Saboteur Edinburgh restaurant review - nothing malevolent could wreck this enthralling dining experience

"Saboteur's menu features a pretty extensive list of plates and bowls, to the point that despite dining at the venue twice already, JML and I are still to sample the bao buns and salads.  Yet that provides an excuse for a further visit soon, as what we did consume was really delicious."

Pho hai san, Saboteur restaurant, Edinbrugh
Pho hai san - fish is definitely the dish.
Picture of Big Brother watching Saboteur restaurant
Big Brother is watching... fab food.
It would appear I am sat in a school gym hall, albeit one dressed by one of New York’s or Berlin’s leading interior designers.  It must be exam time, because the stripped wooden floor is filled with neat rows of simple desks and chairs. Although I suspect exams are just over and the school disco about to begin, as a sound system has been installed next to the climbing bars cladding the walls, which is pumping out ‘cool as’ funk and hip-hop tunes.  I stare at an enormous picture of a man’s face on the wall opposite me.  And like Winston Smith in the closing chapter of George Orwell’s 1984 I am in love. But not with Big Brother.  For I have fallen for the food served by the restaurant I am currently occupying.  As what other explanation could there be for my visiting Edinburgh’s Saboteur twice in one week?

Nestling just a few doors down on Teviot Place from its immensely popular sister bar and restaurant, Ting Thai Caravan, Saboteur is a brand new venue – but only a couple of months old – that also focuses on Southeast Asian cuisine.  Yet in this case the menu predominantly celebrates the delights of Vietnamese, as opposed to Thai, cooking and street food.  Having last year stayed with friends in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, which has a significant Vietnamese community, JML and I had a fantastic introduction to Vietnamese dining there so were intrigued to see how this new kid on the Edinburgh culinary block measured up.  The answer to that particular conundrum is “very well indeed.”

Ca O
Ca O tastiness.
Both times we ate at Saboteur it was early evening, so we were presented with the “sun up” menu, which is available from 11:00-18:00hrs.  This consists of a range of dishes grouped by ingredients / cooking style, in the form of: rice noodles; curry and stir fries; bao buns; and salads, as well accompanying small boxes and side dishes, some of which can also be chosen as starters. It’s a pretty extensive list of plates and bowls, to the point that despite dining at the venue twice already, JML and I are still to sample the bao buns and salads.  Yet that provides an excuse for a further visit soon, as what we did consume was really delicious.

Dishes appear to be cooked to order by Saboteur’s kitchen, as they quickly arrive thick and fast with starters being promptly followed by mains, making  for a banquet-style experience.  Ga sa te – a Vietnamese form of Indonesian satay – came contained in a what can only be described as a brown cardboard coffin, but be not deterred as the contents were in no way funeral, consisting of succulent skewered strips of chicken accompanied by peanut and ajard (a combination of sweet/sour/spicy) sauce. Simple ingredients brought together to form a great compliment of flavours. Ca O is a dish that also arrives in a cardboard box, this time encasing soft balls of grilled fish flesh, dressed in a sauce comprised of tomato, tamarind, coriander, and chilli, which really sets off the tasty seafood with subtle heat married with fruity-sourness and clean, grassy-freshness.  Really delicious.

Ca'phi le
Ca'phi le - sea bass as fresh as a spicy daisy!
"Unboxed" small/side dishes were just as good. Banh xeo - a generously crispy rice 'crepe' - was bursting with chicken coated in an earthy turmeric batter nicely complimented by crunchy bean sprouts and spicy sriracha sauce.  A perfectly prepared, soft roti - which I had always thought was a flatbread more typical of India and Malaysia - was made even more delicious by a moreish peanut dipping sauce.  Khao mok was a bit of revelation.  Much as I like jasmine rice, this was a sumptuous Vietnamese/Thai take on a biryani, yellow with turmeric and laced with spices including cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon and richly infused with coconut milk.  Mouth watering yet? Wait until I turn my attention to the mains...

Ban xeo
A crepe, but not as we know it - and all the better for that.
Southeast Asian cuisine regularly features seafood as an ingredient, and Saboteur certainly does not shy away from this, I am delighted to say.  Pho hai san transpired to be a hearty bowl of rice noodle- adorned broth, combined with tasty prawns, squid, and fish-balls, augmented with vegetables and infused with a sweet-spicy-tangy sauce known as yen ta fo, which also gives the pho a subtle pink colour.  This was a bowl as freshly flavoured as it was filling.  Ca'phi le had at its centre a beautifully fried fillet of sea bass accompanied by a fabulous fusion of sweet pineapple, sour tamarind paste, spicy chilli, fruity tomato, fragrant Thai basil, all steeped in a tangy dressing that combined umami-laden fish sauce with malty palm sugar.  Smashingly fragrant cooking that hit every taste bud.

Cari rang voi mang
Cari rang voi mang - if you think it LOOKS tasty, get your chopsticks in.
Committed carnivores will not be disappointed by main dishes, either.  Order thit lon ham and what arrives is a steaming bowl of sweet-savoury stock/soy sauce-based broth that laps around fantastically tender chunks of pork belly and crisply-fried oblongs of marinated tofu, contrasted by slices of pak choi.  Cari rang voi mang hinted at the cuisine of Vietnam's Thai neighbour in the form a luxuriantly rich and beautifully flavoursome red curry sauce, which imparted the tastes of chilli, coconut and lime to delicious portions of beef and vegetables.

Interior of Saboteur, Edinburgh
"So we just say to the headmaster, the barrels are Irn Bru in bulk, yeh?"
Saboteur's cheerfully youthful staff don't just efficiently furnish diners with fabulously tasty food however.  There are some delicious drinks to be had too, not only Vietnamese juices and iced teas, but some really decent craft beers, such as Yeastie Boys' Big Mouth IPA, and Magic Rock's Salty Kiss Gooseberry Beer.  Contemporary sups that are full of character.  And 'characterful'  is probably a perfect adjective to describe this wee gem of an eatery. 

The taste of the food really stimulates the senses, finding enticingly fresh ways to explore the spicy, sweet, salty, sour, umami flavour balance that typifies southern oriental cuisine, yet in a form that might be welcomingly unfamiliar.  Considerable thought has gone into the dining space, meaning it is trendily welcoming without being overbearing.   Given the excellent quality and generous portions of the dishes, Saboteur offers incredibly good value, too.  Overall, an utterly super place for a meal.

To quote 1984 once more, this place is really double-plus-good!

Food - 8/10
Atmosphere – 7.5/10
Service – 7.5/10
Value - 8.5/10
Ambience - expect a buzzy, yet laid back, contemporary restaurant and bar.
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