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.

Belgian beer tasting - Supping heavenly Heverlee and other "devilishly" good brews at the Devil's Advocate

Bottles of Belgium beer for tasting.
Some brilliant Belgian beers.
Fancy tasting some top Belgian beers? Oh, and the tasting is guided by a highly accomplished Belgian brewer. A brewer who used to work in Scotland. And he's also the chap behind a new, and truly splendid, interpretation of a Belgian abbey-produced lager. To be honest, accepting such a proposition presents little in the way of cerebral challenge (the expression "it's a no brainer" is one I hate).

So last week I, together with a clutch of other food writers, assembled at Edinburgh's The Devil's Advocate bar to share the pleasure of supping some of the finest beers Belgium has to offer. We were guided in this venture by Joris Brams - a Belgian brewer who is the creative genius behind Heverlee, a fantastic lager available at selected venues across Scotland.

The story of how Heverlee came about is as engaging as the beer itself. Involving an ancient abbey, monastic advice, and brewing forensics, it could almost form the plot of a best seller. In brief, Brams has managed to recreate a "lost" beer that was once brewed during the Middle Ages by the monks who inhabited the Belgian town of Heverlee's Abbey of the Order of Premontre. I, for one, am very glad this once Scottish-based brew-meister has gone to so much trouble. But more on Heverlee in a wee while.

It is evident that Brams is a man who is passionate about brewing, and the beer of Belgium in particular. So it was a pleasure to hear him wax lyrical about the qualities of six of his favourite brews that hail from his homeland. Here is what we sampled, and what I learned.

Recipe: Fresh meets mature - Mutton braised in sherry, garlic and rosemary, with char-grilled asparagus and salsa verde

Mutton in sherry with asparagus and salsa verde
Mutton, asparagus, salsa verde - yum!
Sometimes, it can be good to mix things up a little, especially when it comes to cooking. Pairing a just-in-season ingredient with one that is more mature. Matching fresh and vibrant flavours with those that are more rich and complex. During spring – when new-season crops become ready to harvest, and certain produce from the preceding year matures – it can be a great time to partake in this form of culinary experimentation. As I found out last weekend…

With JML in the USA on business, rather than rattle around Scrumptious Scran Towers by myself I decided I would head for Edinburgh Farmers’ Market to purchase something interesting for Sunday lunch. In terms of vegetable ingredients I already had a specific idea in mind. Early May means that we are smack in the middle of the British asparagus season, and for me this has to be one of our finest, home-grown, seasonal vegetables. I love the fresh grassy flavour to be had from the bright green spears, and it is an ingredient that really doesn’t need much in the way of adornment.

So, with the vegetable component of my Sunday repast taken care of, my attention turned as to what to pair with it. The idea of a nice cut of lamb sprang to mind, but unless you are someone who favours very early spring lamb, it's a bit too soon in the season for Scottish-reared examples of this meat. Plus, for me, early spring lamb can be a bit underwhelming in terms of flavour. This is why I often go for cuts from more mature incarnations of sheep, in the form of either hogget (over one year old) or mutton (over two years old). These have a much greater depth of flavour, and the meat benefits from longer, slower cooking which all combine to produce some mouth-wateringly good meals.

Schmoozing amongst the stalls at the farmers' market I was delighted to encounter the pitch occupied by Annanwater blackface and blackface-cross lamb and mutton. Blackfaces are an ancient Scottish breed of sheep, which are both slow-growing and ideally suited to the rough upland grazing found in many areas of Scotland, including the Borders region of Dumfries and Galloway, where the Annanwater farm is based. And nestling on their stall I spied an appetising-looking neck cut of Blackface mutton. Combined with the right ingredients, this richly-flavoured succulent meat would make an ideal pairing for my asparagus. But how to cook it?