around. Sure enough, within moments of his very first utterance, the audience is howling with laughter.

Which is ironic when you consider that later on, the show incorporates a moment of such intense personal pain that, for a few moments, we’re literally shocked into stunned silence. The way Millerick expertly reels us back towards the laughs is a testament to his skills as a raconteur. Few comedians can manage to walk such a slippery tightrope quite so effortlessly.

As Millerick is quick to point out, the titles of Fringe shows are decided on long before August – and indeed, it had been his intention to bring something happier this time around. But life has a way of intervening in people’s best-laid plans and Millerick has done a great job of snatching triumph from the jaws of adversity. What he presents instead is a kind of meta-comedy, laying bare the show’s construction, and inviting us to consider the nature of humour.

This show mixes elements of humour and despair with great aplomb. It also features a certain Chesney Hawkes song to great effect. You want to know how? You’ll find the answer at the Tron.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jo Caulfield: Killing Time

 

04/08/18

The Stand, Edinburgh

I don’t go to see Jo Caulfield in order to be surprised. I’ve been a fan of her comedy for long enough to know what to expect – and I’m looking forward to another helping of her sly sarcasm. I’m not disappointed.

It’s Saturday night and the room is packed; Caulfield’s reputation means an audience is guaranteed, and she well deserves it. She makes it look effortless – her stage persona is all shrugs and don’t-give-a-fuck – but it would be a mistake to underestimate the skill that makes this show. She’s sharp, assessing her audience at the same time as engaging us, pushing boundaries with deceptive innocence.

In Killing Time Caulfield sticks to what she knows. ‘There won’t be a theme or a message to this show,’ she says, ‘If you want that, you’ll need to go elsewhere. This’ll just be me, talking about what I’ve done, what I’ve been thinking…’ And it is, kind of – but it’s so much more as well. It’s observational comedy, sure, but a clear illustration of why that genre persists: in the right hands – in her hands – it’s funny. She’s outraged, regularly, by other people’s behaviour, by their rudeness or their lack of awareness, by their sheer stupidity. She maintains a straight face throughout, a wide-eyed insouciance belying the audacity of some of what she says: she’s the queen of bitchy put-downs but she keeps us on her side. It’s an impressive tight-rope walk.

Okay, so there’s quite a lot of men-do-this-and-women-do-that stuff, but she makes it work – it doesn’t seem hack. The observations are fresh and precisely delivered, and the audience response is proof they hit their mark.

There’s a real joy to be had in watching someone so confident and assured. And Jo Caulfield can be relied upon to deliver a great show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Mary’s Milk Bar

28/06/18

The Grassmarket, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

Trust me. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Restaurant Martin Wishart

16/06/18

54 The Shore, Leith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Last Ship

12/06/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Last Ship has a new book by director Lorne Campbell to complement Sting’s music and lyrics – and it’s a remarkable piece of work. The earlier version, which opened in Chicago in 2014, enjoyed only moderate success; this latest incarnation perhaps explains why: there’s something so decidedly British about it, it’s no surprise it didn’t quite translate.

Based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of a Tyneside shipyard, it tells the story of the workers, who are sold out by management and MPs, victims of the Ridley plan to cut government spending and weaken their trade unions. It’s the 1980s; the miners’ strike has already shaken the country to its core. The ship-builders know they are likely to lose their fight, but they’re resolute: they’ll do what it takes to keep their yard open, to complete the ship they’ve been working on, to prevent it being sold for scrap. Because, as their foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) remind us, it’s all they’ve got, their entire community built around these jobs.

Meanwhile, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) is back in town, after seventeen long years at sea. He didn’t want to work in the shipyards, so he sailed away instead, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend behind; it was the price he had to pay. He’s surprised to discover Meg (Frances McNamee) is still there, running the local pub these days, as well as a few other businesses – and there’s a greater surprise in store for him, namely the rebellious wannabe musician, Ellen (Katie Moore), the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Awkward.

If the story is a little hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a strong enough hook for the action, and the music works its magic, the choral numbers especially rousing and anthemic, with lots of Celtic riffs and foot-stamping to spare. The characters are engaging and their plight adroitly told. I especially like the chorus of working men, who are clearly delineated, a real set of diverse people rather than a faceless mass: there are poets here as well as pissheads, softies as well as swaggerers.

But it’s the design by 59 Productions that really elevates this musical: an industrial shell of a set enhanced by truly awesome projections, their grandeur and precision a thing of real wonder, transporting us in an instant from picket-line to fireside, from stormy seas to cosy pub. There is real mastery in this art.

The closing speech is a stirring one, all the more so because it’s delivered by Ellen, the youngest character in the play. It speaks of hope and direct action, of the people taking back control, refusing to be cowed by fat cats and corporations. All power to ’em, I say. And all power to this show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Bar Italia

27/05/18

Lothian Road, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Philip Caveney