Restaurant Reviews

The Scran & Scallie

030413the-scran-and-scallie-bar003-2It’s a restaurant truth universally acknowledged that, if you’re a well-known chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant, you can charge whatever you damn well please and people will pay it, even when the food is mostly the same mediocre deep-fry fest you can get at any other pub. Or the chippy next door.

This is clearly the philosophy Tom Kitchn’s working off of at his popular Stockbridge gastropub, The Scran & Scallie. Kitchn’s best known for being the owner of The Kitchn and for being the youngest recipient of a Michelin star. The Scran & Scallie opened up a few months ago, and given his reputation, I was intrigued. Though the menu was…not terribly inventive, I thought there surely must be some hidden surprises. The fish and chips weren’t just fish and chips, right? Surely there was some curry spicing in the batter or something to elevate it a little above what you could find in any middling pub?

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Places to Eat: The Pantry

Pantry logoIf there’s one thing Stockbridge doesn’t lack, it’s cute places to have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. There are so many of them around here I haven’t even had a chance to try them all yet, and I’ve been here the better part of a year. So if you’re going to open up a new one, you’d better have something great to offer, and you’d better really know your audience.

Chris and Charlotte Thompson, the couple who opened The Pantry at the end of 2012, clearly did their research. This place is so well attuned to the neighbourhood it’s like they conducted a focus group prior to opening. This is the type of cozy local spot that supports local producers, embraces organic, is family friendly (every day from 3-4 is mums’ hour, during which coffees are a quid and there are games and things to entertain the wee ones. Very, very smart, as this area’s got a significant portion of young families), and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It caters to a clientele that is willing to splash out a bit of extra for spelt flour, knows good food, and likes to have a few surprises. That’s Stockbridge.

I’ve embraced The Pantry wholeheartedly: I’ve been there four times in the last month alone. And judging by the healthy crowds I always see there, I’m not alone.

First, the food. It’s great. I’ve been there for brunch, lunch (twice), and dinner, and it’s never let me down. The menus all feature dishes that are comfortingly familiar (kedgeree for brunch, a burger and sandwiches for lunch, etc), but they usually feature a twist. The kedgeree was served with tiny hard-boiled quails’ eggs, for instance, and a smoked salmon sandwich is served with a refreshing lemon creme fraiche (the sandwich in question is very good, but I couldn’t help but think it would be brilliant if served on rye bread instead of the slightly stodgy white it came on). If you get a sandwich there, order it with their house-made chips, which are thick, crispy, and delicious.

At night they turn the lights down and trot out a menu that changes constantly to reflect what’s best of the current season. Husby and I decided to go there for Burns Night a couple of weeks ago, knowing that we’d get more than the expected haggis and slab of shortbread. We were definitely right. While The Pantry focuses on filling comfort foods during the day, they really up their game at night, sending out absolutely exquisite and well-thought-out dishes the like of which I’m used to seeing in places that charge far more than £30 for a three-course dinner. Our meal started off with a cullen skink amuse bouche. Although it was rather big for an amuse, it was so incredibly delicious I didn’t care. I felt like I could have happily eaten a gallon of the stuff, which was thick, creamy, smoky–everything you’d want on a damp, chilly evening. This promising beginning was swiftly followed by salads: mine was cured salmon with beetroot and fennel scone pieces, and his was the same, but with anise pickled cucumber in place of the salmon. The plates were almost too pretty to touch, but touch them we did, and quickly devoured the contents. After (it must be said) a very long wait we received our main courses: roasted venison with haggis spring rolls, olive oil mash, and spinach. The meat was roasted to rare perfection, and the mash was smooth and delectable (and perfect for soaking up the rich sauces from the meat). I loved the spring rolls, and found them not only delicious but a rather playful way of working the traditional haggis into the dish.

Dessert is often where restaurants fall down, but that wasn’t the case here. Husby had the cheese plate, which is served with mini Peter’s Yard crispbreads and apples, while I opted for the ‘Confused Cranachan’, yet another fabulously presented plate of whisky-soaked sponge circles nestled between an airy mousse with such a pronounced honey flavour it was as if I was eating it straight from the hive. A beautiful bramble coulis helped cut the richness of both the mousse and the sponge.

If I had one issue with this place, it’s this: the service needs work. Don’t get me wrong, the servers are all very friendly and helpful, but there are definitely some issues there. The first time we went was during brunch on a Sunday, and it was busy. It was clear that the waitstaff was overwhelmed, even though there were plenty of them on the floor. The problem seemed to be lack of organisation: it appeared that they didn’t have specific tables assigned to each server, so everyone was just sort of picking up and dropping off wherever. That meant that nobody really seemed to know what any one table’s status was, so it took a very long time for anyone to get around to taking our order, and then an even longer time to get our bill. While we were waiting for it, someone else’s change was dropped off at our table, and when the bill came, it wasn’t ours. At dinner, the issues were less about disorganisation and more about a lack of finesse. Dishes were dropped off at the table with no explanation or introduction whatsoever. While that’s not really an issue with the salad or main course, it’s definitely a problem when you’re confronted with a cheese plate. We had no idea what we were eating. Same with the amuse bouche. I’d love to know what some of the little bits floating at the top were, but, alas, they shall remain a mystery. We had to wait at least 25 minutes after our salads were cleared for the mains to come out, which is a kitchen problem, not a service one, but nobody ever came over to tell us what was going on, or to apologise for the wait, and the person who did finally go to check on the food’s status wasn’t even our waitress.

Will the service issues keep me from going back there? No, certainly not. But I do long for these wrinkles to be ironed out, because if the service matched up with the food, than dining here would be more than just very good, it would be simply sublime.

The Pantry

1-2 North West Circus Place

Places to Eat: Angels with Bagpipes

Angels with BagpipesOnce upon a time, it was enough for a restaurant to just churn out good food. But then the foodie culture invaded, everyone became a critic on their blogs, and the ante was upped. To be considered a really good restaurant, it wasn’t enough to simply get your duck breast perfectly medium rare or your braises fork-tender. Now, your plates needed to look like they belonged on the wall of a museum. And a little whimsy in the dishes doesn’t hurt either, as long as it doesn’t go too far (caramel with scallops? I don’t think so…)

Angels With Bagpipes on the Royal Mile is a restaurant that understands the world it’s operating in. Not too formal (it does draw in a lot of tourists schlepping about in jeans and comfortable shoes, after all), but nice enough for a special evening out, and each plate that appears is an absolute delight to see and taste. Whimsy? You’ve got it (with a name like that, how could this place not be a bit playful?), enough to please adventurous eaters like myself, my husband, and my parents, but the menu’s not so out there my rather traditional meat-and-potatoes-loving grandmother couldn’t find plenty of dishes that whetted her appetite.

We were in just before Christmas, a busy time for everyone, not least the restaurants of Edinburgh, and yet there was no sense of rush or anxiety in the atmosphere or in the cheerful, laid back, but highly efficient waitstaff. We settled in with some cocktails while we perused the menu–and if you can, seriously check out the cocktail menu, it’s fantastic.

As is the food. On our first pass at the restaurant, for my birthday in November, my husband ordered the smoked trout pate while I pounced on the scallops and black pudding. The pate was lovely, not too overwhelmingly smoky, just a bit fishy, a tough balance to strike. Our only complaint was that there was a lot of it, and not quite enough toasts served alongside. My scallop dish was almost too pretty to eat, the succulent, perfectly seared mollusks scattered amidst a tangle of tart, julienne apples and tiny cubes of fried black pudding. The tart apples and the dabs of sauce helped cut the richness of both the scallops and the pudding. Every bite was pure joy; I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to the family. This time around, I opted for the butternut squash soup, which was charmingly poured at the table from the teeniest glass teapot I’ve ever seen. The velvety soup was paired with a rich duck-filled tortellini and a soya jelly that was pleasantly surprising. Other winners at the table were the beef tartare (served traditionally, with a quail’s egg, because why mess with a classic?) and the goat’s cheese with beetroot, walnuts, and mustard.

Main courses, like the rest of the menu, draw on what’s seasonal and locally available. In November I opted for the lamb, cooked beautifully and served with pearl barley and sweetbreads. This time I was in a venison mood. Once again, it was cooked perfectly and was marvellously comforting on a chilly winter’s night. They serve part of the neck with the dish, which is brave, because neck can be a tough piece of meat if not treated well. They treat it very well here, slow cooking it for more than a day so it’s fall-apart tender and succulent. The fish dishes–bream and trout–were beautiful and delicious as well, but I feel the meats were the real standouts.

Puddings are usually where restaurants like this really let their hair down and have some fun experimenting, and AwB doesn’t let you down. I’d strongly recommend the Cranachan. Their playful take on the classic Scottish sweet is served with a Glenmorangie parfait, freeze-dried raspberries that pack a serious flavour punch, and the most amazing, dissolve-on-your-tongue marshmallow you’ve ever had in your entire life. The panna cotta with raspberry and rosewater sorbet and a Victoria sponge was flavourful but a little stiffer than it should have been. I longed to see what their idea of the Christmas pudding was like, but alas, I was just recovering from a terrible stomach bug and thought it best not to risk it. Next year!

AwB isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely worth it. The food’s amazing, the atmosphere soothing, and the wine and whisky lists impressive. For anyone looking to treat themselves at the end of a day spent sightseeing or have a lovely date night with a loved one, this is an excellent spot to consider.

Angels with Bagpipes

343 High St
Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Places to Eat: Number One at the Balmoral

number1Yesterday was husby’s birthday, and birthdays and other special occasions mean a night out at a good restaurant. On the recommendation of my chiropractor (man, how yuppie does that sound?) I secured a reservation at Number One at the Balmoral.

I’ll have to thank Stuart when I see him next.

The Michelin-starred restaurant did not let us down in any way. The moment we walked in we were cheerfully greeted and taken to our table, where bottled water was already chilling. Food-wise, you have two options: either do the Chef’s Tasting menu for 70 pounds or order a three-course meal a la carte for 64. We chose the a la carte option because there were dishes on that I was dying to try. I also ordered a lovely glass of Pinot from the wine list, which is extensive if you’re getting wine by the bottle but a bit limited when you’re just going by the glass. Oh well. We settled down, soothed by the cozy atmosphere and Billie Holiday music and waited for the meal to begin.

First up: a trio of, I suppose, pre-amuse bouches, all of which were light, delicate, and lovely. Then came the actual amuse bouche, which was a tiny fritter in a light veloute. Well done on the fritter, which could easily have been heavy and greasy but thankfully wasn’t. Nobody wants a grease bomb hitting their stomach before a three-course meal.

I opted for the foie gras starter, which was served with a gingerbread biscuit and peaches–an intriguing combination that worked beautifully. The acidity of the peaches helped cut the richness of the foie (which was cooked to crisp-outside, melting-inside perfection) and the warming gingerbread contributed spices that always pair nicely with foie gras. Husby had the fig tart (figs are FABULOUS right now) with pigeon. Their pigeon was much better than my first attempt with it. Definitely juicier, and playing nicely with the sweet, ripe figs on a paper-thin pastry square.

For mains, we both leaned hearty. Husby had sirloin, served with tongue, sweetbreads (the lucky bastard) and a truffle sauce. We’d never tried tongue and were a bit wary, thinking it would be inevitably tough, but it was perfectly tender and interesting, in a very good way. The truffle sauce was handled with a light and deft hand, so the truffles didn’t overpower the dish (a common problem with truffles, I find). My main course was grouse, which has just come into season, with chard and a velvety celeriac puree.Comforting, warming, and gamey without being too aggressive, it was an excellent meal for a chilly fall day.

And finally, the desserts. I went for the lemon souffle, which has to be ordered a little early, unless you want to wait 25 minutes between your main and final course. I took the sommalier’s suggestion on the pudding wine and it turned out to be a perfect one (as one would expect). The towering, fluffy souffle arrived alongside a tiny scoop of iced tea sorbet and a cloud-like, lemony cream-cheese mousse topped with granola.

Husby’s strawberry parfait was an absolute work of art–a Study in Pink, if you will. Someone’s clearly been studying their molecular gastronomy in the kitchens here, and applying it well. The parfait was rolled up in a thin strawberry-flavoured gelee, with strawberry mousse spheres scattered amongst the cardamom beignets. It was absolutely stunning, and delicious, too. Pure taste of summer.

Number One is touted as one of the best restaurants in Scotland, and it shows. No detail is left unattended to, and though the place is rather classic in its designed (think dark wood walls), it doesn’t feel stuffy. Service is cheerful, unintrusive, and helpful, and though the dishes are beautifully modern, there are charming old-fashioned flourishes as well, such as trolleys that are wheeled around the dining room with bread and cheese selections. Afterwards, a cab was called for us, and we headed home, fully satisfied, but not overly stuffed.

According to my husband, it was a wonderful birthday.

Cafe Fish

P1050674-1By some miracle, I was offered a website editor position with the Scottish Book Trust, which means I get to spend my professional days encouraging people to fall in love with reading and writing. For me, that’s basically the exact description of a dream job, so naturally Dear Husband and I wanted to go out and celebrate. We settled on the rather unimaginatively named Cafe Fish for a few reasons: 1. It’s local; 2. It’s a celebrated fish restaurant in a city that’s great for fish, and we love our seafood. Off we went.

In terms of decor, the place is…well, I guess it’s a tiny bit incongruous and odd. It’s housed in an old building that still has some old wood detailing around the room, but all the fittings, tables, and chairs are sleekly modern and a bit on the chilly side, being mostly metal and black plastic. My guess is they didn’t want the place to seem stuffy, and they accomplished that. Strangely, the setup works, though I feel like it would be a little less pleasant on a cold, gray winter’s night.

For us, the issues started early, and they were all about service. My husband’s drink was wrong–almost completely wrong. The waiter utterly disregarded about half of what he asked for, so that had to be sent back. My prosecco came out without incident, as did the glass of wine I had with my entree. Getting alcohol is no problem here, but if you want to have your water glass refilled, good luck. Ours were ignored completely; the only reason we got more water at all was because my husband managed to flag down another table’s waitress. The food was also interminably slow to come out. Normally I’d blame this on the kitchen, but I found it suspicious that another table had time to sit down, eat a two-course meal with wine, pay their bill and leave all before we’d managed to finish our entrees. And it’s not like they were speed eating either. There was probably a good 15-20 minute gap between when our appetizers were finished and our entrees appeared, which is absurd when you’re talking about fish served with sides that have, most likely, been prepped ahead of time. We got our puddings all right, but then the waiter, who’d been asked to bring the bill, disappeared completely. We never saw him again. The waitress at the table next to us brought the bill after we asked. I think this might have been the only time I’ve ever dined out and chosen not to leave a tip. I’ve waitressed in the past and I tend to be very forgiving and generous, but this service was terrible.

Food-wise, the place was all right. Our appetizers were quite delicious (a crab salad with heirloom tomatoes for me, cured trout with beets for him) and my entree (sea bass with spiced aubergine) was lovely both in flavor and appearance. My husband’s entree of roasted cod, which cost an extra 2 pounds supplement, was a near complete disappointment. The cod was dull, just a roasted slab of fish that had been seasoned, certainly nothing I couldn’t have made at home. The flabby skin on it was unappealing, as was the overly wet puree it perched on, which was as inspiring as the wet sponge it resembled. It gave both of us a definite sad, because cod is a beautiful fish that can stand up to some great flavors, and they just did nothing with it. My pudding — bramble frangipane tart with ginger ice cream, was nice, with decent flaky pastry and a clean ginger flavor to the ice cream that nicely complimented the rich brambles.

Cafe Fish is only one of many, many seafood restaurants around town, and it’s not one we intend to return to when the competition is so high and so good. The prices seemed steep (22 pounds for 2 courses), especially when you can go to somewhere like Angels with Bagpipes for 16 pounds for three courses, and probably get a much better dining experience. Several of the items on the menu cost extra, and I suspect they charged us for a second basket of bread (which we only needed because of the long wait between courses) — there was a mysterious additional 3 pound charge on the bill we couldn’t account for, but since it had been such a struggle to get the bill in the first place, we just let it go and went home, somewhat the wiser.

Places to Eat: eteaket Cafe and Tea Boutique

I spent part of my 4th of July holiday meandering through the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, taking in the sight of many a Stuart monarch and aristocrat. It was lovely (I highly recommend you visit–it’s free!) but walking around a climate- and moisture-controlled environment for a while can be hard on the feet and leaves you with quite a thirst. I emerged almost precisely at teatime and decided to head around the corner to eteaket on Frederick Street and sit down with a reviving afternoon cuppa.

It being teatime and all, the place was busy, but I was able to find a table in between a young couple and a pair of middle-aged ladies, all catching up over the obligatory pots of tea. I perused the menu, bypassing the sandwiches and salads and going right for the sweet stuff. A slice of the cake of the day–chocolate Earl Grey–and a pot of the intriguing-sounding Chili Rooibos if you please.

While I waited, I took in the sight of the place and deemed it almost self-consciously eclectic. By that, I mean it’s actually rather trying to be funky. The magenta and torquoise furnishings, vaguely Indian design on the walls, and Beck on the soundtrack seem to be aiming towards a young-and-hip crowd (tea’s not just your gran’s drink–it can be sexy and cool!). But then the tea itself comes out in squat, serviceable teapots with mismatched floral cups and saucers alongside, just like what your gran would use (we’re cool, but we’re not so cool we’re stuck up or make you uncomfortable!) Somehow, though, it all works and I felt pleasantly cozy as I settled back against the banquette with the most recent copy of The Pulse to peruse. Smiling staff members delivered my cake and tea (which comes with a little timer, so you know exactly when to take the tea filter out to avoid over- or underbrewing) just as the heavens opened up outside, delivering a drenching downpour. I have to admit, I felt a little smug over that bit of good timing.

Both cake and tea were actually rather surprising. I was, to be honest, expecting a heavy sugarbomb slice with the cake, but it was nothing of the kind. The chocolate sponge was light and fluffy, its richness cut by the tangy cream cheese frosting, which worked so much better than buttercream would have. The Earl Grey flavor wasn’t terribly prominent, but the cake was good and I happily downed every little bit.

The tea menu actually warns you to approach the chili rooibos with care, and I will warn you too: it does actually pack some heat. Not so much it blows out your palate, but if you’re sensitive to spice at all you might want to try a different brew. This one prominently features rich cherry flavors before moving on to the lingering spice at the end. Apparently, there are also rosebuds, safflower petals, peony petals, and carrot flakes in it, but I didn’t really detect any of those flavors. Maybe on the second try (it was delicious enough that I purchased some to take home with me).

For those looking for a soothing afternoon cuppa, lunch, snack, or full traditional tea, this is a lovely place to get it. Unstuffy, charming, friendly, and delicious.

eteaket Cafe and Boutique
41 Frederick Street