Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Restaurant at the Bonham

Drumsheugh Gardens

visited 14/8/12

It’s easy to overlook hotel restaurants in Edinburgh, but a friend was staying here on business so I joined her for dinner.  The Bonham is in a Victorian townhouse in the West End, gently modernised.  The wood-panelled dining room is well-lit to dispel the Victorian oppressiveness that some of these buildings can have, and a table by the open window was a lovely, airy space for dinner.

There’s a slightly predictable menu (halibut, venison, lamb, a veggie option) but a surprisingly interesting prix fixe which I found more inviting.  I had a very juicy, well-cooked piece of mackerel nicely contrasted with some shredded kohlrabi and with a dollop of gooseberry puree (which I could have had a little tarter, as the purpose of this famous partnership is to cut through the oil of the fish, but no real complaints.)  Then I had some of the lightest gnocchi ever, with roasted cherry tomatoes and basil—a perfect combination perfectly cooked. I also got a forkful of my friend’s confit of duck which was light and crispy and with a great flavour.   We blew the money we had saved by ordering off the prix fixe menu on a really good albarinõ.  I wish all restaurants had wines like this—really well balanced acidity and with a bit of substance but not overloaded with alcohol. 

After these nicely balanced dishes with thoughtful flavours and textures we were ready for pudding.  I had crème  brûlée flavoured with tonka bean, which is a kind of slightly spicier vanilla and BANNED in the USA!   I am still alive though.  The crème was great—rich but light and with perfect caramel.  Good coffee too.

So everything was great and I will come back and try the main menu at some point.

Martin Wishart

The Shore


Visited 8/8/12

The Festival is here!  And that means lovely people staying in my flat and buying me slap-up dinners.  This year’s highlight:  Martin Wishart, the original and some say the best of Edinburgh’s haute cuisine.   I hadn’t been for several years, and vaguely thought it might have been superseded by younger, flashier models, but such was not the case.

I’ll get the one negative point out of the way first—the room isn’t great.  Subdued and beige like a chain hotel.  And blinds blocked out the view of the harbour (probably not their fault on a sunny evening, but still).   The service is great—mainly younger keen people with perfect timing and an enthusiastic way of talking about the food.

We had the tasting menu and it was the most accomplished and best judged example of this that I’ve had for ages.   The amuse bouches were light and did their appetising job perfectly (and at no time did the currently ubiquitous a pea velouté/foam put in an appearance).  The menu ran as follows:

A carpaccio of John Dory with soy sauce and plum. Delicate and restrained (and better than the rather in-your-face sashimi/carpaccio mash-up I’d had at Castle Terrace).  Next lovely, juicy mackerel in a tomato broth that didn’t overpower with acidity, but brought out the sparklingly fresh flavour of the fish.  Then a reanimated (in the historical sense) crab in a marie-rose dressing with veal tartare, which was fun and delicious.  Then stuffed pig’s trotters, which I wish would appear more often on menus.  These were meltingly tender with a little hint of colonnata (OK, lard) and some fresh, light peas—so a traditionally hearty dish turned into a pure expression of its flavours, which is just what you want on a tasting menu,

The sequence of flavours, and combinations within one dish, were clearly thought-through in a masterly way.  Sometimes you can be a bit exhausted when it comes to the mega-shot of protein but I was completely ready for saddle of lamb wrapped in pork belly with gnocchi.  There was a choice of puddings and I had a lively poached apricot with white chocolate mousse and a sorbet—flavours and textures that were balanced and reviving.

Needless to say this was cooking of an enormously high standard.  I’ve just sketched out the sequence of food—most of them had other, interesting ingredients all of which added something else to the dishes.  It was simply wonderful.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Plumed Horse

Henderson Street, Leith

Visited 16/5/12

This fine restaurant seems to slip in and out of Michelin starriness, but it gives the impression of being above such arbitrary distinctions in the first place.  The idea is clearly that you are there to have a good time with  some confident and inventive cooking.  The genial maitre d’ is one of the most welcoming I have encountered and the two waiters (one German, one Italian) were of the kind you normally only meet in restaurants in France—people who both seem to enjoy talking to you about the food and are knowledgeable about it.

The cooking is very good indeed and conjures surprises out of classic dishes and ingredients.  The fact that the tasting menu is cunningly only £10 more than the three-course menu was irresistible, so we embarked upon that. 

With some glasses of a fresh, light Prosecco we had some exceptional canapés (great range of flavours and textures in such little parcels) and then one of those dishes that reminds you why some familiar partnerships (pea and ham in this case) are so good—a very classy version with Alsace smoked ham and a perfect expression of green peas.  Next a milder dish of scallops with a leek and shrimp risotto that led into (vegetarians look away) foi gras.   There is a real attention to the sequence of courses.  I’m sometimes a bit cautious about the richness of foi gras, but it was beautifully cut with prunes.    (At this point the only slip-up in the service occurred when I asked for some bread but none was forthcoming).

Some tasting menus  can get a little tiring by the time you get to the meat course, but this was the highlight of the meal.  A pretty simple loin of roe deer with wild garlic and, surprisingly, clapshot!  As with the pea and ham, faith in very traditional dishes paid off—the simple, fresh ramsoms and the richer root vegetables (halfway between a puree and a mash) were perfect with the very tender venison.

A cheese course is included (you often have to pay extra at restaurants of this kind).  Personally, I would have preferred a little taste of a harder, sharper cheese, rather than the warmed goat’s cheese in a balsamic dressing, but there was nothing wrong with it.  It was just a  bit much, particularly with the foi gras in recent memory.  But the finest moment of all was the arrival of four cherry soufflés—each absolutely perfect and looking as if they might float off the ceiling (an effect that continued in the mouth).  One of the best desserts I've had.

The Plumed Horse is a very unpretentious place, given the quality of its cooking.  Very good for a night out, and heartfelt thanks to the friends who thought of this and took me out!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Peat Inn

St Andrews
Visited 11/5/12

The famed Peat Inn has been around for a long time, but I’ve never found anyone willing to drive there and forgo a drink (or, needless to say, contemplated this myself). But using the birthday-justification-clause, a small group of us went up and stayed the night. This is much the best way of arrange things as the accommodation is so lovely. Suites on two levels that really do pay attention to details in the way most hotels promise but don’t supply. On arriving we had good coffee and brownies of a lightness and chocolaty intensity rarely to be found. Breakfast—also great—is brought to and laid out in your room—simple but perfect ingredients, with wonderful homemade bread and the best boiled eggs I’ve ever had.

The dining room has thick walls and low ceiling and a number of different rooms so is very hushed. The food is quite subdued too—not at all showy, but with complex and subtle flavours very well brought together. The menu is seasonal and pretty much local. I started with langoustines, wrapped in a very fine pastry with a wonderful hit of basil, set off with a light marinated cucumber. The food in general is something to take slowly and seriously, allowing the flavours to emerge in sequence. Next a piece of (nicely pink and with clear signs of having gambolled outdoors) veal with a wonderful kind of flurry of tiny beans, onions and mushrooms, a bean puree and a wild garlic veloute, that could have been overwhelming but in fact added a delicate, fresh flavour,. I also stole a fair amount from my companions’ dishes, memorable among which was a daube of pork (one of three ways of that meat), and best of all a duck breast of fabulous tenderness and flavour.

The portions aren’t particularly small, yet we found room for pudding, in most of our cases a rhubarb clafoutis (rhubarb is one of my favourite flavours) which was very accurate and surprisingly light. If you don’t have space, the petit fours are exceptionally inventive and delicious. My only (tiny) reservation was that the wine didn’t keep very good pace with the food, leaving too much red when the puddings arrived. (The service is otherwise knowledgeable, friendly and unobtrusive).

The wine list is interesting and extraordinarily unmarked-up for a restaurant of this quality, so there is plenty to choose from. We had a really interesting Alsace blend of pinots gris, blanc and noir—a fabulous and complex wine which I would love to have again. It was harder to choose a red to go from fish to duck but a Dolcetto d’Alba was light but flavourful and went well with everything. This a great (and very well set-out) list.

This is food that has quite a lot of complex flavours very subtly combined, so it's worth lingering over and paying it serious attention, but the general atmosphere is relaxed and informal.  The whole experience has been very carefully thought out, but  the mechanisms are beneath a very unobtrusive surface.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Mezbaan

Brougham Street, Edinburgh

visited 6/12/12

This is really a composite review of my absolute favourite South East Asian Restaurant. The Mezbaan specialises in South Indian cooking and is very good indeed.

I nearly always start with a starter-sized masala dosa which is always perfect--a light, crispy rice pancake with a soft, well flavoured potato stuffing, served with a sambar and a coconut chutney. I always find this dish quite miraculous—just simple ingredients but with flavours and textures perfectly combined. The chutney is especially good and manages to be soothing and to give the dish a kick at the same time.

I particularly like the vegetable dishes here. The daal is quite complex, there’s a cream bagary baingan that really brings out the flavour of the aubergine, and my favourite—a bean and carrot thoran with whole spices that again makes you wonder how such apparently plain flavours can be so interesting. The meat dishes are excellent too though—a lamb nilgiri is perfectly tender and absolutely sings with the flavours of ginger and coconut. The green curries are very good— Haryali Shaam brings together spinach and green herbs in a rich but light sauce. A number of dishes are clearly marinated for a decent time, so that the flavours really permeate the meat (the lamb Kottayam, cooked with yoghurt and lentils is especially good). The breads are also perfect—light and fresh. I often order too much, but they will box it up for you.

The Mezbaan chefs really seem to be interested in cooking you interesting food with care and enthusiasm. The menu lists the ingredients in every dish and you can taste them all. The staff are great—friendly and helpful and the service (which has been a little erratic in the past) is now fluent. There’s a good short wine list, or kingfisher.

In short, the Mezbaan is a significant step above its competition and a really enjoyable place to eat some complex, fresh-tasting Indian food. Thinking about it makes me want to go again.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Cringletie House

Cringletie House, Peebles

Visited 2/12/11

I had been to Cringletie House a couple of times in the distant past for lunch, in the vague belief it was where one took older relatives for a treat. But this time its proximity to Edinburgh made it seem like a good bet for a couple of days away in the Borders in drear-nighted December.

The house is a lovely mid-Victorian building in its on grounds overlooking the Tweed valley and has been decorated with minimal Scottishisms. The tasting menu looked immediately interesting, with some imaginative combinations that seemed worth forking out for (at £55 with £35 matching wines it’s very reasonably priced). This turned out to be an excellent idea and we had some really exciting food.

After some light and nicely contrasted canapés in the bar, we had an amuse bouche of a pea and chorizo soup, of some depth of flavour and with good textures (attention to texture was a hallmark of the whole menu). Next a perfectly roasted, plump scallop with a kind of custardy mango jus in a glass. Now, while the jus wasn’t overpowering or especially sweet, I’m not entirely sure that mango and seafood are a good combination, so this wasn’t my favourite. Then a really thoughtful dish of crowdie raviolo with mushrooms and a Jerusalem artichoke veloute that more than compensated for recent experiences (see Hotel du Vin). A lot of restaurants will tell you they use local/seasonal ingredients, but this menu really did make the most of what’s available at the moment. The slight sourness of the cheese went well with the mushrooms, and the delicate/earthy combination of the sauce brought it all together.

The next course was surprisingly successful as you wouldn’t have thought monkfish (a piece of tail with a delicious deep fried cheek) would go well with sauerkraut, but it was a triumph—the chef managed throughout the meal to produce quite strong flavours but with subtlety. The main course was venison—a perfectly cooked piece of loin with a really lovely ball of braised meat. This, for me, was the only course you could fault—it came with a piece of quince of which it was hard to discern the flavour, and some cranberries that gave a rather sour, raw edge to the dish. There could also have been a little more of the accompanying game sauce—something needed to happen to bind everything together. But these are pretty minor quibbles.

Most tasting menus make the cheese optional, and this might not be a bad idea at Cringletie as one can easily become proteined-out. They generously throw in some slightly predictable cheeses with a nice, light chutney. Pudding was a witty, dis-assembled version of Black Forest Gateau: light, moistened sponge, cherries with the right sweet/sour note and subtly flavoured vanilla cream. It’s not the sort of dessert one would want very often, but it was fun.

In sum the cooking was outstanding—thoughtful, imaginative and generous with flavours and combinations. As one would expect at this price, everything was very correctly cooked, but more than that, there was a sense of real enjoyment and exploration of flavours and textures about the whole enterprise.

Service was excellent—a delightful and knowledgeable French maitresse d’ who showed a real interest in the food and who was assisted by some friendly and well-trained locals. It was all very efficient but informal. The only false note was the looped Beatles track in the nicely-restored Victorian dining room, and a loud medley of ABBA and soft rock in the bar.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Castle Terrace

Castle Terrace, Edinburgh

Visited 19/11/11

Castle Terrace, recently adorned with a Michelin star, is an off-shoot of the wonderful The Kitchin and has the great advantage of being in central Edinburgh, so you don’t have to add on £20 for taxis to Leith. It is in the site of the former Abstract which I quite liked apart from a) the faux-shark-skin tables and b) their belief that vanilla and fish are a good combination. And the ‘champagne cart’.

The space is quite small and neutral and a band of waiters scuttle around with well-trained but slightly cramped precision. They were charming and the sommelier was great. The menu pretentiously heads each dish with the main ingredient, as if one might not work it out for oneself, but everything else about Castle Terrace is very relaxed and friendly

I started with a ceviche of halibut with various Japanese flavours rendered into non-Japanese forms, such as soy jelly and wasabi ice cream. Each element was extremely well executed, distilling the flavours. My only reservation is that you are left to reassemble all the constitutive parts to achieve the tastes that you have combined for you in a really good Japanese restaurant, but that was just a psychological effect and no disrespect to the dish.

The main courses are based around the foods that a number of top Edinburgh restaurants offer—local fish and game. I had venison which came with a quince tatin, chestnuts, pumpkin and gnocchi. The venison was superb in texture and flavour, the quince gave a sharp accent to the meat. Personally I felt the tatin and the gnocchi together were a bit too much. Did all these different elements warrant the elevated prices of Castle Terrace? I had a wonderful but simpler hare dish at the Grain Store the previous week and to be honest I think I enjoyed it more. I did miss the artistry and stunning combinations of flavours of the Kitchin here. With this we had a bottle of Bandol (Sorin, 2005) so lovely that I later researched it on the web only to discover that you could have it for £10 less at the Plumed Horse in Leith. I’m just saying.

Pudding was a little disappointing given the exemplary standards of cooking elsewhere. I had a pear infused with hibiscus, but despite closing my eyes and concentrating really hard, I couldn’t get any flavour of pear and not much hibiscus. This came with a delicious, delicate nougatine.

In sum, Castle Terrace is very good indeed, but in my view the starry Leith restaurants are a noticeable notch above.