Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Tápame - splendid Spanish tapas with a Greek twist

Tortilla with Romesco sauce.
Tasty tortilla & rocking Romesco/
Sometimes, it's nice to be a wee bit cultured.  To be fair, living in a city that hosts the world's biggest arts festival each year, it's hard not to be.  Yet the partaking of great music, comedy and theatre in Edinburgh isn't merely restricted to four weeks in August.  A case in point was the recent visit of the National Theatre's utterly superb production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - a play unlike any I have seen and which thoroughly deserves the multitude of awards bestowed upon it.  However, prior to feeding our minds and souls, JML and I needed to feed our stomachs!

Like many places in the UK, Edinburgh's culinary scene is increasingly multi-cultural.  All sorts of restaurants offering various national cuisines seem to appear with increasing regularity and this is, generally, a good thing.  Yet every now and again something slightly odd rocks up. A case in point being the tapas bar Tápame located obliquely opposite my place of work.  Except that it isn't exclusively a tapas restaurant.  For not only does it serve Spanish mini-morsels but it complements these with a selection of Greek mezze.

Buñuelos de bacalao - saltcod fritters
Sublime salt-cod fritters - Buñuelos de bacalao & alioli.
Now I understand there is a degree of commonality between food hailing from the east and west of the Mediterranean: great fresh ingredients from fragrant, sun-baked land and clear azure seas; the influence of different cultures that historically criss-crossed the region, especially those historical Arabic and Ottoman empires that made familiar formerly exotic produce and spices; and the propensity for dishing up all this really good fare on little plates and dishes.  Yet despite sharing these characteristics, the food of Spain and Greece is, nonetheless, different.  Could it really be successfully melded together?

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Guild of Foresters - 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.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Recipe: ¡Viva Tortilla! - A scrumptious take on "Spanish omelette", to welcome the return of al fresco dining

Spanish tortilla based on a "Moro" recipe.
Spanish tortilla based on a scrumptious "Moro" recipe.
When I was a wee lad, there was an advert on TV hailing from a major food producer.  It extolled people to be exotic in their cooking by preparing a "Spanish omelette".  I can't remember exactly which non-egg ingredients said dish was meant to include to make it "Spanish" other than frozen peas. I suspect some of you are realising which major food producer was the sponsor of the advert...


Exotic eating was very much in vogue in the 1970s, which represented a time of transition in terms of the UK's culinary heritage.  Historically, British cooking had been diverse and inventive, but coinciding - and probably as a result of - the great wars of the 20th century, our relationship with food seemed to lose its way.  Wartime rationing meant that our cuisine became bland and mundane.  At least until we discovered, and took to our hearts/stomachs, food from across the world.
 
Like many people growing up in urban areas of the UK in the 70s I became aware of, and fascinated by, the increasing prevalence of restaurants serving the food of India (technically, more usually that of Pakistan or Bangladesh), China and Italy.  This growth in "exotic" new fare was no accident, but resulted from those who emigrated to the UK from across the globe during the last century expressing their culture in culinary terms, and sharing this with people already resident here.  And we Brits loved it!

Yet surprisingly, there was one culture that Britons became increasingly familiar with during the 1970s and 80s that seemed to have scant influence on our eating patterns.  With millions of us annually jetting off to Spain each year, why was it that the superb food of that country failed to become ingrained in our culinary psyches?  Maybe it was because the nature of the package holiday meant that holidaymakers from the UK had only limited exposure to authentic Spanish cooking.  Or perhaps (at least until the relatively recent economic turmoil within Europe caused significant migration) there simply wasn't a large enough Spanish community within the UK to provide a genuine Iberian dining experience for those returning from the fortnight of sunshine on the costas.

This all goes to explain why the pea-festooned "Spanish omelette" of my youth bore little resemblance to the "tortilla española/de patatas" I first sampled in Barcelonan tapas bar in the mid-1990s.  It is a dish that exemplifies the, often, uncomplicated nature of Spanish cuisine (although Ferran Adrià might dispute that assertion). Fundamentally it comprises merely three ingredients; onion, potato and eggs - plus seasoning.  Yet it is also a dish the flavour of which is substantially greater than the sum of its parts, simultaneously being sweet, earthy and rich, but also fresh tasting.

In an ideal world, tortilla de patatas should be enjoyed on a sunny Spanish terrace, accompanied by a cool glass of beer.  But as balmy spring weather starts to make its presence felt in the UK why not rustle up this simple and delicious dish to be enjoyed - hot or cold - as part of some home-based al fresco dining?  The recipe below is pretty authentic, being my evolution of one contained within the truly splendid Moro - The Cookbook.  Rather than deep-fry the potatoes (as the original recipe requires) I prefer to parboil them until they are just cooked, drain them and allow any excess moisture to steam away.  I have also been known to add a small green pepper to the onion, to give an even greater sweet-earthy, grassy accent.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Ox - 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...