“Pudding arrived in the form of an intensely vanilla-rich, orange-blossom scented, beautifully smooth crème Catalan, adorned in a perfect caramel topcoat. This was surrounded by a quenelle of bitter orange-infused crème fraiche, a crisp, subtly spiced almond Arlette biscuit, a smear of toasted Italian meringue, and globes of citrus sorbet that danced on the plate with drips of orange jus. If JML and I could have requested seconds, we would most definitely have done so!”
Folklore proffers that whilst three is a magic number, the numeral six exhibits far more sinister connotations, it being “the number of the beast” and all. So, might dining in a restaurant with “six” in its title, that offers a set tasting menu of six dishes, which changes every six weeks prove to be a diabolical experience? Or devilish, as in a seriously good sort of way?
“Though also sorely tempted by the halibut, I instead chose the salt-baked sea bass with salsa verde and charred lemon. The sea bass itself was superb, simultaneously firm yet silky, moist, flavoursome and beautifully seasoned by its – now removed – saline overcoat. The salsa verde was good, but maybe as was the case in the accompaniments to Tina’s sea trout, it just lacked a certain something, and charring the lemon didn’t discernibly alter the citrus tone of the dressing.”
I’m not sure whether it’s the done thing to quote the recent dining assessments of such revered gourmands as The Observer‘s Jay Rayner when one is just a jobbing food blogger. Yet as I sat in our chosen eatery, once again observing the prone form of one of our servers, I was reminded of Jay’s recent review of Edinburgh’s Fishers in the City. This emphasised that in any restaurant experience it’s frequently the little things diners remember. Be they good, or more usually, not so good.
In this particular instance, these wee incidents in question were being observed in a renowned seafood bar and restaurant in Glasgow, as opposed to Edinburgh, as JML, Tina and I dined at The Finnieston. Set in the increasingly fashionable area to the west of the city centre, it’s a venue with a lovely ambience full of dark carved wood and flickering candles perched upon the dining tables that flow from the busy bar. Oh, and roaring open fires. Fuelled by gas. That refused to stay alight on a chilly, blustery autumn evening, resulting in the frequent, on all fours, attention of the front-of-house staff, as our party intermittently shivered on an adjacent table.
Sumptuous sea trout, yet did the salad need an extra ‘spark’?
And this is probably a suitable metaphor for the overall dining experience at The Finnieston. Really pleasant, but on occasion lacking a necessary spark needed to ignite the roaring gastronmic flame that would make it something exceptional. Proceedings commenced very well indeed, with the provision of some knock-out Bloody Marys, prepared exactly to the customers’ preference in terms of chilli hit. Exactly what was needed to kick off a late Sunday afternoon of dining and concert going. Hot on the heels of our excellently spiced, tomatoey cocktails came a mixed bag in terms of starters, however.
Tina’s gin-cured sea trout featured luxuriously, velvety pink fish – massively superior in taste and texture to farmed salmon – subtly enhanced with the flavour of gin-infused botanicals. Yet, pleasant as the accompanying raw salad of shallot, fennel and orange was it just lacked the necessary punch to counterpoint the richness of the sea trout, even with the addition of chive crème fraiche dressing.
Splendid sardines, not so sure about the ‘Jackson Pollock’ habanero yoghurt dressing.
Despite the fact we were dining in a venue specialising in marine fare, JML passed on the seafood soup option choosing instead a hearty cabbage-based alternative, possibly enhanced with lentils and potato. Just the ticket on a cold Glasgow evening, not least because the roaring fire was yet again roaring no more at this point.
My sardines with scotch bonnet yoghurt and day old bread sounded intriguing. The fish were certainly really fresh and flavoursome and cooked to perfection, but I’m not sure the croutons added much to the dish whatsoever, and despite the fruity warmth of the chilli in the yoghurt – ‘trendily’ served as if someone had dropped a pot of paint on the plate – a dairy-based accompaniment to such oily flesh just didn’t seem to cut it, as the sardines begged for a more acidic dressing.
Hoorah for the halibut – and lentils, celeriac, and clams too!
The sound of roast halibut was so alluring both Tina and JML opted for it as their main course. Two superbly cooked, plump fillets of snowy-white flatfish, covered in beautifully crisp skin were served. Each rested on a bed of earthy-flavoured puy lentils, augmented by a silky-smooth celeriac puree and bejewelled with sweet clams in their shells. This was a really good dish.
Though also sorely tempted by the halibut, I instead chose the salt-baked sea bass with salsa verde and charred lemon. The sea bass itself was superb, simultaneously firm yet silky, moist, flavoursome and beautifully seasoned by its – now removed – saline overcoat. The salsa verde was good, but maybe as was the case in the accompaniments to Tina’s sea trout, it just lacked a certain something, and charring the lemon didn’t discernibly alter the citrus tone of the dressing. I feel slightly mean being picky, as the fish itself was so good, but the plate just needed an extra something, a further garnish or accompaniment to really make things work.
Guinness-based sponge and ice cream, that possibly needed more of the dark stuff.
And speaking of extra accompaniments, gluttony somewhat got the best of us, as we did slightly go to town on the available sides. Parmesan truffle fries were exactly as advertised, crisp lengths of simultaneously crisp and fluffy spud covered in umami-invoking melting cheese with just the right adornment of “walk in the autumn woods” truffleness. Buttered greens provided a vibrantly rich vegetable side, nicely augmented by a squeeze of lemon and crunch provided by toasted pine nuts. The mac and cheese was fine, but maybe needed a bit more of a cheese punch in the sauce bathing the pasta. Unfortunately, whilst it was smooth and creamy the smoked garlic mash exhibited little evidence of either smokiness or garlic, and calling it tepid would be generous. Another wee unnecessary niggle that shouldn’t come to light in an establishment that bills itself as a high end gastro pub/bistro.
Pudding was a slightly rushed affair, as it took a while to appear, we had a gig to get to, and the restaurant needed the table vacated by half seven. To be fair, the lovely front of house staff did shoogle subsequent reservations around to accommodate our slightly overstaying our welcome, and again provided a cabaret whilst they tried to relight the not-so-living flames of the gas fire once again. JML’s selection of semifreddo was a hit by all accounts, and somewhat unusually presented as wedges rather than scoops.
Semifreddo a go-go,
Tina’s selection of cheeses were initially a bit of a magical mystery tour – nicely presented, but without any explanation as to what was on the board until some gentle prompting of our server revealed what exactly the selection consisted of. And it also transpired that the accompanying oatcakes contained wheat, despite the venue being forewarned that one of our party was gluten intolerant. Some rapid scrambling replaced these with gluten free bread, but that’s not the point. The Comté was delicious, though.
My Guinness-infused sponge pudding with a Guinness ice cream looked delicious, topped with a piping of toasted Italian meringue and served with a fruit coulis. It tasted nice enough, but the flavour was more akin to that of a cup of malty Ovaltine than the smoky-bitter bite usually associated with Ireland’s favourite stout. This was a shame because visually the dish promised so much, only to not quite deliver the anticipated hit on the palette.
And before concluding, I should mention that if our starting cocktails were excellent, so too was the bottle – OK, two bottles, but it was a celebration – of Rioja that accompanied our meal. The Finnieston certainly does run a flaming good bar and cellar. It’s therefore a shame that the kitchen just fell a wee bit short of the mark on the occasion of this visit. I would certainly return on a future trip to Glasgow however, as even if the restaurant’s hearths temperamentally sometimes fall cold, I think with just a little more spark, this is an eatery that could really be ‘cooking on gas’.
Food – 7/10
Service – 7.5/10
Value – 7/10
Ambience – expect a pleasant bar/bistro, specialising in seafood, and serving pretty decent gastro-pub fare.
“Saboteur’s menu features a pretty extensive list of plates and bowls, to the point that despite dining at the venue twice already, JML and I are still to sample the bao buns and salads. Yet that provides an excuse for a further visit soon, as what we did consume was really delicious.”
Pho hai san – fish is definitely the dish.
Big Brother is watching… fab food.
It would appear I am sat in a school gym hall, albeit one dressed by one of New York’s or Berlin’s leading interior designers. It must be exam time, because the stripped wooden floor is filled with neat rows of simple desks and chairs. Although I suspect exams are just over and the school disco about to begin, as a sound system has been installed next to the climbing bars cladding the walls, which is pumping out ‘cool as’ funk and hip-hop tunes. I stare at an enormous picture of a man’s face on the wall opposite me. And like Winston Smith in the closing chapter of George Orwell’s 1984 I am in love. But not with Big Brother. For I have fallen for the food served by the restaurant I am currently occupying. As what other explanation could there be for my visiting Edinburgh’s Saboteurtwice in one week?
Nestling just a few doors down on Teviot Place from its immensely popular sister bar and restaurant, Ting Thai Caravan, Saboteur is a brand new venue – but only a couple of months old – that also focuses on Southeast Asian cuisine. Yet in this case the menu predominantly celebrates the delights of Vietnamese, as opposed to Thai, cooking and street food. Having last year stayed with friends in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, which has a significant Vietnamese community, JML and I had a fantastic introduction to Vietnamese dining there so were intrigued to see how this new kid on the Edinburgh culinary block measured up. The answer to that particular conundrum is “very well indeed.”
Ca O tastiness.
Both times we ate at Saboteur it was early evening, so we were presented with the “sun up” menu, which is available from 11:00-18:00hrs. This consists of a range of dishes grouped by ingredients / cooking style, in the form of: rice noodles; curry and stir fries; bao buns; and salads, as well accompanying small boxes and side dishes, some of which can also be chosen as starters. It’s a pretty extensive list of plates and bowls, to the point that despite dining at the venue twice already, JML and I are still to sample the bao buns and salads. Yet that provides an excuse for a further visit soon, as what we did consume was really delicious.
Dishes appear to be cooked to order by Saboteur’s kitchen, as they quickly arrive thick and fast with starters being promptly followed by mains, making for a banquet-style experience. Ga sa te – a Vietnamese form of Indonesian satay – came contained in a what can only be described as a brown cardboard coffin, but be not deterred as the contents were in no way funeral, consisting of succulent skewered strips of chicken accompanied by peanut and ajard (a combination of sweet/sour/spicy) sauce. Simple ingredients brought together to form a great compliment of flavours. Ca O is a dish that also arrives in a cardboard box, this time encasing soft balls of grilled fish flesh, dressed in a sauce comprised of tomato, tamarind, coriander, and chilli, which really sets off the tasty seafood with subtle heat married with fruity-sourness and clean, grassy-freshness. Really delicious.
Ca’phi le – sea bass as fresh as a spicy daisy!
“Unboxed” small/side dishes were just as good. Banh xeo – a generously crispy rice ‘crepe’ – was bursting with chicken coated in an earthy turmeric batter nicely complimented by crunchy bean sprouts and spicy sriracha sauce. A perfectly prepared, soft roti – which I had always thought was a flatbread more typical of India and Malaysia – was made even more delicious by a moreish peanut dipping sauce. Khao mok was a bit of revelation. Much as I like jasmine rice, this was a sumptuous Vietnamese/Thai take on a biryani, yellow with turmeric and laced with spices including cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon and richly infused with coconut milk. Mouth watering yet? Wait until I turn my attention to the mains…
A crepe, but not as we know it – and all the better for that.
Southeast Asian cuisine regularly features seafood as an ingredient, and Saboteur certainly does not shy away from this, I am delighted to say. Pho hai san transpired to be a hearty bowl of rice noodle- adorned broth, combined with tasty prawns, squid, and fish-balls, augmented with vegetables and infused with a sweet-spicy-tangy sauce known as yen ta fo, which also gives the pho a subtle pink colour. This was a bowl as freshly flavoured as it was filling. Ca’phi le had at its centre a beautifully fried fillet of sea bass accompanied by a fabulous fusion of sweet pineapple, sour tamarind paste, spicy chilli, fruity tomato, fragrant Thai basil, all steeped in a tangy dressing that combined umami-laden fish sauce with malty palm sugar. Smashingly fragrant cooking that hit every taste bud.
Cari rang voi mang – if you think it LOOKS tasty, get your chopsticks in.
Committed carnivores will not be disappointed by main dishes, either. Order thit lon ham and what arrives is a steaming bowl of sweet-savoury stock/soy sauce-based broth that laps around fantastically tender chunks of pork belly and crisply-fried oblongs of marinated tofu, contrasted by slices of pak choi. Cari rang voi mang hinted at the cuisine of Vietnam’s Thai neighbour in the form a luxuriantly rich and beautifully flavoursome red curry sauce, which imparted the tastes of chilli, coconut and lime to delicious portions of beef and vegetables.
“So we just say to the headmaster, the barrels are Irn Bru in bulk, yeh?”
Saboteur‘s cheerfully youthful staff don’t just efficiently furnish diners with fabulously tasty food however. There are some delicious drinks to be had too, not only Vietnamese juices and iced teas, but some really decent craft beers, such as Yeastie Boys’ Big Mouth IPA, and Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss Gooseberry Beer. Contemporary sups that are full of character. And ‘characterful’ is probably a perfect adjective to describe this wee gem of an eatery.
The taste of the food really stimulates the senses, finding enticingly fresh ways to explore the spicy, sweet, salty, sour, umami flavour balance that typifies southern oriental cuisine, yet in a form that might be welcomingly unfamiliar. Considerable thought has gone into the dining space, meaning it is trendily welcoming without being overbearing. Given the excellent quality and generous portions of the dishes, Saboteur offers incredibly good value, too. Overall, an utterly super place for a meal.
To quote 1984 once more, this place is really double-plus-good!
Food – 8/10
Atmosphere – 7.5/10
Service – 7.5/10
Value – 8.5/10
Ambience – expect a buzzy, yet laid back, contemporary restaurant and bar.
The week following the final weekend of the Edinburgh festivals always has that air of the party being over, the carnival having shipped out, and summer most definitely coming to an end. How nice then to receive a text message from JML enquiring if I wish to be treated to an early, post work dinner.
A perfect antidote to Edinburgh’s annual festival hangover, when the chorus of a month of music and laughter is replaced by the rumble of tumbleweed gambolling down George Street, the thump of brick-sized bank statements landing on doormats, and the occasional, distant popping that signifies someone else’s liver finally exploding.
But where to dine to banish our post-celebratory blues? Our first choice – I will keep my powder dry on this for a later review – was catering a private party, so no luck. El Cartel, round the corner from JML’s office, was full to bursting. “Côte is also round the corner from your office” I say. “You do realise it’s part of a chain?” says JML? Well sometimes restaurant chains can get things spot on, as a recent visit to Dishoom revealed…
Poached egg on a salad – yes please!
First impressions the restaurant are those of a stylishly, yet subtly decked-out brassiere; subtle grey walls, polished oak floors, marbled-topped tables. In fact a fair bit more high-end than might have been expected from a chain. Our friendly server had no trouble seating us – this being midweek after the Edinburgh festivals there were only a smattering of fellow diners in the surprisingly expansive space, we immediately treated ourselves to wee appetisers. A lovely Kir Royale and superbly flavoursome French cider were sipped whilst perusing the menus.
I say ‘menus’ because as well as an a la carte, Côte also offers a lunch and early evening menu which represents excellent value at £10.95 for two courses / £12.95 for three. And as we were dining at the start of the evening it was this menu we chose from. On offer was a decent range of French and Mediterranean inspired dishes, all of which sounded pretty inviting, so much so we changed our minds several times before finally ordering.
Cod croquettes with roast pepper sauce.
Often, it is the seemingly most uncomplicated, straightforward dishes that can reveal how decent a kitchen is. My starter of frisée aux lardons was a case in point. A simple salad of endive, with crisped chunks of pancetta, topped off with a perfectly poached egg, this was a really nicely put together dish, although the dressing might have benefited from a smidgeon more of the promised mustard, but that’s probably just my taste. JML went a wee bit Latin for his opener, choosing a Spanish-inspired dish in the form of salt cod croquettes. Another apparently uncomplicated dish that can be very easy to get wrong, Côte‘s offering was really tasty, featuring lozenges that were crisp on the outside yet satisfyingly moist on the bite thanks to smooth potato – as opposed to béchamel – filling, with the rich flavour of the bacalao being intense but not over domineering. The accompanying roast pepper aioli also complimented the dish very nicely.
Grilled chicken with potato dauphinoise.
Steak and chips. I’m sorry UK, you might think it’s a key dish in our national culinary repertoire, yet with a few exceptions the French and Belgians do it so much better. So how would this French-inspired restaurant’s take on this classic fare? Very well indeed, according to my dining partner, as he tucked into a lovely medium rare piece of beef, soused in garlic butter and perfectly complemented by beautifully crisp frites. Personally, I fancied being a bit rustically Gallic in my choice of main, so poulet grille certainly seemed to fit the bill. Now usually I prefer chicken thigh to breast, as I find the latter can be a bit dry and tough. However, this certainly wasn’t the case for the chargrilled breast at the centre of this dish. Perfectly seasoned and coated with herbs, it was succulent and tasty. Adorned with a veal and thyme jus, and accompanied by peppery watercress and beautifully creamy gratin potatoes, it certainly appeared that I had made a good choice of main.
Chocolate fondant and ice cream.
Based on our experience of our first two courses, Côte’s offering certainly seemed pretty decent, but could they deliver on the puddings? Well yes and no. JML’s dark chocolate pot turned out to be decent stab at a warm chocolate fondant, richly dark and oozing an unctuous liquid cocoa centre. However, my experience of the sweet course was much less favourable. My first choice of crème caramel was apologetically identified as being unavailable, which was surprising given that the restaurant bills this as its signature pud, and it was very early on in the evening. My alternate ‘crumble aux pêches’ was so-so. The crumble was certainly crunchy and rich with butter, but what lay beneath it was more akin to the filling of a Mr Kippling apple pie in texture, and certainly wasn’t packed with peach flavour. This, and the lack of crème caramel made me wonder if, like a number of other restaurant chains, Côte ships in desserts that are pre-prepared off premises.
Peach crumble – or was it?
All things considered, our dining experience at this restaurant made for a suitably pleasant evening. Accompanied by a pretty decent bottle of Viognier, the food was generally well presented and flavoursome – with the possible exception of my crumble – and nicely served in an inviting venue. For the price, it really was difficult to crumble. So if you are seeking a pick-me-up to mark the changing of the seasons, or cheer up a dull midweek moment, sometimes it pay not to dismiss a restaurant just because it happens to be a chain, and certainly not Côte.
Ambience – Expect a trendily relaxed bistro/brasserie.
Henderson’s Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review – “Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such ‘vital’ ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter?”
Hello. My name is Chris. I, I recently went out for an entirely vegan meal. And… erm… I very much enjoyed it. There, I’ve admitted it! You’re possibly wondering how someone who purports to love dining, and writing about the experience, could seemingly be so jokingly reticent about a dinner that happens to feature no animal-derived produce? I shall try to explain.
Back in my youth I was vegetarian for several years and, because of an inaccurate assessment that I might have an intolerance to dairy products, vegan for several months. This was a time when the range of vegan ingredients, and recipes that guided how best to utilise what was available, seemed much more limited than today. And consequently, I did struggle with a vegan diet.
Fast forward to the present, and the currently vogueish movement described as ‘clean eating’ has gained substantial interest, as well as some not insignificant criticism. And whilst not exclusively focused on veganism, the diet does feature in several books and websites that enthusiastically promote the eating of ‘clean’ food.
However, all this being said, when JML and I arranged to dine with a couple of friends, one of whom is a vegan, Henderson’s Vegan Restaurant, on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, seemed like the obvious choice. Yet still little doubts crept into my mind. Would the food be sufficiently appetising? Might the venue be a veritable temple where beautiful types who wished to eat themselves ‘clean’ came to worship? I need not have been concerned on either count.
Tasty cauliflower ‘steaks’ with mushroom & pepper sauce.
Formerly a bistro forming part of the larger Henderson’s warren-like restaurant/deli/takeaway premises, this particular part of the establishment has been exclusively vegan since 2015. Walking through the door, ‘veganist’ preconception number one was immediately shattered, as the cosy restaurant displayed no trace of being perfumed by incense, scattered with organic bean bags, or sound tracked by whale song. Instead, we were greeted by a casually-trendy, Scandi-Scottish space featuring Nordic-inspired furniture, funky tweed-upholstered banquets, and ‘crazy-paving’ parquet.
So, the restaurant may have achieved a big tick for style, but might that be concealing a menu that was as dull as the vegan cooking of my student days? I shall let what we were served answer that particular clichéd, veganist question. JML and our friend JW both started with the soup of the day, which happened to be roast red pepper and butternut squash, accompanied by sourdough bread. Rich, smooth and hearty this was really flavoursome, with the sweetness of the roast veg being highlighted by the addition of an earthy hint derived from delicate spices. The sourdough was very good too, whether baked on the premises or bought in.
Tasty haggis – meat free.
As our dining conversation centred on music, I shall refer to the fourth member of our group as Siouxsie, who began with a dish of oblongs of crispy grilled polenta – nicely seasoned and possibly enhanced with a pinch of paprika – accompanied by a generous serving of garlic-tastic tofu aioli, which was as creamy and flavoursome as any equivalent made from non-vegan ingredients. If the soup and polenta were good, I think the real star of our entrées was my freekeh (a cracked and roasted young green wheat for those not in the know) salad, with kale, butternut squash, pear, grapes, and almond flakes, all doused in a cumin-maple dressing. This dish – which Siouxsie also chose as bathtub-sized main – was a superb take on the Middle Eastern culinary art of contrasting sweet, savoury, and multitudinous textures. I would gladly make a return visit for this dish alone.
So we were clearly off to a very promising start with – appropriately enough – our starters, but would our meat-free mains be equally impressive? JW and JML were again in synchrony with their choice of haggis and root mash with red wine gravy and chantenay carrots. This was a dish that both looked and tasted terrific. Rather than using some non-descript vegetable protein that tried to be a facsimile of flesh, the haggis was pulse-based, which gave it a pleasant texture whilst still retaining the spicy flavour base to be found in ‘normal’ haggis, and it was an approach that really worked. The root mash combined with a deeply flavoursome wine-based sauce were the perfect accompaniments to the haggis, with the sweet carrots providing further, tasteful gilding.
Siouxsie agreed with my assessment that the ‘freaky’ salad was just as delicious served as a main, even if her portion could have easily fed a small family. My choice of principal dish may have subconsciously resulted from the only overt mention of something meaty on the menu. The cauliflower ‘steaks’ – though in no way carnivorous – were delicious, consisting of a couple of slabs of perfectly roast brassica that were further enhanced through subtle addition of spice, either cumin or fennel in this case. Accompanied by a mushroom and peppercorn sauce that was so tastily creamy it was hard to believe there was no dairy involved in its production, and freshly pickled red cabbage, which provided a lovely fresh acidity, this was a great dish.
Avocado and lime ‘cheese’ cake – who’d have thought?
Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such ‘vital’ ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter? Well that would be another veganist cliché busted, as the three sweets we ordered proved this certainly was not the case. Chocolate nut cake – as the name might suggest – was moist, nutty and packed a cocoa-laden punch, made all the more lovely by the accompanying vanilla ice ‘cream’ (which I assume might have been soya based). The caramel slice had a nicely crisp – possibly oatie – base, topped by a gooey wedge of toffee-flavoured fondant. Possibly a wee bit denser than a ‘school-dinner classic’ version, but not diminished by that fact at all. Avocado and lime ‘cheese’ cake was a revelation. Silky smooth, but again with an oatie base crunch, the balance of spiky lime and the grassy creaminess of the avocado was as satisfyingly rich as any traditional cheesecake I have encountered, and nicely complemented by a tangy fruit coulis.
Finishing our meal by supping some excellent espressos, we mulled over how enjoyable our food had been, as well as the very palatable glasses of Rioja, and excellent organic cider and perry we had variously chosen to accompany our meal. And mention was also made of the friendly and efficient service, too.
I must confess that in places this review has pandered to stereotypes on what it means to eat vegan. Purposely so. All too often, those of us who choose to eat animals or their products view those who don’t with ignorant curiosity, dismissiveness, or a mixture of both. Yet the politics behind abstaining from consuming animals – in whatever form – cannot be ignored. At the very least there must be an acceptance that, with a changing global climate, and an ever-expanding global population, deriving nutrition substantially from animal sources is utterly unsustainable. Those eating vegan are usually more than aware of this. Maybe it’s time those of us who aren’t vegan put aside our prejudices, and gave such issues more consideration.
Whatever the politics, judging by our experience, a vegan meal at Henderson’s is as memorable as it is delicious. The place most definitely holds its own amongst non-vegan equivalents. So much so that I hope to be a regular visitor.
Henrick’s Edinburgh: ginger glazed pork belly – no crackling…
Henrick’s, Edinburgh review – “My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with ‘rustic’ oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse.”
I’ve often maintained that eating is as much a cultural experience as it is about sustenance. After all, few things can be as social as sharing a meal with friends or family. Likewise, a particular regional, or national cuisine can be highly representative of the culture from whence it originates. Given the cultural resonance of food, it’s probably unsurprising then that JML and I quite often like to combine going out for a meal with a visit to a comedy show, the cinema, or the theatre.
This was recently the case when we decided to travel across town to take in Anita and Me at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre. If only JML had realised the production wasn’t in fact a play but a musical before he booked the tickets. Somewhat surprisingly, he can’t abide musicals…
So, before taking our seats in the stalls, we decided to also take in an early dinner. Now there is no shortage of eateries in the Tollcross / Bruntsfield districts of Edinburgh – quite the reverse in fact – but having read a favourable write up in the press, JML suggested we try Henrick’s Bar and Bistro, not least because it was a couple of minutes’ walk from the venue, and therefore well used to catering for the pre-theatre dining crowd. With recollections of having had a decent meal there years ago, I agreed this seemed like a good call.
Occupying double fronted premises on the ground floor of a Victorian tenement, the interior of Henrick’s is quite architecturally impressive, sporting high, corniced ceilings, a handsomely imposing bar, and dark, wood-panelled walls. All nicely balanced by neutral paint shades, complimentary dark leather furniture, and stripped wooden floors. Welcomingly alluring. “But enough with the World of Interiors, what’s the scran and swallie like?”, I hear you ask.
Tasty broccoli and goats’ cheese tart.
Now, whilst the venue offers a two-course pre-theatre menu – pretty good value at £12.50 – we decided to go for the new, Spring al a carte option. First course arrived in quick time, just after bottles of sparkling water and very quaffable Rioja found their way to our table. I was sorely tempted by the goats’ cheese tart, but was pipped to that post by JML. It transpired to be a solid choice, with the (just) crisp pastry base being filled with an appealing combination of greenery in the form of tender broccoli and spring onion, and a richly flavoured caramelised onion and chilli jam. The fresh, yet savoury, goat’s cheese that wasn’t too overpowering, and the dish came dressed with a pleasant Balsamic glaze. A decent curtain-up effort.
My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with ‘rustic’ oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse. Plus, fine as the oatcakes were – and I stand to be corrected here – they seemed to be more mass-produced than rustic. And I am not sure that the limp rocket garnish brought much to the dish.
Peppered mackerel mousse.
Now much as I love hake – pan fried with an oriental twist on Henrick’s Spring menu – I adore pork belly in equal measure. There is something utterly irresistible about a slab of slow cooked porcine loveliness, all crisp on top and meltingly unctuous beneath. So I was salivating with anticipation at the arrival of a main course of slow cooked pork belly in a ginger glaze. Did my eager anticipation turn out to be well placed?
The accompanying mashed potato was smooth-ish and creamy, and the spring greens – though I don’t think mange tout is locally seasonal – were cooked just to point with a nice basting of salty soy sauce. The pork belly was “fine”, to coin an adjective again. The meat was tender enough but, where there should have been a layer of crackling, there was no crispness present whatsoever. The sticky ginger glaze, whilst flavoursome, was maybe a little too sweet and lacking in astringency to properly balance the richness of the meat. Rightly or wrongly, memories of my father’s pressure-cooked pork belly in Homepride Cook-in-Sauce sprang to mind – Dad, if you’re reading this, it was pretty cutting edge for 1976, honest…
Always one for a nice steak, JML struck lucky when he spied an 8oz fillet of prime Scottish beef on the menu. “Cooked to your preference” – which in JML’s case is medium rare. A suitably enticing-looking slab of meat was served, together with nicely crispy/fluffy chips, juicy roast tomatoes, and a creamily rich sauce laden with citrusy-spicy pink peppercorns. It scored a tick as decent pub grub, except for the fact that the steak wasn’t quite as JML preferred. It was much more medium than medium rare.
To draw the review of our pre-theatre dining to a close, I’d love to tell you about our pudding choices of JML’s chocolate brownie and – one of my particular favourites – rhubarb and apple crumble. Alas, this isn’t possible. Despite the fact we ordered our desserts 35 minutes before curtain up, we had to leave empty mouthed after half an hour, or risk missing the start of the first act. To be fair our splendid glasses of tawny Port did arrive promptly, and the very amenable front of house staff were effusively apologetic and knocked the puds off the bill as soon as we said we needed to pay.
Nice fillet steak – more medium than m-rare.
So, to draw on the theatrical theme, the plot summary for Henrick’s: Despite the flash bar, its more cosy than cutting edge. It’s a venue that is obviously popular – by 6.45pm on a Friday every cover was taken, which is maybe why the kitchen had a bit of a (lack of) pudding moment to itself. It serves decent enough pub grub, though by our experience I think the inclusion of “bistro” in its title might be pushing it a wee bit. And whilst I recognise that every restaurant can have a bit of an off night, if one of your key customer bases is the pre-theatre crowd, you must be able to get your – certainly not cooked to order from scratch – puds out to punters before the curtain goes up.
Food – 6.5/10 Atmosphere –7/10 Service – 6/10 (N.B. generally very good service, bar the missing puddings) Value – 7/10
Ambience – expect a pleasant bar/restaurant serving decent pub grub fare.
El Cartel, Edinburgh – Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
El Cartel, Edinburgh review – “Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order. So first up was Guacamole National. Now you are probably thinking ‘mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice’. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions. A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips.”
If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking. Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach. A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next. Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not…
I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer. A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I’m not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.
Fabulous frozen margarita.
It’s probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street. Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants – including Wahaca and Topolabamba – purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals – having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant – is Thistle Street’s El Cartel. Being only an (avocado) stone’s throw from JML’s work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel‘s “own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food”, so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.
I’m glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available. Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus. And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails. The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze…
Baja fish tacos.
This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it’s recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more. The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos – hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos – literally “little cravings” in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.
Delicious Drunken frijoles.
Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order and arrives when it’s ready. So first up was “Guacamole National”. Now you are probably thinking “mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice”. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions. A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips. Two pairs of tacos swooped onto the table next. “Baja cod” featured crisply battered fish fillets, sitting on top of a crunchy pomegranate infused salad, dressed with smoky/spicy chipotle-spiked creamy sauce, all encased in moist, soft taco shells that possessed the subtle piquancy of lime-soaked corn. Equally delicious were their beefy counterparts – “Carne Asada” the same lovely taco shells but this time surrounding flash-fried, succulent strips of flat iron steak (an underused cut in my opinion) combined with a complimentary mix of chunks of avocado and roast cherry tomato, given a real kick by subtly fiery salsa featuring arbol chilies. Literally mouth watering.
Carne Asada – flat iron steak tacos.
Two sets of tacos dispatched it was time for some more antojitos. Mushroom quesadillas – as the name suggests – comprised three crisp-toasted tortillas which were stuffed with savoury fungi and cheese, accompanied by spinach, pecan nuts and crema (a sort of Mexican crème fraîche). A really smashing Central-American take on a cheese toasty that balanced contrasting flavours and textures very well. El Cartel‘s frijoles were of the “drunken” variety – frijoles borrachos in Spanish – where beer enhances the flavour of stewed and then mashed pinto and kidney beans. Topped with grilled cheese and served with more plantain chips, this was a bowl of rich, earthy, umami flavours.
Marvellous mushroom quesadillas.
Five plates in, JML and I were beginning to feel pretty sated, yet I am glad to say we still had room to share a final pair of tacos, because they were a bit of a show stopper. The ” Al Pastor” sounded simple enough – marinated pork shoulder, seared pineapple, white onion and coriander, again bounded by a soft tortilla shell. But it was a taco the flavour of which was considerably more intense that the list of ingredients suggested, with succulent, spice-infused, slow cooked pork being perfectly complimented by the charred-acid bite of the grilled pineapple, and the onion and coriander adding subtle background taste accents. A very splendid taco indeed. Washed down with another Margarita for JML, and a darkly coffee-nutty-hoppy Day of the Dead porter for me, it was a really enjoyable dining experience.
I hope one day to visit Mexico in person. But until I get the opportunity I would wager that a trip to El Cartel is about as close my taste buds can get to experiencing the authentic flavours of Mexican street food. The menu feels fresh and is certainly packed with flavour. And the vibe of the place is just the right side of laid-back trendiness, as opposed to touristic Mexicana – I didn’t spot a single sombrero, and A Tribe Called Quest, as opposed to Mariachi disco classics, drifted from the sound system. So if you fancy a gastronomic snap-shot tour of Central American cuisine, whilst still not setting foot outside central Edinburgh, El Cartel is probably right up your street!
Food – 8/10 Atmosphere – 7.5/10 Service – 8/10 Value – 7.5/10
Ambience – expect a welcoming, relaxed, yet bustling restaurant/bar.
Dishoom Edinburgh – 5 minutes before being totally full.
Dishoom, Edinburgh review – “Not dissimilar to dining at a decent tapas restaurant our dishes came thick and fast, as opposed to entrees followed by mains. My central dish of chicken ‘Ruby Murray’ – love the wink to Cockney rhyming slang possibly referencing Dishoom’s London origins – was an absolute belter…”
Excitedly getting ready to see one of the groups that provided the soundtrack to my youth – in the form of the always inventive and enduring Pet Shop Boys – play live in Edinburgh the other day got me thinking about cooking and eating. Bear with me on this one! As for me, food and music have a lot in common. My tastes are really quite broad and varied with regard to both – I’m not a huge fan of ‘death metal’ however, either as a musical genre or a cuisine.I’m always looking out for something new and interesting in terms of a dish, tune, restaurant or artist. But I also regularly hanker after the familiar, be it in terms of food or music, although it’s always refreshing to encounter an updated take on an old favourite from my younger days.
Vada Pau – spicy chip butty, anyone?
How appropriate then that prior to trotting off to see the PSBs lift the roof on the Edinburgh Playhouse, JML, our friend Tina, and I chose to dine at a relatively new kid on the city’s culinary block in the form of Dishoom.Appropriate, because as someone born and raised in the environs of Birmingham, Indian – or more accurately, Punjabi, Pakistani and Bangladeshi – cuisine was something my younger self was delighted to be constantly familiar with. Yet, like a stunning remix of a favourite tune, Dishoom brings a new perspective on the food of the subcontinent, a world away from the Balti houses of my formative years.
Apparently taking its name from a Hindi term referring to the noise made by a ricocheting bullet or landing punch in Bollywood action films – think “kerpow” in the original 60s Batman TV series – Dishoom is majorly inspired by Bombay’s (Mumbai’s) Irani cafés.These were opened by Zoroastrian devotees emigrating from Persia (modern day Iran) from 19th Century onwards.Now dwindling in number, such venues are about all-day dining, where the well-to-do and those not quite so financially fortunate all rub shoulders together, and food that draws influence from the middle-east and across India arrives fast and fulsome.
Chilli cheese toast – sort of Indian rarebit.
The Edinburgh branch of Dishoom(there are already four, highly regarded, sister venues in central and east London) threw open its doors in the redeveloped southern edge of St Andrew’s Square at the end of 2016, and has already had folk, quite literally, queuing out the door as reservations are only taken for parties of six or more. The venue is spread over three floors of a stylish, Victorian former office building, and consists of a buzzing, speakeasy-esque cocktail bar and dining area in the basement, a modest reception area and truly enormous open kitchen at ground level, with stairs to rival Jacob’s Ladder leading to the colonial-inspired main dining area above.Taken in the round, it exhibits all the credentials of a well put together and welcoming dining and supping venue.
Also equally welcoming are Dishoom’s servers, who are only too happy to talk the unfamiliar through the pretty extensive menu. Depending on the time of day, this focuses on: breakfast dishes such as tomato, onion, chilli and coriander “Bombay” omelette with “Fire Toast”, or maybe a bacon or sausage naan roll; small plates or salads – such as the enticing paneer and mango – ideal for lunch or dinner, if two or three plates are combined; and larger grilled dishes and biryanis for those who crave something more substantial. Add to this an inviting range of rice, Southern-Asian breads, and vegetable sides and there is certainly something to cater for all tastes, including those with particular dietary requirements – our friend Tina was particularly grateful that there is a dedicated menu that identifies everything that is gluten free.
To be honest, so inviting is Dishoom’s menu I was a wee bit concerned we might have over-ordered for a pre-concert early dinner, with each of us going for a more substantial dish but agreeing to share a plethora small plates between us. This is a rare occurrence for JML, a chap for whom attempts at “sharing” platters usually results in a fork in the back of one’s hand.
Chicken Ruby Murray and kachumber.
Not dissimilar to dining at a decent tapas restaurant our dishes came thick and fast, as opposed to entrees followed by mains. My central dish of chicken “Ruby Murray” – love the wink to Cockney rhyming slang possibly referencing Dishoom’s London origins – was an absolute belter; beautifully cooked poultry in an earthily-spiced sauce that also encapsulated a lovely chilli warmth and rich makhani buttery-ness . Tina’s chicken tikka was atypical in the best possible way, thanks to a marinade based on sweet vinegar, as opposed to yoghurt, and which also encompassed ginger, garlic, turmeric and chilli to produce a superb balance of flavours.JML’s Awadhi lamb biryani was sumptuously aromatic perfectly matching unctuous slow cooked lamb and spice infused rice.Amongst the best he has tasted, apparently.
If larger dishes were towards the “superb” end of catering, the plates we decided to share were also really quite impressive. I’ve never really thought of cheese on toast or a chip butty as being particularly typical of Indian food.Well think again food blog boy, as chilli cheese toast provided a splendid, spiced hit of fromage on a crisp slice of bloomer, whilst “vada pau” – sautéed potato enhanced by the addition of authentic “Ghati” masala spice mix and sandwiched on a buttered pau bun was as irresistible as an offering from a really great chippie, but with even more flavoursome whistles and bells.Masala prawns were delightful in their simplicity, subtly spiced and char grilled to ensure maximum smoky succulence.Dishoomslaw provided a tasty eastern slant on this staple accompaniment with crisp, sliced cabbage tossed in a mild, yet punchy, curried mayonnaise and then bejewelled with tangy-sweet pomegranate seeds.
Dishoom slaw & masala prawns.
In an effort to boost our five a day, ‘a bowl of greens’ – spinach, sugar snaps and broccoli, cooked to point and tumbled in lime juice, chilli and a hint of – I think – cumin made being healthy, well tasty.As did the deceptively straightforward kachumber – a simply delicious salad of sweet red onion, cool cucumber and ripe tomato, again enhanced with lime and subtle spice.I know I mention “spice” a lot in this review, and I’m not merely referring to chilli.Each dish was a bit like opening presents at Christmas – ooh, a trace of cumin and coriander there; ah, cardamom and a hint of methi there.Combined with really good ingredients, I just wanted to go from bowl, to plate to bowl.And I haven’t even mentioned the smashing glasses of Dishoom IPA and rich, fruity Rioja that we quaffed with our feast.
To be quite frank, it’s hard to find fault with the Dishoom experience. The food is fresh, flavoursome and well prepared, the service is top notch without being imposing, the surroundings akin to an Edwardian Bombay gentleman’s club where you are still welcomed even if sporting jeans and trainers.A bit like seeing a much-loved band whose dazzling show makes you view the familiar in a totally new light, Dishoom is Indian food, but not as you know it. “Kerpow” indeed!
Food – 8/10 Atmosphere – 8/10 Service – 8/10 Value – 8/10
Ambience – expect a buzzing restaurant/bar with a welcoming and relaxed vibe.
I love new things. I am probably what marketing people would refer to as an “early adopter”; the sort of person who laps up the latest technology, queueing to be first to purchase a “just released” gadget. Well, I would be, were it not for the fact that sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice that’s available these days. Plus, I actually like to wait a wee while to see how a new arrival beds in, before I will give it a try.
This approach often applies to my choice of restaurants, as much as technology. Which probably explains why I hadn’t got round to dining at Gusto, despite the Edinburgh branch of this chain of Italian restaurants being open for a few years now. However, last week I was invited by a friend of a friend – who happens to be part of Gusto Edinburgh’s management team – to sample their new spring and summer menu. Try something new? Yes please!
Tasty asparagus with a Caesar sauce.
Pass through Gusto‘s, somewhat unassuming, George Street frontage and you enter a large, stylish dining space which is simply and tastefully decorated in black and white. Forgoing faux-rustic Italian adornments, the restaurant is decked with banks of arty monochrome photographs, stylish lighting, and furniture that has a timeless, classic-design feel. It’s a look that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy Milanese eatery.
Seated in a comfy semi-circular booth towards the open kitchen (always a good sign if it’s possible to see one’s food being prepared) JML and I were offered an aperitif whilst we browsed the – very extensive – menu. A kir royale and a basilico (a cocktail mixing gold rum and apricot liqueur with amaretto, lemon and fresh basil) really hit the spot. So too did the tasty, warm focaccia and marinated olives that accompanied our drinks.
Now I’ve already mentioned that Gusto‘s menu is expansive, featuring antipasti, pasta and risotto, pizza, as well as Italian-inspired salads, and mains based around seafood and meat. So being there to try what was new for summer, we called on the help of our – very knowledgeable – server, who promptly directed us to over a dozen dishes.
Chicken perfection with summer veg & lemon butter.
Deliberations complete, we conveyed our food choices, and ordered a bottle of northern Italian Trebbiano/Chardonnay to accompany them. But we were both out of, and in, luck with the wine. A rotation of what was stocked in the cellar meant our first choice wasn’t currently available, yet an alternate, comparable crisp white was immediately suggested. Plainly, the front of house really knows its way round the menu and wine list. In fact, all the front of house staff we encountered – and our server, Emma, in particular – were really knowledgeable and engaging.
Our antipasti arrived promptly, and looked very appetising. It tasted just as good. JML’s asparagus and baby leaf salad with Caesar dressing featured half a dozen perfectly cooked spears adorned by a rich (but not heavy) sauce laden with savoury Parmesan and anchovy flavours, which was a perfect partner to the fresh grassiness of the asparagus. The accompanying chunky hearts of baby little gem lettuce, however, seemed a bit lost amongst the intense flavours provided by the other ingredients – maybe lightly braising them might have been the tweak they needed.
Luxurious lobster and prawn spaghetti.
I rarely order salmon when dining out, but was intrigued by the home cured salmon tatare and quail’s egg with crème fraiche and green gazpacho. It was an excellent choice. Served up was a sumptuous disk of finely chopped salmon, not only bursting with fish flavour, but also citrus and dill from the cure. Add to this the creaminess of the crème fraiche with the soft-centred egg, and the spring-fresh taste of the gazpacho, the overall combination proved to be a delightfully accomplished starter.
Seafood was also at the centre of JML’s main, in the form of a luxurious-sounding lobster and prawn spaghetti in tomato sauce. I wondered if the shellfish might be a bit overwhelmed by the rest of the ingredients, but this wasn’t the case at all. The pasta was fresh and really well cooked, the tomato sauce was light and well flavoured with a touch of chili and garlic, all of which allowed the sweet seafood flavours provided by the lobster and prawns to really shine through.The combination was simply clever and delicious.
“Gusto Bellini” – bravissimo!
My roast chicken breast with summer vegetables and a lemon butter was chosen for two reasons. Firstly, I really liked the sound of the summery flavours; and secondly, chicken breast can be a litmus test for the competence of a kitchen, as it can be very easy to over-cook. Well, Gusto‘s kitchen certainly passed the test with flying colours. The chicken had a lovely crisp skin and beautifully succulent flesh. The batons of vegetables it sat atop were tasty and cooked to slightly al dente, which I really liked. The lemon butter sauce was luxuriant and citrusy, without overwhelming the dish. Perfect summer flavours, especially when combined with the sweet-earthy-saltiness of my side of sautéed fagioli beans with pancetta and balsamic glaze.
I have to say that I wasn’t surprised when JML declared that, in terms of pudding, he was going to choose the chocolate mousse with salted caramel and cappuccino cream. Served in a cup to cleverly mimic a frothy coffee, this was lovely and rich, with deep chocolate being really well accented by the saltiness of the caramel and the creamy java hit. My Gusto Bellini was really a melding of both a sweet and a cocktail, consisting of peach and Prosecco jelly served in a champagne saucer and topped with a Prosecco foam. It was simultaneously light, fruity and fizzy; a really elegantly splendid way to conclude the meal.
Chocolate-caramel mousse disguised as a cappuccino.
So, having now test-driven Gusto‘s summer menu I suppose the question that is going begging is “would I return as a paying customer?” The answer to that is “most definitely.” I was impressed not only with what we sampled, but also the look of the other dishes as they flew from the kitchen to be served to the ladies who lunch, thirty-something couples, and groups of trendy young students that were our fellow diners.
I have eaten at another Italian-inspired restaurant on George Street, one that has “celebrity” associations and is a bit brassy and brash in emphasising its “Italian” credentials. Frankly, I was a somewhat underwhelmed by my whole experience there. By contrast, Gusto certainly hits the spot in terms of its stylishly-relaxed continental vibe, and serves a really well put together Italian menu that is reasonably priced for what is on offer. So, if you are seeking a Mediterranean-influenced meal that is “bravissimo” do consider giving Gusto a go.
Food 8/10 Drink 8/10 Service 8/10 Value 7.5/10
Ambience – Expect a stylish, yet relaxed Italian bistro.
For this review, we dined at the invitation of Gusto.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” so said Samuel Johnson. This is doubly true when it comes to food and drink. When I lived in London, half a lifetime ago, I was truly bowled over by the diversity of restaurants and food shops. The streets were not paved with gold; they were lined with dim-sum, shawarma, pie and liquor, and rice and peas. Since that time my culinary enthusiasm for the city has not diminished, as a recent trip to the Big Smoke bore testament.
A couple of weeks ago JML and I ventured “darn sarf” for a concert – the fabulous Alison Moyet, at the Royal Albert Hall, no less. Sneakily, I also engineered our trip to include a few dining and quaffing highlights. Well for the most part, but more of that to come. So what follows is an overview of some of the places we visited during our sojourn in London, together with details of what we enjoyed there.
As we were stopping a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall we decided to go for somewhere local and straightforward for an early dinner to proceed the concert. So “hoorah” for the internet for pointing us in the direction of the Builder’s Arms, a smashing hostelry nestling in the heart of Kensington. The pub occupies the corner of a Victorian block, and has been nicely renovated to maintain original features, whilst being decked out in the shabby chic interior design that appears to be de rigueur amongst UK boozers at the moment. It also features a charming wee terrace for alfresco socialising. Best of all, however, the place boasts a great range of beers and a pretty decent menu of pub grub. JML’s burger with skinny chips was delicious, and my cider & tarragon battered cod with skin-on chips, crushed peas and tartare sauce was really spot on. Oh, and the place has charming staff, which contrasts markedly with… The Gloucester Arms, which we chose for a post concert catch-up with friends, specifically because its website indicates it is open until midnight, Thursday to Saturday. Imagine our surprise then when, having literally just ordered our drinks, last orders was called at 11pm. The attitude of the pub’s staff – when we questioned this apparent licensing anomaly – ranged from that of disengaged indifference to bordering on the hostile. To be fair, our subsequent complaint to the pub’s owners – Taylor Walker – has resulted in a fulsome apology and compensation, but it will be a long time before I consider frequenting this establishment again.
A busy Borough Market.
Now, any foodie-influenced trip to London should have high on its itinerary a visit to Southwark’s Borough Market. As a fresh-faced marine biologist in the late 80’s, I had to sample the River Thames right next to this place, when it was still one of London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. Even then, it had a real charisma about it, nestling and bustling under the viaducts feeding London Bridge Station. Today, part of the market is still given over to wholesale operations, but this is supplemented by over 100 retail stalls that supply an amazing range of British and internationally-sourced produce. The provenance and quality, as well as the diversity, of what’s on offer is key to the success and popularity of the market. It’s a place so packed with culinary excellence that it compares with the likes of Barcelona’s world renowned Mercat de la Boqueria.
The, all too brief, Friday morning spent at Borough Market was a truly sensational experience, in every sense of the word. Bacon and sausage breakfast rolls cooked to order at Northfield Farm Kitchen, featuring superb produce from the adjacent butcher’s stall, were terrific. Likewise the deeply complex coffee we queued for with dozens of other eager punters at Monmouth. A cornucopia of Spanish ingredients that adorned Brindisa – as a lover of Iberian cuisine, I could have made off with most of the stall. The splendid fish and game beautifully displayed at, the aptly named, Furness Fish and Game. Jenga-esque stacks of olive and cheese bread sticks that adorned the Bread Ahead pitch. “Drunken” Italian cheeses, soaked in wine, as served by L’Ubriaco. I could go on, and on, and ON…
Ferocious fish at Borough Market.
After all our salivating in Borough, lunch needed to be equally special. It was. For a catch-up with a good friend we headed to nearby Bermondsey, to a restaurant owned by José Pizarro – a Spanish-born, London-based chef whose modern take on Spanish Cuisine I really admire. Pizarro possesses the sort of hip Hispanic vibe you might expect from an eatery in Bilboa, Barcelona or Mardrid, rather than one south of the Thames. With it’s stripped wood and brick interior, ornately tiled bar, and open, la plancha kitchen, it certainly looks the part and the food and drink are equally impressive.
Starters included: chicken pate flavoured with Pedro Ximénez – smooth, rich with a hint of sweetness; and a refreshingly simple – yet tastey – salad of spinach, black olives and pine nuts. Mains truly demonstrated how successfully Pizzaro can reconstruct some Spanish classics. Suquet de Pescadores (literally Catalan fishermen’s stew) featured a beautifully cooked fillet of hake, bathed in an broth combining complex tastes of seafood and safron, all adorned with succulent clams. The lamb cutlets, with apple compote and baby potatoes were fried to perfection, with the sweetness of the fruit providing a great complement to the meatiness of the chops. Add to this a bottle (or two) of crisp Spanish white wine, the sharing of a superb chocolate fondant for afters, and parting shots of raisiny Pedro Ximénez sherry and zippy espressos, and what was experienced was a very good lunch indeed.
Lucious lamb cutlets at Pizarro.
All too soon, it seemed our capital culinary adventure was drawing to a close. Yet not before availing ourselves of a splendid brunch prior to catching the train back to Edinburgh. Now those of you who travel regularly between Scotland and London will probably be aware that Kings Cross Station – and its surrounding environs – have experienced a significant change for the better during recent years. What used to be a somewhat seedy and rundown neighbourhood has been rejuvenated, resulting in some well-respected restaurants taking up residence. And so we trotted off to The Grain Store to break fast before travelling north.
Grain Store’s spicy shrimp omelette
Housed in an converted warehouse right next to Regent’s Canal, this is a cavernous restaurant where the boundaries between kitchen, bar and dining space all seem to merge, making for some great culinary theatre. Chef Bruno Loubet’s food has received some great reviews, so we were keen to sample his very appetising weekend brunch menu. I wasn’t surprised when JML honed in on the Croque Madame – it’s a favourite of his. The Grain Store‘s take on this French café classic certainly met with his approval, consisting of two chunky slices of artisan bread packed with ham and Gruyère, and topped with creamy béchamel and a freshly fried egg. My rolled omelette with a spicy shrimp filling consisted of a fluffy tube off lightly-cooked egg which concealed a filling of delicious seafood suspended in a chilli-laden red bean sauce. A truly tasty pick-me-up. It would have been rude to have left without trying a dessert, of course, so we both went for the “tart of the day” which happened to be pear and almond. It was nice enough – being accompanied by a dollop of intensely vanilla-laden ice cream – but could maybe have done with just a bit more of frangipane hit.
So happily weary – and probably several pounds heavier – we wound our way back to Edinburgh. I adore the city I now call home, but can’t wait for another chance to sample London’s foodie delights in the autumn, when we shall return to watch a performance by the musical goddess that is Kate Bush. Any suggestions for places at which we should eat and drink during our coming visit would gratefully received!
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