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The Guild of Foresters, Edinburgh review – gilt-edged pub grub

Pea and ham hough / hock soup.
Verdant pea and ham hough / hock soup.

Ah, Spring is here. A week of sunshine, warmth and al fresco supping and dining is cordially welcomed. With friends coming round for dinner at the weekend, surely it is time to fire up the barbecue? Except, just as I am reaching for the charcoal, early May regresses to early March, at least in terms of the weather. So with renovations at Scrumptious Scran Villas meaning there is currently no space to entertain indoors, it’s time for plan B.

Not that Portobello’s The Guild of Foresters could be in any way be described as being second rate.  Quite the reverse. Nestling at the more bohemian end of Portobello High Street, I have to confess I have been a regular visitor to this smashing bistro/bar since it transformed itself, some 12 months ago, from the traditional boozer that was The Foresters’ Arms.  And it has been quite a transformation…
Fresh bread, hummus, olives and olive oil with Balsamic.
Bread, olive, hummus, oil, Balsamic. Splendid!

Walls have been stripped back to bare stone and brick.  A couple of wood-burners have been installed to keep things cosy in winter; and in anticipation of when the sun actually does shine French doors now adorn the establishment’s front, and the walls of the yard to the rear are lined by a ring of beach huts.  So that’s a Scottish spring day fully covered! 

Altogether, it’s a very relaxed and inviting space.  But two things really prick my interest about “The Guild”.  In the comfy bar area of the venue, unsurprisingly enough, there is bar.  But this is a really great bar with a fantastic array of draft beers – I know of no other pub in Edinburgh that serves Granada’s Alhambra sublimely crisp lager on draft.  And in the bistro section there is an industrious open kitchen. And how I love to see my food being prepared whilst I sit, cutlery in hand, salivating.  As I have said before, it’s always a good sign if a venue is brave enough to sport an open kitchen, as any corner cutting or sloppy prep is sure to be noticed by the punters.
Tempura oysters with wild garlic mayo.
Tempura oysters with wild garlic mayo.

And talk of the kitchen brings me nicely on to the menu.  I think it would be a bit of an injustice to describe it as “pub grub”.  Certainly, there are some stalwarts on the a la carte, in the form of hamburger, fish and chips etc..  But it is the choice of ingredients and attention to detail that sets this fare a (seafront promenade) mile away from, say, that served by a pub chain with a meteorological and cutlery nomenclature (if you get me).  And do keep an eye out for the inventive dishes that pop up on the specials blackboard.

The specials, which form an expansive and ever changing part of the menu, predominated in my dining party’s choice of starters. My eye was caught by the tempura oysters accompanied by a wild garlic mayonnaise.  This was a delicious flavour combination, with moreish molluscan chunks encased in a light, crisp batter just begging to be dipped in the rich, but fresh, sauce.  I really liked it, but… There was something that sat slightly at odds with the texture combination – maybe it was the spongy firmness of the cooked oysters set against the outer crunch, but it’s a minor personal point.

Steak, chunky chips, onion rings, tomato, bearnaise.
Steak, chunky chips, onion rings, tomato, bearnaise.

Around the table, my companions were tucking into equally tasty morsels.  Back to basics, but skilfully put together was a half pint of unshelled prawns, fresh crusty bread, and paprika mayo.  The shellfish looked so good, I stole one – covertly dipped in the mayo it was delicious!  Equally stripped down, but also very tasty, was the combination of a selection of fresh breads, homemade hummus, olives, and very good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Very appetising.  Yet possibly the standout starter was something that, on the face of it, sounds quite modest – the soup of the day.  The bowl of  emerald-hued deliciousness that arrived at the table consisted of fresh pea and ham hough broth which was full of verdant flavours, rippled with salty pork meatiness.

Braided pork cheeks, gravy, chive mash, beans.
Oinkingly good braised pig cheeks.

If our opening courses were all about variety, mains were a carnivorous binary split.  After taking a fair chunk of time to peruse the menu, JML’s and my dining companions each settled on a lovely chunk of beef. 35 day aged ribeye, paired with rustic chips, onion rings, roast tomato, and a smattering of salad, all accompanied by a béarnaise sauce.  There really shouldn’t be much more to say other than this was splendidly well put together pub food.  Actually, it was much more than “just” pub food.  One of my fellow diners – Kathrin – has a job that means she travels the world, and she has eaten a fair few steaks in countries renowned for their beef.  Her reaction said how good this offering really was.

Sticky toffee pudding, caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream.
Very sticky toffee pudding.

JML and I both went for slow braised pork cheeks with chive mash and green beans. I adore less-used cuts of meat, especially those that require long and slow cooking, and the two savourous porcine chunks that were served certainly fitted that bill.  Cliché though it maybe, they were meltingly good, surrounded by a rich stock reduction, paired with smooth mash made sprightly by the chives, and beans just the right side of al dente – that is, not too squeaky on the teeth.

Pudding transpired to be a sweet/tart/savoury division. Two of our party decided to share the cheese platter, which featured a well-constructed selection of both Scottish and continental fromage.  A creature of habit, JML homed in on the sticky toffee pudding and was suitably rewarded with a rich chunk of caramel-doused sponge, bathing in a pool toffee sauce, and topped off with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream.  “Delicious”, by all accounts.  After the sumptuousness of my main, I decided on a lighter option for the sweet course, in the form of a rhubarb panna cotta. The silky-smooth blancmange had a lush vanilla note, to which the acid-sweet tang of the rhubarb topping provided a great contrast. Most enjoyable.
Rhubarb panna cotta.
Smashing rhubarb panna cotta.

All in all, there was practically nothing to find fault with in our visit to the Guild of Foresters.  It’s a welcoming place that really delivers at what it sets out to be; a decent bar/bistro that serves a very good menu of “gastro pub” staples, and some interesting specials.  The fact that one often struggles to secure a table – especially at weekends – bears testament to how popular this venue has quickly become amongst both Portobellians and those hailing from outside Edinburgh’s Riviera.   So if you are looking for a good pint – and even better scran – after a bracing walk on the prom, do head for this fab wee place.  But you may need to reserve your spot first!

Food  8/10
Drink 8/10
Service 8/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a relaxed bar / gastro-pub. 

Click to add a blog post for Guild of Foresters on Zomato


The Ox, Edinburgh review – A fresh take on the gastro-pub arrives in Broughton Street

Roast rib of beef with Yorshire pudding.
Lucious Sunday roast at Edinburgh’s “The Ox”.
I don’t dislike winter – quite the reverse.  A crisp, clear winter’s day – especially in Scotland, where the light in such conditions can be truly amazing – is a pleasure to experience.  However, come early March I begin to tire of winter days being, well, more night than day.  Combine this with frequent harsh winds and driving rain (or worse still, sleet)  and I long for the bright green shoots of spring to appear.  Not only do things seem warmer and brighter, but this change in the seasons heralds the arrival of the first crops of the year.
Whitebait with smoked paprika mayo.
Whitebait with smoked paprika mayo.
Refreshment – in every sense of the term – isn’t a characteristic that is only to be welcomed as part of the transition from winter to spring.  Every now and again even once great eateries can become tired, jaded and in need of a freshen-up, or even a total reinvention.  A case in point is the hostelry located on the corner of Edinburgh’s Broughton Street and London Street. It’s a quirky venue that has encountered several incarnations over the years. I first knew it during my student days as the “spit and sawdust” boozer that was The Bellevue.  It then was transformed into the wannabe trendy Mezz – which catered a decent brunch – and then returned to being The Bellevue, another wannabe hipster-esque joint – that did OK burgers.
Haddock tempura, curried parsnip, pickled carrot & pea shoots.
Haddock tempura, curried parsnip, pickled carrot & pea shoots.
Just before Christmas last year, I leant that friends of friends were part of the team that had taken over The Bellevue, transforming it into The Ox.  Apparently, the brainchild of three renegades from Leith Shore, this reinvented establishment constitutes one of my favourite, if slightly clichéd, type of eateries – a gastro-pub. From the first time (in the 1990s) I dined in Farringdon’s The Eagle, with its open kitchen and stupendous cuisine, I have been a big fan of a pint and a posh pie.  Or posh fish and chips. Or mezze. Or tapas.  I think you get the idea. 
Walking through the entrance to The Ox it was apparent that changes to the venue had been subtle.   Its position on the corner of the road at the bottom of a hill mean it has an interesting layout; a wedge-shaped, but still spacious, bar area leading to stairs that link to a mezzanine dining area.  Scanning the surroundings, they appear well thought out encompassing a mix of traditional and modern decor, and some nice, bovine-themed artwork. It is called The Ox, after all…

Twice-braised ox cheek, fondant carrot and mash.
Twice-braised ox cheek, fondant carrot and mash.
Now I have to point out that this is a slightly unusual review, insofar that it is based on two visits to the venue.  All will become apparent in due course.  And things started well on our initial visit, with an attentive front of house seating us promptly, and delivering a chilled jug of water whilst our main drinks were being poured.  A nice touch.  But even nicer was the contents of The Ox‘s menu.  It’s not the most expansive. But that can be a good thing, when an eatery focuses on doing a sensible number of dishes really well.  At first glance, what’s on offer looks like typical pub fare:  fish and chips, burger, chicken supreme etc…  Yet look closer and there is some really interesting sounding dishes on the menu; courgettes, Isle of Mull cheddar  and chilli on toast; and grilled hake (a much under-rated fish in the UK) accompanied with ratatouille and a herb oil.
On our inaugural visit we kicked of proceedings with a couple of dishes from the “snacks and small things” section of the menu.  Being a lover of seafood, I was instantly drawn to the whitebait.  These were delightfully crispy on the outside, and melted in the mouth to release an intensely deep fishy flavour. The accompanying smoked paprika mayonnaise was obviously home-made, and added a lovely sweetly earthy contrast to the piscine taste bud punch.  For his starter, JML also choose fish, in the form of haddock tempura with curried parsnip, pickled carrot and pea shoots.  This was a knock-out dish featuring perfectly cooked chunks of white fish, encased in light-as-air batter, all splendidly enhanced by the accompaniment of the spicy, warm root vegetable chutney as it duelled with the zingy acidity of the carrot pickle and hints of grassy-fresh pea. 
Posh cheese burger, chips and gherkin.
Posh cheese burger, chips and gherkin.
If our starters were all about fruits of the sea, our second round of dining was unashamedly carnivorous.  I am a real fan of “nose to tail” eating –  if you are going to kill an animal for food, as much of it as possible should utilised. So, I chose from the list of “bigger things” the twice braised ox cheek, mash, fondant carrot and gravy.  Whilst the dish that arrived may have appeared simple, its taste was quite the reverse.  The lusciously dark cheek was packed with meaty flavours and a long, slow cook meant it practically dissolved in the mouth, whilst the carrot was sweetly cooked to just the right point, with the mashed potato deliciously smooth and creamy.  Bathed in an intensely rich beef stock (and possibly wine) reduction, for a pub, this was a really accomplished main.  The 8oz, handmade “The Ox” burger – with the addition of cheese – was what grabbed JML’s appetite.  Served in a brioche bun and accompanied by fries, salad and a gherkin, the beef patty was succulent and flavoursome, and the chips were hand cut, crispy, and plainly cooked to order. A competent take on a pub grub classic.
Frangipane and pear tart, with poached pear and cream.
Frangipane and pear tart, with poached pear and cream.
And all too soon our tasty lunch was over.  Impressed by what The Ox had offered I felt duty bound to tweet about it, before writing a review.  And our friend – who is a mutual friend with The Ox‘s chef and his partner – immediately retorted “You should try their Sunday lunch!”  So… a little over a week later, JML, our friend Marie and I sat in eager anticipation of our sabbatical midday feast.  Being creatures of habit – or probably because we enjoyed them so much before – the two chaps at the table went for the same starters that were consumed previously, and they were just as tasty. Marie’s crispy squid with sweet chilli jam was as flavoursome as our own opening dishes – she insisted we tried it, honest! Yet at the centre of the culinary show was roast rib of beef.  The succulent meat was offset by a great range of veggies, crisp roasties, and Yorkshire puddings that benefited from a flavour boost provided by a hint of mustard, or horseradish running through the batter.  Very clever.  I could also wax lyrical about the following pear frangipane tart, with poached pears and Chantilly cream that brought out lunch to a close, but I am close to my word count limit.
The Ox is a place that really emphasises the “gastro” in gastro-pub. Its laid back front of house ambience certainly does not detract from the inventive and competent cooking that takes place in the kitchen.  So, If you are after a fresh take on pub grub this spring – or any season this year – I would wager you would  be as stubborn (as an “Ox”) not to be tempted by the charms this very pleasant wee eatery.

Food  8/10
Drink 7/10
Service 7.5/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a relaxed bar / gastro-pub. 

Ox on Urbanspoon


Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Clouds and Soil – Grandiose surroundings, fairly decent food

Samosas with raita.
Pulled pork samosas with saffron raita.

If there is one part of Edinburgh where visitors will never struggle to find somewhere to eat or drink it has to be the area that encompasses the top of Leith Walk, Picardy Place, and Broughton Street. This is a region of the capital that is chock-a-block with bars and restaurants of varied styles and cuisines. However, such is the competition in this culinary hotspot that every now and again a venue will pull down the shutters, only to be quickly transformed into a new food or drink-based enterprise.

One of the area’s venues that appears to be in a constant state of reincarnation is the impressive Georgian townhouse at 4 Picardy Place. Since being converted from a TV production studio a few years back, this place has hosted: (the appallingly named) Thai Me Up restaurant; the GHQ bar/club/boutique hotel complex; and the Fiddler’s Elbow pub. All these enterprises have now gone by-the-by. My interest was pricked, therefore, when I discovered that the team behind Leith Shore’s trendy Bond No 9 had taken over the place, transforming it into “… a cocktail and wine bar, restaurant and four rooms” under the intriguing moniker of Clouds and Soil. Might this venture prove more successful than its predecessors, I wondered?

Queen scallops in lemon butter.
Queen scallops in lemon butter.

So a couple of Friday’s ago, JML and I decided to give Clouds and Soil‘s restaurant a test drive. Crossing the venue’s threshold we were greeted by… an empty hallway. So we popped our heads into the ground floor bar – which was certainly stylish, if not exactly bursting with punters – to be directed up the staircase to the first floor. The restaurant occupies two conjoined, grandiose Georgian rooms which have been tastefully decorated in sage green and decked out with oak flooring. An equally stylish bar area is nestled at one end of this space, with the majority of the covers occupying the larger area which boasts stunning views from its huge sash windows. Initially impressive. Yet did the food match the decor?

The menus – I purposely use the plural here – arrived in the oh-so-common form of paper sheets on a clipboard: these days, almost as ubiquitous in hipster venues as stripped stonework and red-filament light bulbs. At first glance, they were – as I overheard one of our fellow diners state – a bit confusing. We were in the restaurant, but had to navigate the cocktail list and bar menu before we discovered the al la carte offerings. These appeared inviting.

Roast chicken with rosti and mushroom sauce.
Roast chicken with rosti and mushroom sauce.

The dishes described weren’t so much fusion food – a dreadful culinary concept in my book – more a patchwork of different regional cuisines, including Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Scottish. JML started with mini spiced pulled pork samosas with raita sauce. He was presented with a brace of filo-wrapped piggy parcels and an accompanying dip of saffron-tinged sauce. The samosas were crisp to the point of crumbly, with a tasty meaty filling and were well complimented by the fruity/spicy raita dip.

For my first course, I was sorely tempted by the confit duck leg bon bons with a tomato and chilli jam. But as someone who adores seafood, I finally chose queenie scallops in a lemon and herb butter. This featured half a dozen mini-sized molluscs in half shells, generously doused in a butter sauce. They were succulently well cooked, but the sauce could have done with a bit more of a citrus hit, and I’m not sure that the, somewhat bland, accompanying frisee and radish salad added much to the dish.

Slow roast forerib of Scotch beef.
Flintstone-esque slow roast forerib of Scotch beef.

For the main courses, we both went carnivorous. My rosemary braised Scottish beef short rib was served with a comedic, Flintsone-esque accompanying bone, which I’m sure was not an original constituent of the dish. The meat was tasty enough, but could maybe have done with being cooked until it was a bit more “fall-apart” tender. The accompanying butter bean mash potato was smooth and creamy, whilst the wild mushroom “jus” was more of a cream sauce, but nonetheless added a nice note of umami. However, the promised asparagus was minimalist, to say the least. JML’s roast chicken breast hit nearer the bull’s-eye. It was well matched with grilled haggis and a rich cider and thyme cream sauce, with a turnip and potato rosti providing a very nice contrast in flavour and texture.

To gauge the quality of the sides, we also ordered bowls of Far Eastern-inspired broccoli with soy, chilli and garlic – which was fine for a stir-fried brassica – and some nicely crisp hand cut chips. We also washed down our mains with a very quaffable bottle of malbec, the appearance of which was delayed thanks to it having to be retrieved from the bar downstairs. The very attentive front of house staff were understandably apologetic for the wine’s late arrival, but I did get an inference that they were a bit under pressure, despite the restaurant only being half full.

Sticky carrot cake.
Sticky carrot cake.

The pudding menu was concise and relatively sedate. A cheese board from Ian Mellis is always tempting, but I wanted something sweet, yet with a bit of a kick. The affagato featuring vanilla ice cream, espresso and Ron Zacapa rum was just that – a simple sweet but with the hint of the exotic. Across the table – and after some deliberation – a sticky carrot cake was being consumed. It was exactly as described, being moist and delicious, if a wee bit minimalist – an accompanying scoop of ice cream would have been a welcome addition.

And that was our dinner complete. Maybe that sounds a bit perfunctory. But perhaps that’s because Clouds and Soil seems to have not yet fully worked out exactly what it is and whom it is targeting. Is its main focus on being a high-quality restaurant, a trendy cocktail bar, or a boutique hotel? The building itself is undoubtedly stunning (comparable to Queen Street’s Scotch Malt Whisky Society), but elements of the venue hint at being fitted out either in a hurry or on a dwindling budget – the dated stair carpets, and paint splattered floor tiles in the toilets, being cases in point.


Affagato with Ron Zacapa rum.
Affagato with Ron Zacapa rum.

he restaurant menu tries hard, but ultimately delivers decent bar food, as opposed to a collection of stand-out dishes befitting of the surroundings. That being said, a fairly decent three course meal and a bottle of wine for around £80 does represent pretty reasonable value. Given its potential, It will be interesting to see how this venue evolves, so I shall definitely return to discover if the new incumbent of 4 Picardy Place has, in culinary terms, succeeded in reaching for the sky, or planted its remains with its culinary roots stuck in terra firma.

Food 6.5/10
Drink 8/10
Service 7/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a stylish, yet relaxed bar and bistro.

Clouds and Soil on Urbanspoon

Edinburgh/ Italian/ restaurant/ review

Edinburgh restaurant review: Gusto – A stylish take on Italian, just right for summer

Salmon tartare on a plate.
Summery Salmon tartare.

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!

Warm aparagus salad with a Caesar sauce.
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.

Roast chicken, summer vegetables and lemon butter.
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.

Lobster and prawn spaghetti.
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.

A "Gusto Bellini"
“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 mousse with salted caramel and cappuccino foam.
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.

GUSTO Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Borough Market/ London/ restaurant/ review

London calling – Enjoying a right culinary knees-up in the Big Smoke

Bread sticks at Borough Market
By jenga! Beautiful Borough bread.

“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.

Busy Borough Market
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…

Fish stall at Borough Market.
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.

Lamb cutlets at Pizarro Restaurant.
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.

Rolled spicy shrimp omelette at The Grain Store.
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!

bistro/ Edinburgh/ restaurant/ review

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Castle Terrace – truly a stellar dining experience

A dish of spring barley risotto with chicken
Stupendous spring barley risotto with chicken.

One of the great things about living in Edinburgh is that, for a relatively small city, it boasts a fantastic range of eateries, both in terms of cuisine type and level of sophistication. Within a stone’s throw of the Royal Mile and Princes Street it’s possible to feast on excellent yet modestly priced burgers or mezze, as well as indulge in some extremely fine dining. As someone who is obsessive about all things culinary, I appreciate good food whatever the context of its consumption. Yet every now and again it can be a real treat to push the (gravy) boat out with a meal at a gastronomically renowned restaurant.

And so it was a couple of Saturdays ago, when JML invited me to share a 40th birthday present by joining him for lunch at the Michelin-starred Castle Terrace. To be frank, there would have been tears if he hadn’t have done so, such is the reputation of this sister restaurant of Leith’s The Kitchin. Jointly established in 2010 by the vastly experienced Edinburgh-born chef Dominic Jack and his long time culinary pal Tom Kitchin, the quality of the food at Castle Terrace is such it took a mere 15 months for the restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. So having experienced a superb meal courtesy of The Kitchin late last year, and knowing that both Chefs share an ethos of “from nature to plate”, I have been champing at the bit to sample Jack’s cooking.

Amuse bouche of three canapes
An amazing amuse bouche.

Right from entering Castle Terrace it was apparent that we were in for a classy dining experience. The interior is beautifully designed, without being over stated; the muted burnt-ochre and plum decor giving the place an immediate mellow air. Warmly greeted and immediately seated, it was also obvious that the front of house operation is a well-oiled machine set up to provide exactly the right level of attentiveness. So within just a couple of minutes of stepping through the door, glasses of sparkling water had been poured and we were already perusing the set lunch menu.

Once our order was dispatched to the kitchen, it was only a matter of moments before the culinary concerto commenced. An amuse bouche consisting of a trio of beautifully crafted canapés was so artistic it seemed almost a crime to eat them. However, the fantastically fishy salt cod tortellini, caper-filled mini burger, and liquid-centred hors d’oeuvre that immediately exploded with Caesar salad flavours, were nonetheless consumed with eagerness. A deconstructed take on a cheesy baked potato was to follow – except this was presented layered in an espresso cup and packed with umami flavour. All were extremely clever and perfectly judged to thoroughly whet our appetites for the main event.

Ballotine of ox tongue with beets and balsamic jus
A beautiful ballotine of ox tongue with beetroot & balsamic.

Now it might be pertinent to point out that the menu at Castle Terrace is an accomplished piece of minimalist prose. Each dish is introduced by its main ingredient, followed by a concise description of how this is prepared and the other constituents accompanying it. Thus JML’s starter of “salmon” transpired to be a generously plump and glossy raviolo that concealed a superbly moist morsel of Loch Duart salmon. This was all bathed – by the waiter at the table no less – in refreshingly light consommé that brilliantly combined the piscine and pasta flavours with undertones of lemon, tarragon and cucumber. It was a dish that was both superbly simple and satisfyingly theatrical in equal measure.

My first course of “ox” presented an alluring pink disk of ballotine of Blackford Estate ox tongue surrounded by shards of heritage beetroot and tiny jewels of aged balsamic reduction. It looked like a gastronomic reproduction of an ancient Greek sunburst motif. It tasted heavenly, with the rich gaminess of the tongue being in complete harmony with a light touch of horseradish heat, earthy beet flavours, and a sweet acidic accent provided by the vinegar jus.

Hake fillet with squid, peppers and olives.
Succulent hake on a bed of squid, peppers & olives.

For my main dish I went for fish, or “hake” to be precise. This was a chunky fillet from the North Sea, placed on a bed of sautéed North Sea squid, peppers, black olives and garlic. From the menu’s description, this was to be an uncomplicated plate with “gently cooked” fish. Delivered to our table was something truly memorable. The hake had an incredible succulence and depth of flavour that suggested it had been cooked a la confit. Combined with sweet-savouriness from the peppers and olives, and the subtle seafood overtones contributed by the tender squid, this was a really accomplished and massively enjoyable dish.

Across the table, JML’s modestly described main of “chicken from Burnside Farm served on spring pearl barley risotto” was a feast for the eyes, as well as the mouth. The intensely pea-green barley risotto burst with complex spring-vegetable flavours. The chicken atop this displayed a crisply golden exterior that concealed tender flesh that packed a really meaty, but perfectly judged, punch on reaching the taste buds. Altogether, this was another top-rate plate.

Zesty lemon cheese cake with ginger ice cream.
Zesty lemon cheese cake with ginger ice cream.

Now I don’t know if it was because our first two courses had been so outstanding in terms of their visuals and flavours, but our puddings seemed a little more straightforward by comparison. JML certainly tucked into his creamy, vanilla-infused, caramel crusted crème brûlée with gusto. Equally, I really enjoyed the citrus tang of my lemon cheesecake, together with the ginger kick provided by the accompanying quenelle of ice-cream, which was also another beautifully presented dish.

They were both very nice sweets, but maybe by this point in the meal we had come to expect fireworks. The white desert wines that accompanied our final course were smashing, as were the other glasses of white from France, Spain and New Zealand specifically chosen to match each of our other dishes. All were excellently paired with our food.

In anyone’s terms, our visit to Castle Terrace turned out to be a truly terrific dining experience. But when you consider we were treated to a three course lunch from a Michelin-starred chef, accompanied by matching wines, for less than £55 per diner, what we sampled was incredible.

It most certainly won’t be long before I pay a return visit to the restaurant, maybe this time to sample the more expansive à la carte offering. With a venue that pays so much attention to what they serve, and how they serve it, surely it won’t be too long before Castle Terrace is displaying two Michelin stars above its door.

Food – 9/10
Atmosphere – 8/10
Service – 8.5/10
Value – 9/10

Ambience – Expect a welcoming, high class restaurant ambience.

Castle Terrace Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Birmingham/ restaurant/ review

Birmingham Restaurant Review: A yummy Brummie bistro – The Pickled Piglet

Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.

I’m a bit geographically off piste in terms of my latest restaurant review.  It’s not of an eatery in Edinburgh, nor even one in Glasgow.  For this week, I am dining at a place nearly 250 miles due south of “Auld Reekie”.  And it turns out to be a restaurant I liked very much indeed.   I probably should explain.

The first day of spring has always been memorable for me, not only because it marks the passing of winter, but also because 21st March is my Dad’s birthday.  So to mark his 79th year on planet Earth I thought it appropriate to arrange a wee visit back to Birmingham – the city of my birth – to celebrate this notable event.  I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that the exact form this celebration took was to take my parents out for very pleasant meal.

Now Birmingham is a very different place from the depressed, and – to be honest – somewhat depressing, metropolis I left in the mid-1980s.  Though the “city of a thousand trades” may have well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it during the Thatcher era, it has now become a vibrant, cultural hub.  Its centre has witnessed massive regeneration over the last two decades, particularly around its “canal quarter”, as the development of Symphony Hall and Brum’s architecturally impressive Library of Birmingham bear testament.  The waterways that were once at the heart of Birmingham’s industrial revolution are now the focus of a Bohemian collection of cultural and culinary establishments.  And as my Dad was born a stone’s throw from the canal hub of Gas Street Basin, I thought it might be appropriate to find somewhere close by for a relaxed – but good quality – lunch.

Turbot with samphire and cockles.
Fab turbot with samphire and cockles.

A quick bit of searching on the internet and I had made a reservation for Friday lunch at the Pickled Piglet.  Located on Gas Street itself, this bar and bistro’s website promised much of what I look for when I dine out – locally sourced ingredients, and free range, properly matured meat.  “Any chef can dress a plate, but taste is a different game” the restaurant’s website sagely stated.  Occupying a compact, converted warehouse building, the Pickled Piglet’s dining and bar area is located on the upper floor.  It’s bright and airy space which is tastefully furnished, whilst retaining features which nod to the building’s industrial heritage.  Being Friday lunchtime in the centre of a bustling city, I’d expected the restaurant to be full.  Yet even though our reservation was for 1pm, as we were seated it quickly became apparent we were the only diners there.  Had I chosen a dud, I wondered?  Read on, and you will find the opposite to be true.

Chocolate torte with a berry compote.
Choco-berry sumptuousness

The bistro’s brunch menu certainly presented us with a decent amount of choice.  An appetising range of tapas-style small plates were on offer – which could have easily doubled as starters – as well as various meat, cheese and seafood sharing boards.  We decided to dive straight into the mains however, which were simply described and tasty sounding.  My choice of roast turbot, green beans, samphire, new potatoes, toasted almonds, and a cockle sauce was just great.  The fish offered perfectly cooked, sweet, firm, white flesh that was really well complimented by the salty-freshness of the bean-samphire-cockle combination.  The addition of the toasted almonds was really clever, giving the dish a nice contrast in both flavour and texture. 

The birthday boy hummed and hard before deciding upon slow roast saffron and honey pork belly, with scallops, seasonal greens and smoked bacon.  This turned out to be  quite some present, consisting of three sumptuously tender chunks of Gloucester Old Spot belly, reclining on a bed of vibrant looking – and tasting – spring greens, bejewelled with moist smoky lardons, and bathed in a subtly sweet, saffron-tinged jus.  Plus there were two perfectly cooked scallops guarding each end of the oblong plate on which the dish was served.  To be honest, I was a little envious of my Dad’s dish.  But then my Mother let me try some of her chicken. Or to be specific, pot roasted chicken, creamed leaks, roasted shallots and sautéed potatoes.  The vegetables – and the creamed leaks in particular – were really great, but it was the portions of simply-cooked Poussin that made this dish exceptional.  All around the table agreed it was one of the most succulent and flavourful chicken dishes any of us had sampled in a long while.

Bitter orange croissant & butter pudding
Bitter orange bread pudding – yum!

The quality of our main courses certainly left us wanting to try more of what the Pickled Piglet had to offer, so the dessert menus didn’t have to be brandished twice. My Limoncello curd, baked meringue, with honey and ginger crunch was perfectly fine – a citrusy-tart crème patissiere married well with the crunchy shortbread and crispy meringue.  Yet I could have gladly hijacked either of my parents’ puddings.  My Mum’s chocolate torte with winter berry compote and vanilla cream was a triumphant melding of rich cocoa, sweet yet sharp fruit, and subtle vanilla creaminess.  Father’s croissant bread and butter pudding with marmalade sauce and clotted cream was so good it’s hard to do it justice in print. Wonderfully buttery pastry bathed in bitter-sweet Seville orange sauciness, that provided a perfect flavour counterpoint, then this all topped with in a creamily sour-tinged quenelle and candied orange peel.  Pudding perfection.

By the time we had finished our coffees and liqueurs, half a dozen or so other diners had arrived at the restaurant.  But, to be honest, with food as uniformly good as that offered by the Pickled Piglet, together with the flexibility of the menu, and the relaxed – but nonetheless chic – ambience the restaurant and accompanying bar ooze, I amazed that potential punters aren’t queuing at the door to secure a table.  If there is one regret about my visit to the Pickled Piglet, it’s that I live 250 miles away from it.  I certainly will be planning to visit my parents again very soon – just to be a good son, and nothing to do with sampling fab food, of course…

Food 8.5/10
Atmosphere 7/10 (but only because it was so quiet)
Service 7.5/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a venue with a relaxed – but elegant – bistro/café ambience.

The Pickled Piglet on Urbanspoon

bistro/ blog/ Edinburgh/ food/ restaurant/ review

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Apiary – Make a beeline for this buzzing bistro

a pudding of chocolate brioche with ice cream and custard
Choco-brioche butter pudding loveliness. 

I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that late February can be a bit grim. Whilst spring is tantalisingly just round the corner, the second month of the year can still dampen spirits, with its short days, long nights and stormy weather. Sometimes, a pick-me-up is needed at this time of year. And what better to boost spirits than visiting a new restaurant that is generating a bit of a buzz?

I had already been hearing good things – from the likes of Lunchquest and Scotland on Sunday’s Richard Bath – about The Apiary, even though the place only opened a few weeks before Christmas 2013. Occupying premises in Edinburgh’s Newington district – that previously housed the Metrople café-bar – a glance at the new restaurant’s website indicated it promised “Modern British grub to comfort or excite; pickling, smoking and preserving all done in house…” together with “Top to tail offerings dressed head to toe in tasty.” Home curing, smoking and pickling AND nose to tail grub – well that most definitely whets my appetite. So maybe The Apiary would provide the culinary lift I was looking for?

Initial portents were promising, as so busy was the restaurant on a wet winter Saturday that the only dinner reservation available was at 7pm. When we arrived, the large and airy dining area was already peppered with full tables, so we were courteously shown to one of the leather-upholstered booths that line its walls. With the combined a la carte and specials menus offering plenty to consider – including some very appetising-looking sharing platters – we ordered a couple of beers (with my Harviestoun Wild Hop IPA being notably refreshingly bitter) whilst we made our choices.

Just as when we thought we’d finished placing our order, our server – and I should point out that the front of house staff really know the menu, and how to make diners feel at ease – drew our attention to the “side bar” section of the carte. A side order of crispy pig’s ear, smoked Maldon salt and aioli – oh why ever not?! And as our starters appeared so did a beautifully crisp – yet fruity – bottle of Marqués de Altillo Rioja blanco.

A Ham hock hash cake with poached egg and hollondaise.
Ham hock hash & hollandaise.

Our choice of wine proved an ideal accompaniment to JML’s first course of ham hock hash cake, with poached egg and hollandaise. This proved to be a generous, round slab of fried mashed potato combined with meaty morsels exuding delicious smoked porcine flavours, and brilliantly set off with silky-smooth sauce and an egg poached to perfection. To be honest, it was a challenge to solicit a forkful from my dining partner for me to try. My choice of starter counts as one of my all-time favourite dishes, so the pressure was on – but I needn’t have worried. The plate of crispy whitebait that landed on the table was absolutely spot on, harbouring an intense taste of seafood which was further enhanced by being dipped in the accompanying citrus-infused mayonnaise. This was most definitely good mood food.

For his main course, JML moved from ham to lamb – a dry spice rubbed rump (to be precise) accompanied by mint yoghurt, Moroccan aubergine and flatbread. When carved, the meat was a perfectly-cooked pink, with its great taste being further enhanced by a coating of North African spiciness. Together with the well-matched accompanying ingredients, this was a plate that would definitely have you believe you were dining nearer Marrakech than Marchmont!

A dish of Roast breast of pheasant and pigeon with red cabbage and mash.
Fab pheasant – but maybe a bit more saucy? 

My choice of pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto, pigeon breast, crème potato mash, braised red cabbage, and red wine jus presented perhaps the only slight blip in what was turning into an excellent evening. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad dish at all, with the pheasant being richly gamey and succulent (which can be hard to achieve this late in the season), and the accompanying prosciutto and red cabbage respectively adding nice salty and fruity contrast. But the crème mash could have maybe been a wee bit more, well creamy, and it would have been nice to have had more of a puddle of the wine reduction on the plate. It’s probably just that the starters had set the bar very high. We couldn’t fault the side of crispy, salted, shredded pig’s ear, mind – imagine sweet, crisp, umami-laden slithers of pork scratching, and you’ll be getting there.

Having put away two pretty accomplished courses, we paused for breath before consuming pudding. This gave me time to properly take in the ambience of The Apiary, and I have to say the team behind it have managed to create a really pleasingly informal – but not too laid back – vibe, the kind that can be frequently encountered when dining in decent bistros on continental Europe. A commendable achievement in a building that was formerly a bank.

Pudding of Coconut and cardamom sponge with Malibu and lime syrup.
A cracking coconut & cardamom sponge. 

And so to the desserts… I went for the warm coconut and cardamom sponge, with a Malibu and lime syrup and vanilla ice cream. It was light, yet packed with exotic coconut richness, which combined tremendously with the subtle floral hint provided by the cardamom, and the zingy notes coming from the lime syrup. Plus the ice cream was excellent, too. Across the table from me, an absolute triumph of a sweet was being consumed. The combination of a chocolate and brioche butter pudding, with orange zest, chocolate and stem ginger ice cream, and crème anglaise was something magical. It tasted every bit as warming and comforting as it looked, and those are the words spoken by someone who claims not to have a sweet tooth.

This restaurant is a cracking wee find. It’s friendly, without being too casual; the front of house staff are simply charming; and the kitchen turns out some fantastically enjoyable and inventive food, yet without making it overly complicated. It also offers some excellent lunch and pre-theatre deals. To be honest, it’s the sort of place you’d probably like to keep as your little secret. But that wouldn’t be fair. So, as the long winter closes (or at any other time of year, for that matter) if you want to put a spring in your step, make a beeline for The Apiary.

Food 8/10
Atmosphere 8/10
Service 8/10
Value 8/10

Ambience – Expect a venue with a relaxed – but elegant – bistro/café ambience.

The Apiary on Urbanspoon

blog/ diner/ Edinburgh/ food/ Glasgow/ restaurant/ review/ USA

Glasgow Restaurant Review: Ad Lib – Bringing an authentic flavour of NYC to GLA

Sumptuously sticky ribs
Sumptuously sticky ribs. 

The Dear Green Place, Glasvegas, Glaschu or simply Glasgow. Whatever you prefer to call it, as an Edinburgher I have a soft spot for Scotland’s second city. Yet despite the fact that it’s only 40 miles and 50 minutes away on the train, for some reason I don’t seem to visit Scotland’s largest metropolis anywhere as often as I should, despite the fact it has some great places to eat and drink. The centre of Glasgow is architecturally stunning, and very different from Edinburgh. Like Birmingham – the city of my birth – it grew out of the industrial revolution, and similarly its city centre is still adorned with many of the grand Victorian buildings constructed from its industrial wealth. Central Glasgow is also laid out in a grid system, which – it is rumoured – inspired the one that is now such a prominent feature of New York. It has even doubled as the Big Apple on a number of film shoots.

How appropriate then that when JML and I caught up with some friends in Glasgow last weekend, one of the members of our party suggested we go for lunch at Ad Lib – a New York-inspired eatery a stone’s through away from the city’s grand Central Station (sorry!). To be honest, it wasn’t a place I had heard of before, but I do love the melting pot of influences and flavours there is to be had in a decent US diner – even one located on Scotland’s West Coast – so was most definitely keen to give it a go.

A blackboard of splendid special dishes.
Splendid specials.

The frontage of Ad Lib is certainly understated – not the brash Americana one might expect, given its culinary specialisation – and my first thought on stepping through the door was that the place was “toty”. Yet I was actually greeted by a slim, but cleverly stylish, dining space leading to the bar and main restaurant area, and which matches vermillion walls, cubic wooden furniture and tasteful, US-influenced artwork. Collectively, this had more of a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright than Trump Towers, I am pleased to say. Beyond the bar the airy dining room offers more of this stylish, Greenwich Village-esque vibe. But enough already about the décor, what about the food?

Ad Lib’s lunch menu is engaging in a “I really can’t make up my mind what to have” sort of way. Inviting sounding starters and mains, deli salads and sandwiches, gourmet burgers, steak AND lobster (I kid you not), and a burgeoning specials board all vie for attention. Now, for the purposes of this review I shall be focusing on what JML and I consumed, given that trying to cover what eight people were eating might just stretch a point a wee bit too far. Oh, and in terms of drinks, I should point out that Ad Lib serves the excellent Portuguese lager that is Sagres on draft, meaning this was our quaff of choice. So…

A very substantial burrito.
That really is a “Big Burrito”.

In choosing a dish to kick of proceedings, I was somewhat torn. The salt and pepper squid, and Cajun prawn popcorn both sounded really inviting, but in the end it was the sticky molasses baby back ribs, with chilli and star anise than won me over. They certainly did not disappoint, featuring perfectly tender meat adorned in a tackily sweet-rich-spicy sauce, topped with a zingy fresh tomato salsa. Truly splendid. JML’s starter consisted of three ‘sliders’ (why so named?) – mini classic Aberdeen angus burgers accompanied by an onion relish. These were certainly tasty, with the relish providing a nice contrast to the umami flavour of the beef, but maybe the burgers were just ever so slightly on the dry side.

A basket of fried fish and chips
A lovely basket-o-fish.

Deciding on a main was an equally involved affair, especially when the specials board was also brought into play. It was the “Big Burrito” that caught JML’s attention, and this turned out to be a dish that could under no circumstances be accused of being misdescribed. What arrived was a gargantuan portion of seared stake, combined with chorizo, red rice, and black beans, all neatly encased in a dustbin lid-sized tortilla, and topped off with fresh salsa and sour cream. It was a plateful that would not look out of place on Man Versus Food, but the fact that it presented little challenge for my dining companion indicated just how good it was. Having started with turf, I moved onto surf for my main course, deciding to try the intriguingly named Bloody Mary basket ’o’ fish. This transpired to consist of an excellently cooked portion of haddock, bream and king prawns, all coated in a rich – but light – tomato infused batter, and sat upon a mini washing basket of skinny fries. Only a bit more kick and smokiness from the accompanying smoked chilli mayo would have made this really good dish a great one.

A strawberry sundae dessert.
Sundae, scrummy sundae.

By the time it came to ordering sweets, I must admit that we were flagging, as were our waistlines. But so cannily persuasive were the young restaurant staff that we crumbled – we were signed up to the authentic US diner experience, after all. My New York ice cream waffle sundae – accompanied with hot toffee sauce, toasted pecans and berries – provided a good combination of textures flavours, even for someone who is a bit of a self-proclaimed “pudding-o-phobe”. Across the table, a home baked millionaires’ shortbread cheesecake was efficiently dispatched. Very pleasant, but a bit heavy after the “Big Burrito”, was JML’s opinion. Oh, and not enough evidence of the shortbread. Probably wouldn’t have been shopping on Fifth Avenue, as a result.

There is very much to like about Ad Lib. It’s a welcoming restaurant that is simultaneously stylish, yet laid back. It captures the essence of what makes American deli food so tempting and scrumptious, without turning itself into a pastiche. So if you are hungry in GLA and fancy a taste of NYC, be sure to check out this easy-going eatery.

Food 7.5/10
Drink 7/10
Service 7/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a stylish, yet laid back diner-come-bistro.

Ad Lib on Urbanspoon

bistro/ blog/ Edinburgh/ food/ review/ Scottish

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Doric – An old haunt that’s maybe in need of a new approach…

Goats’ cheese tart, with a rocket bonnet.

Edinburgh is blessed with a plethora of great places to eat. Not only that, but – like pretty weeds poking through cracks in a garden path – new gastro-pubs, bistros and restaurants seem to appear in my home town on a monthly basis. With this constantly emerging choice it’s perhaps unsurprising that favoured old haunts sometimes fall by the wayside.

I must admit that I do feel a wee bit regretful when circumstances change, and visits to oft-frequented stomping grounds begin to tail off. On the flip side, re-acquaintance with a now neglected eatery or hostelry can be joyous, when their present offerings live up to rose-tinted memories of meals past (see my review of The Shore, as a case in point). With this in mind, when JML and I met a couple of friends for lunch the other weekend, I was both intrigued and a little trepidations when one of them suggested dining at The Doric.

Lovely lamb & Madeira sauce. As for the veg…

Situated just behind Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station (in Market Street), The Doric is housed in an architecturally-impressive 17th century tenement building, and bills itself as “Edinburgh’s oldest gastro-pub”. The bistro section of the establishment, located above a separate bar, is accessed via stairs that would not be out of place in an instalment of Harry Potter. Walking into the restaurant it seemed little had changed from the last time I dined there over four years ago – still the same primrose yellow walls punctuated with an eclectic array of prints, and dark wood floors and furniture. Except, maybe things looked a bit more down at heel than I remembered.

We joined one of our – already ensconced – lunching partners and placed our drinks order with the Maitre d’, just as the final member of our party arrived. Service was friendly and courteous. But when we were handed the menus, my immediate thought was these had seen better days – both physically and in terms of contents. And while we perused the, somewhat dog-eared and grubby, menu cards the bottles of wine and water we had ordered were literally plonked – unopened and unannounced – on our table by another member of waiting staff. The portents, to be frank, were not good…

Now I must admit, I sometimes struggle to do a review justice when there are more than two of us dining, as there are maybe too many viewpoints to take into consideration – tastes and preferences often seem to get a bit complicated. This restaurant’s menu is not short on choice either, even if many of the dishes might be considered “pub grub stalwarts”. Add to this mix the fact that one of our party was gluten intolerant – which, to give The Doric its due, it did its utmost to accommodate –I thought we might be in for some mixed opinions. However, by the time it came to don our coats, consensus reigned amongst our party that our dining experience was a bit hit and miss.

Rich chicken & chorizo with butter beans.

My starter of mussels in a white wine and cream sauce was tasty enough. The shellfish were plump, but the white granular substance covering them indicated the cream had split from the sauce during cooking.  Plus, the accompanying chunk of bread was a tad dry, as if it had been cut for a while. JML’s goats’ cheese tart was nicely presented and appetising, but was somewhat dominated by the inclusion of a whole round of baked cheese. The dishes of smoked duck, and smoked salmon seemed to be eagerly consumed across the table from us – the later accompanied by a gluten-free toast which was surprisingly tasty.

Another bottle of wine arrived – thankfully, this time opened and poured – at the same time as our mains. To be honest, my chargrilled rump of lamb was lovely. It possessed just the right level of rareness and its Madeira sauce matched it well. The accompanying Boulangère potatoes were adequate enough – though they would have benefited from some crispness to their surface, but the whole roast pepper and turned artichoke didn’t contrast the richness of the meat as much as I had hoped.

Pork two ways, with a zippy pepper sauce.

JML decided on the “home made” shepherd’s pie, which was – as the menu description suggested –homely rather than tantalisingly tasty. Our friends variously plumbed for chicken with chorizo, and the pork belly and loin. The chicken was moist and nicely accompanied by butter beans and chunks of spicy sausage, but in combination with a cream sauce maybe the sum of the dish was a little over rich. In relation to the pork-fest, the belly was very nicely cooked with a deep flavour, but the loin was slightly underwhelming, and whilst the sweet pepper coulis added tasty zippiness this highlighted that the accompanying fondant potato and honeyed carrots were a bit insipid, by comparison.

This being a lunch-time get together, we decided to forgo puddings, choosing instead to share a plate of “fine Scottish cheeses” with biscuits and home-made chutney, whilst we drank our coffees. The cheeses were nice enough, but I don’t recall any indication being given of what they were, or where in Scotland they hailed from. It could be that we were all a bit too busy chatting, however…

All in all, I think my re-acquaintance with The Doric left me a bit flat. It wasn’t an awful experience by any means, but in the intervening years since I regularly crossed its threshold I think the venue and its cooking has become a wee bit tired. And with the prices of some of the mains roughly comparable with those served by such trendy and celebrated newcomers as Kitchin’s The Scran and Scally and Greenaway’s Bistro Moderene, it might be high time for The Doric to contemplate a bit of a refresh.

Food – 6/10
Atmosphere -6/10
Service -6.5/10
Value – 5.5/10

Ambience – Expect a bistro/gastro-pub experience.

Doric Tavern on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

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