Edinburgh

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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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

Creditors

 

 

01/05/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Wow. I thought I knew what I was getting here. Strindberg. Bleurgh. I mean, yeah, I know he’s an important playwright, one of the fathers of naturalism, etc., etc., but I’ve always found it hard to actually enjoy his plays. Even Maxine Peake’s 2012 performance of Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester didn’t warm me to the material, despite her masterly performance. And then there’s the misogyny – all the Women’s Inferiority to Man stuff; he’s a difficult man to like.

And yet here I am, in the Lyceum Theatre, watching Creditors and loving every minute. I’m laughing, I’m listening, I’m enthralled, engaged. Because this production – by David Greig and Stewart Laing – is a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminates and animates the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas. I’m hooked.

It’s a simple story: artist Adolph (Edward Franklin) is lonely. His beloved wife, Tekla (Adura Onashile) is away on business, and he’s missing her dreadfully. His new friend, Gustav (a wonderfully oleaginous Stuart McQuarrie), is a welcome distraction, but Gustav has his own agenda, filling Adolph’s head with doubts about his wife. On her return, Tekla is dismayed to discover that Adolph no longer trusts her, that he feels emasculated by her success. When she finally encounters Gustav, his nasty plan is revealed, and they are all left reeling from the emotional fall-out.

The performances here are all strong: I’m fully invested in all three characters, and there is real emotional heft in their relationships. But it’s the design and technology that really make this production shine, from the forced perspective of the holiday chalets that dominate the stage, to the Bergman-esque black and white  film we see projected live onto a screen, allowing us voyeuristic access to what’s going on indoors. The public exposure of internal, private matters both highlights and validates the introspective nature of the material, and it’s thrilling, actually, to  peep in illicitly.

Then there’s the eerie presence of the girl guides (played by a rotating cast of Lyceum Creative Learning participants), whose robotic uniformity and practicality provides a stark counterpoint to the emotional chaos of the main characters. They’re marvellous in a way that’s hard to pin down: solid yet abstract, staunch and ethereal, all at the same time.

It’s faultless, really – all of it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. And if, like me, you think you’ve seen all you want to of August Strindberg, well, maybe it’s time to think again.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

10/04/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll admit it: I’ve a soft spot for Victorian potboilers, the more sensational and melodramatic the better. And Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 novella – about a doctor experimenting with a serum that transforms him into another man, thus allowing him to indulge in  vices without fear of tarnishing his reputation – ticks all those boxes, whilst also managing to be a deliciously clever treatise on the duality of human nature, our public and our private selves.

So I’m excited to see this stage version, adapted by David Edgar and starring Phil Daniels in not one, but both of the eponymous roles. I like this single casting, by the way – it’s much more expressive of the story’s heart than a double act could ever be. And Daniels performs the role with aplomb, at first clearly delineating between the gentlemanly Jekyll and the seamy Hyde, before slowly merging the two together as the lines between them blur.

This production, directed by Kate Saxon, has an old-fashioned, naturalistic charm: it’s very wordy, with characters expounding theories in long, uninterrupted speeches – much like the source material, I suppose. But it works. What they’re saying is fascinating, and I’m more than happy to listen hard and concentrate when I’m in the theatre, especially if the story is this exciting, with murder and mayhem at every turn (although this is made considerably more difficult by the family sitting in front of us, who keep getting up to go the toilet, and whose mobile phone rings during the first transformation scene).

The set is a triumph – a two-storey feat of ingenuity, allowing three completely different rooms to be depicted with a simple slide and turn of scenery, as well as a convincing outside street. Rosie Abraham’s singing over the transitions is haunting and evocative, reinforcing the unsettling atmosphere.

The supporting cast are all very good – Polly Frame as Jekyll’s sister, Katherine, and Grace Hogg-Robinson as Annie are especially affecting – but this is Daniels’ play, and he owns the stage. Of course he does; he’s Phil Daniels; we know he’s got talent. I’m extra glad he’s so good in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde because it means I can proudly show off to my friends, “I worked with him, you know” (okay, so it was way back in 1987, when I was fifteen, and I had a very small part in Screen Two’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and I had precisely zero scenes with him, but still…).

Check this out! It’s exactly as chilling and unnerving as it should be.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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