In my latest review for Bite Magazine I sample some tasty Scottish fare on a balmy October evening, when dining atA Room in the West End(26 William St, EH3 7NH). The following exert from provides a taster of what was sample, and the full version of the article is available is available in the November edition of Bite.
It’s not typical to experience high teens of an autumnal Scottish evening. How pleasant then to escape such mugginess for the cool, airy basement that houses A Room in the West End. Nestling below Teuchters’ pub, this long established eatery has a reputation for serving inviting bistro food based on quality Scottish ingredients. It did not disappoint. After being warmly greeted and efficiently seated, we decided to quaff a couple of cool beers whilst we chose our food. Thanks to its proximity to its sister hostelry, the restaurant stocks a fine selection of Scots ales and a pint of Perthshire-brewed Sunburst Pilsner (£4.00) proved most refreshing.
Haddie, sporting a lucious mushy pea puree.
The bistro’s menu rightly makes mention of its use of Scottish produce, so it was unsurprising that JML decided on a classic Cullen Skink (£5.95) to start. Accompanied by a fennel seed scone, the soup struck a really great balance between smokey-sweet fish and creamy sauce, without being overly rich. My venison and green peppercorn salami with warm beetroot, cornichon and pear salad (£5.95) was also a class balancing act. The charcuterie was deliciously spicily-meaty, really complementing the earthy/sweet/sour salad combo.
Fabulous cheesecake with bramble compote.
Possibly taking my queue from JML’s smokey starter, for my main I plumped for roast Finnan Haddie, toasted Stornoway black pudding, mushy peas and dill cream (£14.95). The muckle fish that arrived had tender-peaty flesh that really benefited from its match with the intense blood sausage and minty pea puree flavours, but the combination maybe left the accompanying dill sauce a little overwhelmed. My dining partner’s main of chargrilled chicken breast (£14.45) might have seemed unadventurous. Yet when this beautifully cooked poultry portion was accompanied by toasted venison haggis, confit garlic creamed cabbage and a sun blushed tomato tapenade, the resultant dish was deliciously satisfying.
Things have been a bit quiet on Scrumptious Scran of late, for which I must apologise. Don’t worry; I haven’t suddenly lost my enthusiasm for food and drink – quite the reverse. It’s just that recently I have had to prioritise starting a new job and celebrating my other half’s 40th birthday, over writing culinary copy. Fortunately though, part of JML’s birthday celebrations involved a trip to Berlin. This has provided an opportunity to compose the first Scrumptious Scran Odyssey article, giving an insight into some of our favourite dining and quaffing experiences in this wonderful city.
Not having visited Berlin before I must admit that we weren’t entirely certain what to expect, in culinary terms. Like any large city, Berlin has a diverse range of restaurant cultures – with Italian appearing to be a particular favourite – but for this visit I was keen to hone in on food that was typical of Berlin or Germany.
Our base was central Berlin’s “Mitte” district, a stone’s throw away from the former Checkpoint Charlie, one of few official crossing points between the former communist East and capitalist West sectors of the city. Our hotel – Gat Point Charlie – was great and very boutique-esque, even though the surrounding area was slightly underwhelming; it’s Berlin’s commercial and government hub being mostly populated by modern multi-stories. However, wander a little and it is possible to find a Germanic culinary gem, such as Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt – a cavernous eatery that serves traditional Bavarian fare and excellent beer. Be warned, however, so popular is this place that at peak times it is neigh on impossible to secure a dining table, meaning that we had to be content with sitting outside (it being a balmy October evening) whilst consuming a couple of glasses of “hell”.
And I should also point out that when strolling round Berlin’s Mitte district, anyone with a sweet tooth should be sure to call into Fassbender & Rausch – reportedly the world’s largest chocolaterie. Not only does its three floors offer 200 varieties of chocolate, it also features a chocolate volcano and a architecturally accurate model of the Bundestag – made from chocolate.
Checking out Berlin’s “Museum Island” and surrounding environs provided an opportunity to sample two things I love: sausages and micro-brewed beer. The former came courtesy of Oranium, located in the “Scheunenviertel” or “barn quarter”; an old neighbourhood that found itself on the eastern side of the infamous wall – here’s a hint, if you see a tram you are in former East Berlin… Having perused the menu, I just had to try the Würstchen Trilogie – Berliner Currywurst, Thüringer Rostbratwurst and Nürnberger sausages skewered with leek, onions, and capsicum, served with yellow and red curry dip. Each variety of porky morsel was delicious, even if some flavours were slightly unexpected. I’d heard that Berliners are mad for currywurst – a curry-infused banger. Maybe I was expecting a casein-coated balti, but the spice mix was more akin in its flavour to the sort of curry sauce served by Chinese takeaways – flavoursome yet unusual. For tip-top beer we ventured just south of Alexanderplatz to Brauhaus Georgbraeu. Located in the shadow of the city’s imposing Television Tower, not only are their superb pilsners brewed on the pub’s premises – try the dark lager with its great malty flavour – but these can be enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the River Spree.
Kreuzberg Kaffee und Kuchen.
A definite “must visit” for any food enthusiast is the conjoined neighbourhood of Kreuzberg-Freidrichschain, to the south-east of Berlin’s centre. Kreuzberg is bohemian and, thanks to the fact that WWII air-raids left it relatively unscathed, lined with handsome late 19th and early 20th century buildings. East of its neighbour, Freidrichschain has more DDR/modernist architectural lilt. But whilst different in appearance what they have in common is a great range of bars, cafes and restaurants. Both areas really lend themselves to wandering and stopping off at wherever looks appealing, whether this be for “kaffee und kuchen”, falafel, or a hearty German dish.
Two places we visited were of particular note. Kuchen Keiser is a pretty café-bar perched on a corner of a tree-lined square. It’s a great place for watching the world go by whilst nursing a glass of cold lager. The food is also highly regarded – with Sunday lunch being a particular favourite amongst locals. I will definitely dine there on my next visit to Berlin, but on this occasion it was just the fine beer that we sampled, as we had already booked a table at the Kreuzberg institution that is Max und Moritz.
Hearty Berliner Küche.
Named after the Wilhelm Busch cartoon characters, stepping into Max and Mortiz is like time travelling back to 1920s Berlin. A stunning bar, adorned in Art Nouveau cobalt blue tiles, greets you upon entry. This then gives way to a vast, labyrinthine dining area furnished with tables and chairs that would not look out of place in Cabaret. The vermillion walls, period electroliers, and wrought-iron fittings complete the Isherwood-esque ambience. The restaurant specialises in “Berliner Küche” – literally “Berlin Kitchen”; a hearty, rustic cuisine, with a German base but influenced by the cooking traditions of those who immigrated to the city from Central and Eastern Europe. Both JML’s and my dishes certainly were hearty. I chose Berliner Eisbein; an enormous salted and pickled pork knuckle accompanied by pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, a split-pea purée and mustard. The meat was incredibly tender with a great salty/sour flavour, and was really complemented by the uncomplicated, yet delicious, accompaniments. JML’s Bollenfleisch – a traditional lamb stew – was equally satisfying, with flavoursome meat and vegetables bathed in a rich stout and herb sauce.
Berlin isn’t ALL about food and drink of course. It’s a city that just oozes history and still resonates the time it was split in two during the Cold War. Two museums in particular recount how this period impacted the lives of Berliners – the hands-on DDR museum, which charts what life was like for those on the eastern side of the Berlin wall, and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which recounts the history and impact of this divisive structure itself. It was after visiting the latter that we strayed upon a Café Gorki Park – a smashing wee Russian-themed eatery. Located in Scheunenviertel, given that during the cold-war period this district was very much in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find a restaurant that gives a culinary nod to Berlin’s recent history. Whilst JML’s choice of “the Russian Burger” might not be construed as being typically Soviet, it was none-the-less very good. My choice of warkeniki was much more Russian in keeping, consisting of handmade dumplings variously stuffed with potato, spinach, Brysna cheese, and minced beef, all accompanied by a tomato salsa and sour cream. Imagine a sort of delicious East European dim sum.
We certainly had a great time in Berlin. As I hope this odyssey indicates, it’s an engaging, intriguing city with some super bars, cafés and restaurants. During a short visit it’s possible to see many of the city’s main attractions, but you will still leave lots to explore. Undoubtedly then, we shall return. There is so much more left to see, eat and drink.
In my last post on the blog I indicated just how much I was looking forward to my first experience of the BBC Good Food Show Scotland (GFSS). Well, I am pleased to report that my anticipation was duly rewarded by, what turned out to be, a really informative and highly enjoyable Friday at the SECC.
The scene was set upon arrival, when immediately after picking up my blogger accreditation I was invited to attend a demonstration on the merits of a new, craft-distilled gin. I should point out that it was after midday (just) and given the fact that I am a big fan of small scale food and drink producers it would have been rude to have refused – ahem… The gin in question is produced with an obvious passion by the Warner Edwards Distillery, based in the English Midlands. Sniffing, then sipping, a neat shot of the award-winning spirit left no doubt that this was a stunningly-good nip of “mothers’ ruin” – ripe with juniper berries of course, but having a distinctive nose of black pepper and citrus peel and a great hint of cardamom in the mouth. I can safely say that the Harrington Dry Gin truly holds its own amongst the other – often Scottish distilled – small batch gins I have sampled, and I plan on getting my hands on a bottle forthwith.
Moving into the main exhibition space I was suddenly taken with exactly how big an event this was. The SECC plays host to some major gigs, and the GFFS more than filled this cavernous container. The Supertheatre was exactly as billed – a huge space where The Great British Bake Off judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood provided expertly witty demonstrations of, well, baking. It was rightly packed. The Interview Stage served punters with the opportunity to learn what makes their favourite chefs’ and foodies’ culinary hearts go aflutter. Yet the real “grab” for me was the main exhibition space, where stand upon stand was populated by producers showcasing a fantastic array of food, drink and culinary paraphernalia. I wish I could summarise all of these, but that would be infeasible. Instead, please find below some of my highlights. Frankly, I can’t wait until next October when I have another opportunity to visit the GFSS. If you live in Scotland and like food it’s an event not to be missed.
Hebridean Sea Salt – who hand produce salt from the Atlantic waters off the Isle of Lewis. If the “base” product wasn’t great enough, they also have seaweed infused and smoked varieties. Trust me; you have to try these to fully appreciate how they go beyond merely being defined as a “condiment”.
The Big Cheese Making Kit – happened upon these lovely people on the stand promoting produce from East Lothian. I have always harboured a secret desire to make my own cheese and these kits look like an ideal answer. The kits include ones for producing Mozzarella, Ricotta and (the one I intend to try) goats cheese.
The Little Herb Farm – was at GFFS thanks to being awarded a bursary by the show. Their lovely herb-infused, fruit and botanical vinegars – as well as smashing herb jellies – clearly demonstrated why they had earned such an accolade. I can’t do justice to their rhubarb vinegar in print; you will just have to try it yourself…
Supernature – sharing its name with a fine album by Goldfrapp, this company produces delicious, cold-pressed rapeseed oil a stone’s through from Scrumptious Scran Towers. Not only is their healthy and subtly rich “base” product a world away from what might be found on supermarket shelves, a range of oils flavoured with the likes of lemon and coriander is also available. I could have left with armfuls of bottles.
The Little Round Cake Company – interestingly the descriptors “little” and “wee” seemed to feature in a fair few producers’ names. But look at the picture of the “merangz” – nowt little about those, I am sure you will agree?
Equi’s Ice Cream – Scotland is blessed by a rich vein of foodie entrepreneurs who have Italian roots, and this family-run business provides some amazing gelati – the dolce latte and raisin flavours, in particular, were chin-drippingly good.
Kelly Bronze – I love a traditional turkey at Christmas, but nothing graces the table of Scrumptious Scran Towers unless it is a truly free-range fowl, from a breed that imparts great flavour. For the last few years our Christmas feast of choice has come from the Home Counties, but having seen how good these turkeys look, this year I hope to report back on a tasty Scottish bird…
Sincere thanks go to the BBC Good Food Scotland Show press and blogging team for facilitating my visit.
My latest review for Bite Magazine is now available in the publication’s October edition (both online and in print). Under the spotlight this month is a great wine tasting and dining experience with a Californian theme, thanks to a visit to Calistoga (70 Rose Street Lane North, EH2 3DX). A taster of the review can be read below, with the full article being available for download from Bite’s website.
Calistoga – Raise a glass to Californian cuisine
Preconceptions aren’t good things. Take American cuisine and wine. It’s basically burgers, hot-dogs and sickly-sweet pink Zinfandel, isn’t it? A recent wine-tasting / dining experience at Calistoga – Edinburgh’s Californian-inspired restaurant – certainly exploded this myth.
Our evening started in the restaurant’s tasting room, where sommelier Alastair Henderson took us through the “Congressional” sampling of two red and white wines (£32pp including a 3 course dinner). Previously working in California’s viticulture industry, Henderson’s experience gives Calistoga exclusive access to some impressive wines, and he imparts real insight into how the Napa Valley’s geography and history influences these.
The Californian-inspired food (3 courses for £25pp) impressed too. I started with a flavoursome spicy chicken and sweet potato frittata, well complemented by a smokey BBQ sauce. The enthusiasm with which JML consumed his Manchego, feta and mozzarella flat bread with arugula (that’s Californian for rocket) pesto indicated how tasty this was.
Fab Flatiron and fries.
Our mains were carnivorous. JML’s slow cooked pork shoulder was smashingly tender, without falling apart, and the accompanying chorizo mash and rosemary jus provided a great flavour balance to the meat. My chargrilled Buccleuch flat iron steak, with fries and a peppercorn sauce sounded uncomplicated. However, this American shoulder cut of beef was one of the best steaks I have sampled, smokey black outside with a meltingly moist pink interior…
Coffee syphon action (courtesy of Brew Lab website).
It’s a horribly wet Wednesday morning. I am en route to a training course, so my normal morning work routine – coffee from my usual supplier, and maybe a pastry – is totally out of the window. I need caffeine before I am imparted with the secrets of writing a killer CV. And I need it NOW!
Fortunately, I’m in the very centre of Edinburgh’s university quarter. This means I have time to swing by the achingly cool speciality coffee shop that is Brew Lab (6-8 College Street, EH8 9AA) to pick up a latte, prior to the commencement of my morning’s instruction. This would be my second visit to Brew Lab this week. Later in the day, a lunchtime meeting there with a colleague will be my third. As you will find, like a decaying radioactive element (well it is called Brew “Lab”), each visit will have diminishing returns.
Located in a two conjoined, traditional former shops, Brew Lab serves a fantastic range of artisan coffees. And I really emphasise that they are fantastic. The bar brews two rotating single origin coffees every day, as well as its own custom espresso blend. As you enter the venue the “business” area has an intentional scientific influence. There is a coffee menu on the wall behind the baristas that resembles the periodic table. As well as a very high-end espresso machine – located on a facsimile of a lab bench – punters have options to have their java delivered by intriguing methods of distillation. It gave me flashbacks to biochemistry 101. Beyond the ordering section, the seating area takes distressed to the extreme. There is stripped back chic and then there is “are the builders still here?” chic. Not unpleasant, though.
My first visit to Brew Lab on Monday this week was great. A beautiful flat white accompanied great banter with a food-writing colleague. The coffee was some of the best I have tasted. This morning, I was in a rush for a takeaway. No real queue at the “lab”, just a chap in front buying a dozen pastries. But whilst waiting to be served, witnessing an ongoing chat between baristas about how sweet the coffee is, before my order is taken, is not a great start. Neither is being informed that the coffee is “so sweet, it doesn’t need sugar”. That’s my choice. I do not wish to enter a debate about it. It did have a natural sweetness, but after a couple of sips – once I left the shop – it became apparent that a wee pinch of sugar was needed to meet my personal taste.
Back at lunchtime, I grabbed a very good baguette and some water prior to meeting a colleague for a catch-up coffee. The sandwich combined really fresh bread, lovely Emmental, and tasty salt beef. I needed to scoff, swig and check emails. I asked about the WiFi password – but the WiFi wasn’t on. As the venue’s website indicates, “From Monday 16 September, to ensure that everyone that wants to have lunch at Brew Lab can do so, our wifi will turn off automatically from 11:45-14:00 Mon-Fri during term-time”. How would I know this before dining – I had no internet connection?! Plus the walls are so thick, mobile connections are very patchy. “It’s to ensure we converse over lunch” is what the students on the table next to me assumed. No, it’s a cynical attempt to maximise covers at the expense of customer satisfaction, I might wager. This really must be the only coffee shop in Edinburgh not to offer WiFi to its customers at peak times. And what really gets my goat is that it isn’t made absolutely obvious that there is no lunchtime WiFi, prior to punters purchasing coffee or food. A sign, making this glaringly obvious, is badly needed…
When my colleague arrived, I trotted off to the lab/barista area to order coffees and cake – the gluten free Bakewell tart is superb. However, Brew Lab doesn’t go for table service, but rather a system of ordering at the bar with subsequent delivery to the table. This is a big mistake. I do not wish to wait for ten minutes to be served whilst the two punters before me dance a tango with a front of house person continually rebooting a totally erratic card machine. This being whilst the other six staff working the “lab” area appeared oblivious to the, increasingly fractious, cash laden queue. The way service operates means at busy times – and the place was packed on this particular lunchtime – punters either have to take a chance on buying “sit-in” coffee and food but having nowhere to sit, or (as I witnessed) place an order then skip off to check there are seats, before this is processed. Whilst customers who have bagged tables are left queueing to place orders…
To be honest, I am annoyed, because this place could achieve so much more of what it promises. Maybe it’s my age and the fact that the weather was rubbish. But I have experienced similar, equally impressive, coffee bars in the USA and Europe, each of which are very much better in how they deliver the customer experience. The base product – drinks, pastries, and sandwiches – cannot be faulted. The coffee is amazing. But this is not a place that should be run like a student union canteen. It positions itself as a top end coffee joint. Well, it could be…
Ambience – A scruffy yet posh coffee shop, without WiFi at lunchtime.
My third review for Bite Magazine is now published on Bite’s website and in the September print edition of the magazine. This month, JML and I paid a second visit to The Edinburgh Larder Bistro, to find out if a recent refurbishment and appointment of a new head chef had made a difference to this classy Scottish eatery. A taster of the article is printed below, and you can read the full version on Bite Magazine’s website.
A delicious date with The Edinburgh Larder Bistro
Second dates can be intriguing; a chance to confirm or dispel first impressions. So a couple of months on from a great first visit to The Edinburgh Larder Bistro I was keen to dine there again, not least because it has recently had a refurbishment and change of head chef.
This West End basement restaurant now has a more “nouveau rustic” feel, combining white-washed walls with tastefully weathered furniture, and trendy wicker fittings. Seated in the airy conservatory space beyond the main dining area, we were, however, pleased to see that the menu remained packed with the seasonal, locally-sourced, sometimes foraged ingredients that are the bistro’s trademark.
JML chose to open with squid with black pudding, gooseberry syrup, pickled carrots and Arran leaves (£5.95) – a great combination of seafood and meaty flavours, well balanced by acid gooseberry and sour/sharp pickle. My rabbit loin, potato purée, barley, green leaf sauce and cider butter (£6.50) comprised two moist chunks of tasty meat atop an invitingly creamy base, surrounded by pools of tangy sauce and pearls of verdant pesto. Both starters were very well composed and beautifully presented, though somewhat tepid. The wine choice of a bottle of dry, grapefruity picpoul de pinet (£20) matched them well.
I suppose I am what might be termed as a ‘honourary’ Scot. I’ve lived the majority of my life north of the border, and am hitched to a “Weegie”. My vocabulary is now littered with Scots phrases – an overcast morning isn’t “dull”, but rather “gey dreich”. Yet listen carefully and there is sometimes still a wee hint in my voice betraying that I originally hail from the UK’s Curry Capital. Not Glasgow (obviously), nor Bradford, Manchester or London’s Brick Lane. For by birth, I am a Brummie.
I adore Asian food, and I think my growing up in a city where a substantial proportion of the population can trace its heritage to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh has much to do with this. I went to school in a part of Birmingham that was blessed with a plethora of Asian-run shops and eateries. I still have vivid memories of walking past these, taking in the sights of the (then) weird, yet wonderful-looking, fruit and vegetables displayed outside grocers’ shops and the amazing smells of cooking spices as they emanated from restaurants.
Last weekend, with my parents visiting from Birmingham, I was keen to show them that great Indian cooking isn’t only the preserve of the city of my birth. And in Edinburgh there is no finer place to demonstrate this than Mother India’s Café. Located just off “The Bridges” on Infirmary Street (EH1 1LT) this has been an incredibly popular restaurant since its opening five years ago. Even at 6.30pm on a Friday the main dining area was packed, so we were shown to our table in the restaurant’s basement, which was thankfully was not dark and dingy as some subterranean eateries can be. No clichéd flock wallpaper or piped sitar music to be found here though, oh no – just modern, minimalist furniture complementing the white-washed walls, which are adorned with arty photos portraying life across the Indian sub-continent.
Equally refreshing is the restaurant’s menu. Mother India’s Café serves an Indian take on tapas – sometimes also referred to as tiffin. Their a la carte menu features a staggering 42 dishes, as well as daily specials and accompaniments such as various forms of bread and rice. Non-meat eaters are very well served, as nearly half the dishes available are either vegetarian or vegan. As recommended by the restaurant, we decided to order five or six dishes between us, accompanied by a couple of portions of naan bread and basmati rice. The very courteous waiting staff obviously know the menu inside out, as they were immediately able to suggest something suitable for my Mother, who doesn’t have a particular soft spot for dishes heavy on chilli.
Whilst our mains were being cooked, we were served the ubiquitous poppadums accompanied by some very tasty (and I suspect home-made) pickles and chutneys, variously washed down with warm, cinnamon-infused chai and cool Kingfisher larger. Our curry “tapas” duly arrived in short order, together with substantial naans and steaming fluffy rice. All dishes looked vibrant, being presented in their miniature balti dishes and casserole pots.
The lamb saag was rich, the succulent meat being bathed in an earthy, spinach-laden sauce with a hint of methi. Two of our chicken-based dishes – chilli garlic chicken, and ginger chicken and spinach leaf – superficially looked quite similar, with tender pieces of breast and thigh surrounded by a deep (but not artificial) red sauce. Tasting revealed them to be quite different, with the chilli garlic chicken having a real kick – as might be expected – and the ginger-based dish having more subtle, fruity warmth.
The chicken makhni (which means butter) consisted of delicate meat accompanied by a substantial, creamy gravy, though whilst not in the least bit hot to taste still had a spicy depth. The spiced haddock – a bit of an unfamiliar wildcard amongst our order – was quite a revelation, consisting of a substantial fillet of fish marinaded in a Punjabi spice blend and then perfectly baked en papilliote. And last, but not least, the lamb karahi matched the fruitiness from the tomato-based sauce with an intensity of flavour provided by chilli and masala.
All of the dishes we consumed had a real zesty freshness to them, which hinted that they were cooked to order. They also exhibited none of the cloying oiliness that can sometimes be present in Indian takeaway fare. And whilst the portions served at Mother India’s Café are purposely quite small, five or six of these shared between four people makes for a substantial meal.
When my Father – who also loves Asian food – comments that “it was one of the best Indian meals I have had in a long time”, it’s a sure sign that Edinburgh has a venue that can certainly give the best curry houses in the land a run for their money.
Food – 8.5/10 Atmosphere – 7.5/10 Service – 8/10 Value – 8/10
Ambience – Expect a busy, modern Indian restaurant.
It is possible to have too much of a good thing, Edinburgh’s annual jamboree of festivals being a case in point. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the buzz of my home city in August. But after a month packed with music, comedy and drama (which also resulted in my being floored by a thespian-vectored germ, leading to the lack of recent updates on Scrumptious Scran) the time comes to give central Edinburgh a swerve and head for the coast. Accordingly, last Saturday lunchtime JML and I treated ourselves to a wee trip to Portobello.
In terms of Porty’s eateries, you really can’t get more “on the coast” than The Espy (its name being an abbreviation for “the esplanade”). Situated on the ground floor of a grand Victorian tenement located on the corner of Bath Street and the Promenade, it’s almost possible to order a pint at the horseshoe bar whilst dangling one’s feet in the waters of the Forth. During the summer months the pub has tables set up on the prom, yet as the day was bright but a little too breezy we decided to try and secure a space in the ample dining room, but still with great views to the beach.
Even though we were relatively late for lunch – arriving at 2pm – the pub was packed and we were only able to bag our spot on condition that we vacated within an hour and a half. JML and I were ravenous, so this would not a problem, well at least I thought not…
Dips and flatbread
Waiting for our beers to arrive, I reacquainted myself with The Espy’s interior. The place has that shabby chic vibe that now seems to be common to a number of Edinburgh’s more popular boozers, such as Boda and The Roseleaf, except that The Espy compliments this with surfing paraphernalia and Australian iconography. Altogether, the place has a welcoming, family-friendly feel.
Two chilled pints of San Miguel promptly arrived, together with a jug of iced water – a nice touch to get the latter both free and without request – and the waiter took our food order. Now we have dined at The Espy a few times before, and the place’s regular menu provides a very decent range of burgers and less standard pub-grub, such as plates of mezze to share. Yet on this occasion we both chose from the comprehensive menu of daily specials; JML combining a trio of Mediterranean dips and warm flatbread, together with another, intriguing, starter of pork and prawn cakes; and yours truly deciding upon the slow-roast pork loin, black pudding, apple and leek mash, with a cider gravy.
Our order duly dispatched to the kitchen, we quaffed our drinks, perused the papers, and waited for our food to appear. Then oddly, five minutes later, another member of waiting staff appeared to take our order, only to be informed this had already been done. Further sipping of drinks, reading of newspapers and waiting followed. Then even more waiting, until after some 30 minutes it became apparent that tables seated after ours were now being served their food. When I tried to attract someone’s attention to question this there was a mysterious dearth of front-of-house staff in our section of the dining area, resulting in my having to get up and accost the Maître d’ to find out if our order had indeed reached the kitchen.
Pork & prawn cakes
Thankfully, our grub landed on our table a few minutes later, accompanied by apologies for its tardiness. And as to the food itself, well this ranged from “very good” to “not bad”. JML’s pork and prawn cakes were delicious, with the meat and seafood flavours running in harmony with those of lemongrass, chili, coriander and a smidgeon of peanut. The salad that accompanied these Asian-inspired morsels was decently put together and well dressed. The Mediterranean dips were also very tasty, with a creamy harissa being a particular stand out, and the mountain of flatbread that came with these was warm, fresh and moist. My slow roast pork and black pudding was succulent and tasty, and was well balanced by the cider sauce and chunks of caramelised apple. The bed of mash on which this lay was a wee bit of a let-down, however, as it could have done with fewer lumps and a bit more butter through it.
Having polished off our dishes, it was now getting perilously close to the 3.30pm deadline set for us to vacate the table, so we tried to attract the attention of someone to whom we could make payment – and tried and tried again. Eventually – with just minutes to spare – we paid the cheque, only for another waiter to enquire just moments later as to whether we were ready for the bill…
Pork loin & black pudding
The Espy has a nice vibe, great location and serves decent pub grub. The staff can’t be faulted for their friendliness. But on this visit there seemed to be something significantly amiss with how either the kitchen or front of house was being managed; as we were leaving, I overheard a waiter apologising to another table for problems with their order. Maybe it was down to all the extra covers on promenade, who knows? But having to wait the best part of 40 minutes to receive my order does impart a more jaundiced attitude to my food, when this eventually arrives. Fingers crossed that “normal service” has resumed by the next time I’m down Portobello way, otherwise it may well be another sea-side venue that gets my custom.
Food – 6.5/10 Atmosphere – 7/10 Service – 5/10 Value – 6.5/10
Ambience – Expect a relaxed yet busy, pub experience.
Maybe the people of Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland are much keener “foodies” than I had imagined. Or perhaps it was down to very good marketing. Probably a combination of the two, but by two o’clock last Saturday afternoon, Edinburgh’s Foodies Festival was bursting at the seams.
Whatever the reason for its popularity, it was certainly good to see so many people enjoying the assorted culinary delights that the Foodies Festival had on offer. Being my first time at this particular event, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It certainly made for an agreeable few hours, and provided me with an opportunity to meet face to face with some interesting food and drink suppliers, which is always a good thing.
Comparing it the Taste festival which used to visit Edinburgh during the summer months, the Foodies Festival seemed to be less corporately focused. The “market” area, for example, was packed with an alluring array of different producers and suppliers, and it was great to be able to chat with people to learn how their businesses had come about and what they had on offer. I managed to catch up with some folk in the food business who I’ve encountered on Twitter, including the smashing Summer Harvest Oils. This business not only produces excellent cold-pressed rapeseed oil grown on the family’s Perthshire farm, it now also provides a delicious range of dressings, marinades and vinegars. I also enjoyed some good banter with the folks on the Enterprise Foods Truly Local stall – an initiative that supports smaller suppliers throughout Scotland in bringing their products to market, and also backs sustainable food production. I must get hold of a jar of the Bloody Mary chutney, from Trotters Independent Condiments, which I sampled there.
Fantastic “Goucho” beef being char-grilled.
Another section of the Foodies Festival that really appealed was the “Street Food Avenue”. The smells from this celebration of mobile cooking from across the globe were one of the first things to assail the senses (in a good way) when walking into the event. There were certainly some of the biggest paellas I have ever encountered, bubbling away on one stall, which I was sorely tempted to sample. However, the spectacle of the barbecued lamb and beef – a staple of South American cuisine – was what finally won me over, resulting in my partaking of possibly the best steak sandwich I have tasted. The meat was coated in a herb and salt rub, then perfectly chargrilled to produce thick slices which were full of flavour and beautifully tender.
Foodies Festival at Edinburgh also provided an opportunity to try products from larger suppliers, which might not be immediately familiar. Discover the Origin – an EU funded initiative – offered some quality food and drink from across Europe. The wonderful Edinburgh Gin company had some of its fantastically refreshing elderflower gin to taste and purchase, and there was also a fine gin, containing African-sourced botanicals – available from Whitley Neil, which is distilled in Birmingham. I had no idea the place of my birth even possessed a distillery! Monkey Shoulder is an excellent blended Scottish whisky that I was aware of, but had previously not tried, so it was a pleasure to be offered a wee dram. And as someone who loves Spanish cuisine, I was delighted to be introduced to Inedit – a new “white” beer from Barcelona’s Estrella brewery, developed by Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame.
I wish I could report back on the chefs’ and drink theatre demonstrations. But the queues to obtain tickets for these were so long, the events I wanted to attend had sold out by the time I got to the box office. I suppose the acid test of what I thought of Edinburgh’s Foodies Festival – as someone attending for the first time – would be to ask if I would return next year. Probably, but I think the event would benefit from a few refinements to seriously tempt me back…
Firstly, by lunchtime on Saturday there were so many people attending the event that it became difficult to move around many areas or get close to some of the stalls. Maybe dividing the event into two sessions a day, each with smaller capacities, might alleviate this issue.
It would also be good to see a greater representation from Scottish-based suppliers and companies – particularly from our wonderful meat and seafood sector. This isn’t to say a wider geographic take on good food and drink isn’t appreciated. Yet lovely as I’m sure the oysters that had been shipped all the way from Cornwall’s Camel estuary were, I’d rather have partaken of some from Loch Fyne.
Surely it must be possible to book places at demonstration sessions online at the same time as booking tickets? I wasn’t the only person at the event disappointed to have spent time queuing to see a chef, to find there were no places left at that particular demonstration, when I got to the box office.
And this might be nit-picking, but speaking as someone who used to run a festival, the event would really benefit from much improved directional signage and a greater number of stewards being on hand. It really shouldn’t be necessary to ask four different punters in turn for directions to the toilets.
All in all, however, it was great to spend a few hours at an event in central Edinburgh, surrounded by people who were passionate about the food and drink they produced, and those who were equally passionate about sampling and purchase these.
If I were religious, I would swear my prayers had recently been answered. For years I have been chanting the mantra “please might someone open a decent pub, with really good food, somewhere between Jock’s Lodge and Leith Walk”. But Edinburgh’s equivalents of the goddesses Edesia and Bibesia must have been sat atop Arthur’s Seat with their fingers in their ears – until now!
For the last few weeks, as I trudged back and forth between Scrumptious Scran Towers and my place of work in central Edinburgh, I noted that the old Station Bar on Abbeyhill’s Cadzow Place – a very traditional Scottish boozer – had been shut for a bit of a repaint. Then the posters appeared in its picture windows, announcing the arrival of The Safari Lounge. Might this be, at last, a decent new boozer in Edinburgh’s East End? Praise the lord! Or lady, or whatever be your deity of choice.
So this Friday, JML and I dropped by to see what pleasures this revamped Victorian bar might hold. Oh my! Walking into the place it doesn’t immediately look like a lot has changed. There is still much of the dark brown tongue and groove and ornate plaster work in evidence, except the walls are painted a subtle tangerine and white – taken together all vaguely reminiscent of a liquorice allsort. The original wooden bar has gone (despatched to another venue, to allow the nine rotten joists that lay beneath it to be replaced, apparently). And at the end of its subtly trendy replacement is a small kitchen – but what a kitchen…
A busy bar and kitchen.
As we ordered drinks at the bar and scouted round for a table, it became apparent that the place is much bigger than I had realised, with a comfy, offset area to the rear of the bar, and a separate “Tiger Room” beyond that. Our drinks arrived – chosen from a great range of lagers and craft beers – together with a couple of menus. And that is when I realised why this place is confident enough to site an open kitchen at the end of the bar. At first glance it may appear a typical pub menu of salads, mezze, ‘lite bites’ hotdogs and burgers. Yet read on, and it isn’t just your standard bar food at all. It’s a menu put together with real care and thought.
So, we ordered a main each of a “Safari Dog” and a “Momo Fuku” Pork Bun, accompanied by a side of skinny fries and the intriguing “popcorn mussels” and watched mesmerically as the two chefs in the open kitchen grabbed ingredients and cooked and assembled the dishes before our eyes. Within ten minutes of ordering, the food arrived. JML had chosen what transpired to be very posh hotdog – a meaty, flavoursome sausage nestling in a brioche roll, drizzled in a mustard dressing and surrounded by a tangy onion and cider chutney. It was simply smashing. My shredded pork belly buns – there were two – consisted of beautifully succulent meat with vinaigrette coleslaw, all encased in ghostly white rice baps. Intriguing in how they looked, delicious in how they tasted. Both mains were served with a generous accompaniment of freshly prepared, perfectly dressed salad.
As to the sides? Well JML’s fries were skinny and crispy as described, and came as an ample portion. My popcorn mussels were a revelation, however. Imagine a take on whitebait, but involving shellfish in tempura batter accompanied by home-made tartar sauce. Crisp on the outside and with a soft interior, packed with intense, slightly salty, seafood flavour. I need say no more.
Popcorn mussels & fizz.
As we were devouring our delicious fare, it became apparent that The Safari Lounge – which takes its name from the neon sign displayed in the window of its former incarnation, the Station Bar – has been the subject of a very clever makeover indeed. The banquets running along the walls are now covered in subtle, but stylish embossed khaki leather. The traditional tables and chairs are painted with dark black shellac, and the bar stools covered with cow hide. Having asked the, very friendly, bar staff for permission to take some photos for the review, I got chatting with Andy Caird, proprietor of The Safari Lounge. Caird has previously managed such esteemed Edinburgh stalwarts as Negotiant’s and Medina, and obviously knows what makes a winning venue.
“I set out to refresh the bar, but no more than necessary – I didn’t want to destroy the place’s character”, he told me. “It’s a similar approach with the food. I wanted a menu that wasn’t just typical pub fare, and that features dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. But at the same time, the pub and what it serves should offer something for everyone in the area.”
As I spoke to Andy, I noticed a couple of old boys – certainly regulars of the pub in its former incarnation – stood drinking at the bar, joking with the staff. At the same time, food was flying out of the kitchen and landing on the tables populated by cool-looking 20 and 30 somethings. The Safari Lounge certainly is a venue with loads to offer. If there is any justice, the gods will be smiling on it for a long time to come!
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