Edinburgh

Endless Second

01/08/19

Pleasance Courtyard (Below), Edinburgh

Theo Toksvig-Stewart’s play about consent is an intense, emotionally demanding piece – and, my word, it’s impressive.

Directed by Camilla Gürtler, Endless Second chronicles the relationship between W (Madeleine Gray) and M (Toksvig-Stewart), two drama students who fall in love on the first day of their course. They’re devoted to one another; they’re sweet and supportive; they meet each other’s families; it’s perfect, idyllic. So when M rapes W one drunken night, it’s hard for her to process exactly what’s happened.

This is a beautifully nuanced piece, at once unflinching and disarming, almost forensic in its examination of the impact of M’s actions. The narrative structure is interesting, and both performances utterly compelling. I especially like the fact that M is never demonised: nice boys do this too, unless they’re taught about consent.

W’s inarticulacy following the rape is heartbreakingly convincing, a clear answer to those who question why women stay with violent men, or why rape victims don’t report immediately. She can’t admit to herself that he did that to her; not M, who’s so kind, so loving, so aware of all his privilege, who’d never hurt anyone. Facing up to what he’s done means shattering her life; no wonder she buries the knowledge deep inside; no wonder it haunts her and changes what they have.

I can’t say I enjoy this play exactly; I spend half of it weeping and am wrung out by the end. It’s clever and thought-provoking and, yes, important too.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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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

 

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

 

Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Drone

04/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A tiny drone whirs into life and rises smoothly from the studio floor to survey the audience. An instant later, we see ourselves projected onto a big screen at the back of the room, our bemused faces staring straight back at our ourselves. Electronic music throbs and jitters, steadily rising in volume. And then Harry Josephine Giles walks onto the stage and begins to speak…

Drone describes itself as ‘a jam of sound, visuals and poetry,’ but the ensuing show is a lot more controlled than that suggests. Giles’ words tell the unfolding story of ‘a drone,’ part weapons system, part office worker. It explores the central theme both in realistic and abstract terms, while Neil Simpson’s music provides a pulsing sonic backdrop, and the visual designs of Jamie Wardrop are projected onto a screen behind the performers, a mixture of psychedelic landscapes, obscure images and found film extracts.

My first impression is that I’m not going to enjoy this very much – it seems a little too arch, a little too pleased with itself – and yet, inexorably, it pulls me into its orbit and I’m soon entranced by what I’m seeing and hearing. Giles’ assured, controlled performance is compelling, unleashing a torrent of visual metaphors that build to a maelstrom. This, the narrative seems to say, is symptomatic of the age in which we are live, a bleak, compassionless society, hurtling headlong to oblivion.

Sharp, provocative and challenging, Drone certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who seek something truly original and idiosyncratic should find plenty here to enthrall them. When, at the end of the performance, the drone goes haywire and careers into the audience, it’s hard to know if it’s intentional or not – and that, in a strange way, pretty much sums up what this piece is all about.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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