Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Henrick’s Bar & Bistro, Edinburgh – Pre-theatre dining that misses the final act

(Not so) cripsy pork belly, ginger glaze, spring greens, Henrick's Edinburgh.
Henrick's Edinburgh: ginger glazed pork belly - no crackling...

Henrick's, Edinburgh review - "My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with 'rustic' oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse."


I’ve often maintained that eating is as much a cultural experience as it is about sustenance.  After all, few things can be as social as sharing a meal with friends or family.  Likewise, a particular regional, or national cuisine can be highly representative of the culture from whence it originates.  Given the cultural resonance of food, it’s probably unsurprising then that JML and I quite often like to combine going out for a meal with a visit to a comedy show, the cinema, or the theatre.

This was recently the case when we decided to travel across town to take in Anita and Me at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre.  If only JML had realised the production wasn’t in fact a play but a musical before he booked the tickets.  Somewhat surprisingly, he can’t abide musicals…

So, before taking our seats in the stalls, we decided to also take in an early dinner.  Now there is no shortage of eateries in the Tollcross / Bruntsfield districts of Edinburgh – quite the reverse in fact – but having read a favourable write up in the press, JML suggested we try Henrick’s Bar and Bistro, not least because it was a couple of minutes’ walk from the venue, and therefore well used to catering for the pre-theatre dining crowd. With recollections of having had a decent meal there years ago, I agreed this seemed like a good call.

Occupying double fronted premises on the ground floor of a Victorian tenement, the interior of Henrick's is quite architecturally impressive, sporting high, corniced ceilings, a handsomely imposing bar, and dark, wood-panelled walls. All nicely balanced by neutral paint shades, complimentary dark leather furniture, and stripped wooden floors. Welcomingly alluring.  "But enough with the World of Interiors, what's the scran and swallie like?", I hear you ask.

Brocolli and goats' cheese tart - Henrick's Edinburgh.
Tasty broccoli and goats' cheese tart.
Now, whilst the venue offers a two-course pre-theatre menu - pretty good value at £12.50 - we decided to go for the new, Spring al a carte option. First course arrived in quick time, just after bottles of sparkling water and very quaffable Rioja found their way to our table.  I was sorely tempted by the goats’ cheese tart, but was pipped to that post by JML.  It transpired to be a solid choice, with the (just) crisp pastry base being filled with an appealing combination of greenery in the form of tender broccoli and spring onion, and a richly flavoured caramelised onion and chilli jam. The fresh, yet savoury, goat's cheese that wasn't too overpowering, and the dish came dressed with a pleasant Balsamic glaze. ­ A decent curtain-up effort.

My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with 'rustic' oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse.  Plus, fine as the oatcakes were - and I stand to be corrected here - they seemed to be more mass-produced than rustic.  And I am not sure that the limp rocket garnish brought much to the dish.

Peppered mackerel mousse and oat cakes - Henrick's, Edinburgh.
Peppered mackerel mousse.
Now much as I love hake - pan fried with an oriental twist on Henrick's Spring menu - I adore pork belly in equal measure.  There is something utterly irresistible about a slab of slow cooked porcine loveliness, all crisp on top and meltingly unctuous beneath. So I was salivating with anticipation at the arrival of a main course of slow cooked pork belly in a ginger glaze.  Did my eager anticipation turn out to be well placed?


The accompanying mashed potato was smooth-ish and creamy, and the spring greens - though I don’t think mange tout is locally seasonal - were cooked just to point with a nice basting of salty soy sauce. The pork belly was "fine", to coin an adjective again. The meat was tender enough but, where there should have been a layer of crackling, there was no crispness present whatsoever.  The sticky ginger glaze, whilst flavoursome, was maybe a little too sweet and lacking in astringency to properly balance the richness of the meat. Rightly or wrongly, memories of my father's pressure-cooked pork belly in Homepride Cook-in-Sauce sprang to mind - Dad, if you're reading this, it was pretty cutting edge for 1976, honest...

Always one for a nice steak, JML struck lucky when he spied an 8oz fillet of prime Scottish beef on the menu.  "Cooked to your preference" - which in JML's case is medium rare.  A suitably enticing-looking slab of meat was served, together with nicely crispy/fluffy chips, juicy roast tomatoes, and a creamily rich sauce laden with citrusy-spicy pink peppercorns.  It scored a tick as decent pub grub, except for the fact that the steak wasn't quite as JML preferred. It was much more medium than medium rare.

To draw the review of our pre-theatre dining to a close, I'd love to tell you about our pudding choices of JML’s chocolate brownie and - one of my particular favourites - rhubarb and apple crumble.  Alas, this isn't possible. Despite the fact we ordered our desserts 35 minutes before curtain up, we had to leave empty mouthed after half an hour, or risk missing the start of the first act.  To be fair our splendid glasses of tawny Port did arrive promptly, and the very amenable front of house staff were effusively apologetic and knocked the puds off the bill as soon as we said we needed to pay.

Fillet steak and chips, Henrick's, Edinburgh.
Nice fillet steak - more medium than m-rare.
So, to draw on the theatrical theme, the plot summary for Henrick's:  Despite the flash bar, its more cosy than cutting edge.  It's a venue that is obviously popular - by 6.45pm on a Friday every cover was taken, which is maybe why the kitchen had a bit of a (lack of) pudding moment to itself.  It serves decent enough pub grub, though by our experience I think the inclusion of "bistro" in its title might be pushing it a wee bit.  And whilst I recognise that every restaurant can have a bit of an off night, if one of your key customer bases is the pre-theatre crowd, you must be able to get your - certainly not cooked to order from scratch - puds out to punters before the curtain goes up.







Food – 6.5/10
Atmosphere –7/10
Service – 6/10 (N.B. generally very good service, bar the missing puddings)
Value – 7/10

Ambience - expect a pleasant bar/restaurant serving decent pub grub fare. 


Henricks Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Cartel, Edinburgh - Mexican flavours with definite street cred

Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
El Cartel, Edinburgh - Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.

El Cartel, Edinburgh review - "Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order.  So first up was Guacamole National.  Now you are probably thinking 'mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice'. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions.  A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips."


If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking.  Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach.  A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next.  Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not...

I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer.  A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I'm not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.

Frozen margarita.
Fabulous frozen margarita.
It's probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street.  Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants - including Wahaca and Topolabamba -  purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals - having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant - is Thistle Street's El Cartel.  Being only an (avocado) stone's throw from JML's work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel's "own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food", so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.

I'm glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn't take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available.  Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus.  And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails.  The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze...

Baja fish tacos - El Cartel.
Baja fish tacos.
This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it's recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more.  The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos - hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos - literally "little cravings" in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.

Dishoom, Edinburgh – restaurant review: Refreshingly remixing Indian dining

Dishoom Edinburgh interior.
Dishoom Edinburgh - 5 minutes before being totally full.

Dishoom, Edinburgh review - "Not dissimilar to dining at a decent tapas restaurant our dishes came thick and fast, as opposed to entrees followed by mains. My central dish of chicken 'Ruby Murray' - love the wink to Cockney rhyming slang possibly referencing Dishoom's London origins - was an absolute belter..."


Excitedly getting ready to see one of the groups that provided the soundtrack to my youth - in the form of the always inventive and enduring Pet Shop Boys - play live in Edinburgh the other day got me thinking about cooking and eating. Bear with me on this one! As for me, food and music have a lot in common. My tastes are really quite broad and varied with regard to both - I'm not a huge fan of 'death metal' however, either as a musical genre or a cuisine.  I'm always looking out for something new and interesting in terms of a dish, tune, restaurant or artist. But I also regularly hanker after the familiar, be it in terms of food or music, although it's always refreshing to encounter an updated take on an old favourite from my younger days.

Vada pau Dishoom Edinburgh.
Vada Pau - spicy chip butty, anyone?
How appropriate then that prior to trotting off to see the PSBs lift the roof on the Edinburgh Playhouse, JML, our friend Tina, and I chose to dine at a relatively new kid on the city's culinary block in the form of Dishoom.  Appropriate, because as someone born and raised in the environs of Birmingham, Indian - or more accurately, Punjabi, Pakistani and Bangladeshi - cuisine was something my younger self was delighted to be constantly familiar with. Yet, like a stunning remix of a favourite tune, Dishoom brings a new perspective on the food of the subcontinent, a world away from the Balti houses of my formative years.

Apparently taking its name from a Hindi term referring to the noise made by a ricocheting bullet or landing punch in Bollywood action films - think "kerpow" in the original 60s Batman TV series - Dishoom is majorly inspired by Bombay's (Mumbai's) Irani cafés.  These were opened by Zoroastrian devotees emigrating from Persia (modern day Iran) from 19th Century onwards.  Now dwindling in number, such venues are about all-day dining, where the well-to-do and those not quite so financially fortunate all rub shoulders together, and food that draws influence from the middle-east and across India arrives fast and fulsome.

Chilli cheese toast - Dishoom, Edinburgh.
Chilli cheese toast - sort of Indian rarebit.
The Edinburgh branch of Dishoom (there are already four, highly regarded, sister venues in central and east London) threw open its doors in the redeveloped southern edge of St Andrew's Square at the end of 2016, and has already had folk, quite literally, queuing out the door as reservations are only taken for parties of six or more. The venue is spread over three floors of a stylish, Victorian former office building, and consists of a buzzing, speakeasy-esque cocktail bar and dining area in the basement, a modest reception area and truly enormous open kitchen at ground level, with stairs to rival Jacob's Ladder leading to the colonial-inspired main dining area above.  Taken in the round, it exhibits all the credentials of a well put together and welcoming dining and supping venue.

Barrelhouse Bar and Grill, Edinburgh Restaurant Review - A most welcome east-end rollout


Barrelhouse Bar and Grill, Edinburgh - interior.
The Barrelhouse's "smoking" interior.

Barrelhouse Bar & Grill, Edinburgh review - "Finger bowls, extra serviettes and a receptacle for the bones (apologies to non-meat eaters) heralded the arrival of the chicken wings, and pretty glorious they were. Smothered in a rich, tangy, spicy glaze the meat was deliciously tender, sliding off the bone."


As someone whose day job is in communications, I’m well aware of the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, and this is often true. After all, had it not been for some wannabe local politician moaning on about the look of the Barrelhouse Bar and Grill – located in my old stomping ground of Willowbrae, Edinburgh – which draws its inspiration from New Orleans-style, blues-playing watering holes, I might not have heard about it. Because according to the prospective Edinburgh Councillor, the deep-south themed exterior of this newly opened establishment "does nothing to improve the area”. Unlike the hostelry’s former incarnation as the infamous Jock’s Lodge pub, which laid semi-derelict for years having been closed following it being the scene of a drugs-related assassination attempt? Aye, that really screamed “up and coming neighbourhood” – NOT! But I digress…

Chilli chicken wings - Barrelhouse, Edinburgh.
Finger-lickin' chicken wings.
Approaching the Barrelhouse, it's apparent that the corrugated iron that used to adorn the windows of the old Jock's Lodge has been niftily repurposed to form the place's new signage. I semi-jest, as set against the stylish charcoal grey rendered exterior, emblazoning the bar's name on purposely distressed metal sheeting trendily hints at the venue's southern U-S-of-A theme. Pass through the doors and it's surprising at how TARDIS-like the expanse of the interior is compared to the relatively diminutive frontage. I must confess that given its reputation I never stepped foot in the old Jock's Lodge during the decade I lived in the area, as I am not exactly a fan of a chibbing or ricocheting bullet accompanying a nice glass of Rioja, so I can't compare the new bar's look with its predecessor. But I liked what I encountered; faux-distressed wall and ceiling décor, mix and match vintage furniture, a well presented horseshoe bar adorned with more corrugated iron and stylish neon lighting, and - most importantly - a semi-open grill/kitchen, which contains the "god of hellfire", according to the signage adjacent the pass. The place even houses a modest stage area in order to host live music - smouldering delta blues I would imagine.

Chilli beef taco shell - Barrelhouse, Edinburgh.
Big and bold chilli beef taco shell.
Service was uniformly excellent right from the off, with the extremely welcoming and efficient staff immediately showing me to a table and furnishing me with a smashing pint of American-style rye beer, whilst I perused the Barrelhouse's menu and awaited the arrival of dining partner, JML.  Given the venue's Southern USA theme and the appearance of "grill" in its name, it's unsurprising that American classics and "BBQ" dishes are prominent in its food offering, but the range of starters and mains is more nuanced than standard diner-esque fare, and a squint at the Barrelhouse's Facebook page suggests the menu gets regularly updated.  JML having now arrived, and been speedily supplied with a refreshing pint of continental lager, we dived into placing our order.

Tápame, Edinburgh review - 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?

The Guild of Foresters, Edinburgh review - 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.

The Ox, Edinburgh review - 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...

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Clouds and Soil - Grandiose surroundings, fairly decent food

Samosas with raita.
Pulled pork samosas with saffron raita.
If there is one part of Edinburgh where visitors will never struggle to find somewhere to eat or drink it has to be the area that encompasses the top of Leith Walk, Picardy Place, and Broughton Street. This is a region of the capital that is chock-a-block with bars and restaurants of varied styles and cuisines. However, such is the competition in this culinary hotspot that every now and again a venue will pull down the shutters, only to be quickly transformed into a new food or drink-based enterprise.

One of the area's venues that appears to be in a constant state of reincarnation is the impressive Georgian townhouse at 4 Picardy Place. Since being converted from a TV production studio a few years back, this place has hosted: (the appallingly named) Thai Me Up restaurant; the GHQ bar/club/boutique hotel complex; and the Fiddler's Elbow pub. All these enterprises have now gone by-the-by. My interest was pricked, therefore, when I discovered that the team behind Leith Shore's trendy Bond No 9 had taken over the place, transforming it into "... a cocktail and wine bar, restaurant and four rooms" under the intriguing moniker of Clouds and Soil. Might this venture prove more successful than its predecessors, I wondered?

Queen scallops in lemon butter.
Queen scallops in lemon butter.
So a couple of Friday's ago, JML and I decided to give Clouds and Soil's restaurant a test drive. Crossing the venue's threshold we were greeted by... an empty hallway. So we popped our heads into the ground floor bar - which was certainly stylish, if not exactly bursting with punters - to be directed up the staircase to the first floor. The restaurant occupies two conjoined, grandiose Georgian rooms which have been tastefully decorated in sage green and decked out with oak flooring. An equally stylish bar area is nestled at one end of this space, with the majority of the covers occupying the larger area which boasts stunning views from its huge sash windows. Initially impressive. Yet did the food match the decor?

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.

London calling - Enjoying a right culinary knees-up in the Big Smoke

Bread sticks at Borough Market
By jenga! Beautiful Borough bread.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” so said Samuel Johnson. This is doubly true when it comes to food and drink. When I lived in London, half a lifetime ago, I was truly bowled over by the diversity of restaurants and food shops. The streets were not paved with gold; they were lined with dim-sum, shawarma, pie and liquor, and rice and peas. Since that time my culinary enthusiasm for the city has not diminished, as a recent trip to the Big Smoke bore testament.

A couple of weeks ago JML and I ventured “darn sarf” for a concert – the fabulous Alison Moyet, at the Royal Albert Hall, no less. Sneakily, I also engineered our trip to include a few dining and quaffing highlights. Well for the most part, but more of that to come. So what follows is an overview of some of the places we visited during our sojourn in London, together with details of what we enjoyed there.

As we were stopping a stone's throw from the Royal Albert Hall we decided to go for somewhere local and straightforward for an early dinner to proceed the concert. So "hoorah" for the internet for pointing us in the direction of the Builder's Arms, a smashing hostelry nestling in the heart of Kensington. The pub occupies the corner of a Victorian block, and has been nicely renovated to maintain original features, whilst being decked out in the shabby chic interior design that appears to be de rigueur amongst UK boozers at the moment. It also features a charming wee terrace for alfresco socialising. Best of all, however, the place boasts a great range of beers and a pretty decent menu of pub grub. JML's burger with skinny chips was delicious, and my cider & tarragon battered cod with skin-on chips, crushed peas and tartare sauce was really spot on. Oh, and the place has charming staff, which contrasts markedly with...

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Castle Terrace – truly a stellar dining experience

A dish of spring barley risotto with chicken
Stupendous spring barley risotto with chicken.
One of the great things about living in Edinburgh is that, for a relatively small city, it boasts a fantastic range of eateries, both in terms of cuisine type and level of sophistication. Within a stone's throw of the Royal Mile and Princes Street it's possible to feast on excellent yet modestly priced burgers or mezze, as well as indulge in some extremely fine dining. As someone who is obsessive about all things culinary, I appreciate good food whatever the context of its consumption. Yet every now and again it can be a real treat to push the (gravy) boat out with a meal at a gastronomically renowned restaurant.

And so it was a couple of Saturdays ago, when JML invited me to share a 40th birthday present by joining him for lunch at the Michelin-starred Castle Terrace. To be frank, there would have been tears if he hadn't have done so, such is the reputation of this sister restaurant of Leith's The Kitchin. Jointly established in 2010 by the vastly experienced Edinburgh-born chef Dominic Jack and his long time culinary pal Tom Kitchin, the quality of the food at Castle Terrace is such it took a mere 15 months for the restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. So having experienced a superb meal courtesy of The Kitchin late last year, and knowing that both Chefs share an ethos of "from nature to plate", I have been champing at the bit to sample Jack's cooking.

Amuse bouche of three canapes
An amazing amuse bouche.
Right from entering Castle Terrace it was apparent that we were in for a classy dining experience. The interior is beautifully designed, without being over stated; the muted burnt-ochre and plum decor giving the place an immediate mellow air. Warmly greeted and immediately seated, it was also obvious that the front of house operation is a well-oiled machine set up to provide exactly the right level of attentiveness. So within just a couple of minutes of stepping through the door, glasses of sparkling water had been poured and we were already perusing the set lunch menu.

Once our order was dispatched to the kitchen, it was only a matter of moments before the culinary concerto commenced. An amuse bouche consisting of a trio of beautifully crafted canapés was so artistic it seemed almost a crime to eat them. However, the fantastically fishy salt cod tortellini, caper-filled mini burger, and liquid-centred hors d'oeuvre that immediately exploded with Caesar salad flavours, were nonetheless consumed with eagerness. A deconstructed take on a cheesy baked potato was to follow - except this was presented layered in an espresso cup and packed with umami flavour. All were extremely clever and perfectly judged to thoroughly whet our appetites for the main event.

Birmingham Restaurant Review: A yummy Brummie bistro - The Pickled Piglet

Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
I’m a bit geographically off piste in terms of my latest restaurant review.  It’s not of an eatery in Edinburgh, nor even one in Glasgow.  For this week, I am dining at a place nearly 250 miles due south of “Auld Reekie”.  And it turns out to be a restaurant I liked very much indeed.   I probably should explain.

The first day of spring has always been memorable for me, not only because it marks the passing of winter, but also because 21st March is my Dad’s birthday.  So to mark his 79th year on planet Earth I thought it appropriate to arrange a wee visit back to Birmingham – the city of my birth – to celebrate this notable event.  I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that the exact form this celebration took was to take my parents out for very pleasant meal.

Now Birmingham is a very different place from the depressed, and – to be honest – somewhat depressing, metropolis I left in the mid-1980s.  Though the “city of a thousand trades” may have well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it during the Thatcher era, it has now become a vibrant, cultural hub.  Its centre has witnessed massive regeneration over the last two decades, particularly around its “canal quarter”, as the development of Symphony Hall and Brum’s architecturally impressive Library of Birmingham bear testament.  The waterways that were once at the heart of Birmingham’s industrial revolution are now the focus of a Bohemian collection of cultural and culinary establishments.  And as my Dad was born a stone's throw from the canal hub of Gas Street Basin, I thought it might be appropriate to find somewhere close by for a relaxed – but good quality – lunch.

Turbot with samphire and cockles.
Fab turbot with samphire and cockles.
A quick bit of searching on the internet and I had made a reservation for Friday lunch at the Pickled Piglet.  Located on Gas Street itself, this bar and bistro's website promised much of what I look for when I dine out - locally sourced ingredients, and free range, properly matured meat.  "Any chef can dress a plate, but taste is a different game" the restaurant's website sagely stated.  Occupying a compact, converted warehouse building, the Pickled Piglet’s dining and bar area is located on the upper floor.  It's bright and airy space which is tastefully furnished, whilst retaining features which nod to the building's industrial heritage.  Being Friday lunchtime in the centre of a bustling city, I'd expected the restaurant to be full.  Yet even though our reservation was for 1pm, as we were seated it quickly became apparent we were the only diners there.  Had I chosen a dud, I wondered?  Read on, and you will find the opposite to be true.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Apiary - Make a beeline for this buzzing bistro

a pudding of chocolate brioche with ice cream and custard
Choco-brioche butter pudding loveliness. 
I'm sure I am not alone in thinking that late February can be a bit grim. Whilst spring is tantalisingly just round the corner, the second month of the year can still dampen spirits, with its short days, long nights and stormy weather. Sometimes, a pick-me-up is needed at this time of year. And what better to boost spirits than visiting a new restaurant that is generating a bit of a buzz?

I had already been hearing good things – from the likes of Lunchquest and Scotland on Sunday’s Richard Bath – about The Apiary, even though the place only opened a few weeks before Christmas 2013. Occupying premises in Edinburgh’s Newington district - that previously housed the Metrople café-bar - a glance at the new restaurant’s website indicated it promised “Modern British grub to comfort or excite; pickling, smoking and preserving all done in house…” together with “Top to tail offerings dressed head to toe in tasty.” Home curing, smoking and pickling AND nose to tail grub – well that most definitely whets my appetite. So maybe The Apiary would provide the culinary lift I was looking for?

Initial portents were promising, as so busy was the restaurant on a wet winter Saturday that the only dinner reservation available was at 7pm. When we arrived, the large and airy dining area was already peppered with full tables, so we were courteously shown to one of the leather-upholstered booths that line its walls. With the combined a la carte and specials menus offering plenty to consider – including some very appetising-looking sharing platters – we ordered a couple of beers (with my Harviestoun Wild Hop IPA being notably refreshingly bitter) whilst we made our choices.

Glasgow Restaurant Review: Ad Lib - Bringing an authentic flavour of NYC to GLA

Sumptuously sticky ribs
Sumptuously sticky ribs. 
The Dear Green Place, Glasvegas, Glaschu or simply Glasgow. Whatever you prefer to call it, as an Edinburgher I have a soft spot for Scotland’s second city. Yet despite the fact that it’s only 40 miles and 50 minutes away on the train, for some reason I don’t seem to visit Scotland’s largest metropolis anywhere as often as I should, despite the fact it has some great places to eat and drink. The centre of Glasgow is architecturally stunning, and very different from Edinburgh. Like Birmingham – the city of my birth – it grew out of the industrial revolution, and similarly its city centre is still adorned with many of the grand Victorian buildings constructed from its industrial wealth. Central Glasgow is also laid out in a grid system, which – it is rumoured – inspired the one that is now such a prominent feature of New York. It has even doubled as the Big Apple on a number of film shoots.

How appropriate then that when JML and I caught up with some friends in Glasgow last weekend, one of the members of our party suggested we go for lunch at Ad Lib – a New York-inspired eatery a stone’s through away from the city’s grand Central Station (sorry!). To be honest, it wasn’t a place I had heard of before, but I do love the melting pot of influences and flavours there is to be had in a decent US diner – even one located on Scotland’s West Coast – so was most definitely keen to give it a go.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The Doric – An old haunt that’s maybe in need of a new approach…


Goats' cheese tart, with a rocket bonnet.
Edinburgh is blessed with a plethora of great places to eat. Not only that, but – like pretty weeds poking through cracks in a garden path – new gastro-pubs, bistros and restaurants seem to appear in my home town on a monthly basis. With this constantly emerging choice it’s perhaps unsurprising that favoured old haunts sometimes fall by the wayside.

I must admit that I do feel a wee bit regretful when circumstances change, and visits to oft-frequented stomping grounds begin to tail off. On the flip side, re-acquaintance with a now neglected eatery or hostelry can be joyous, when their present offerings live up to rose-tinted memories of meals past (see my review of The Shore, as a case in point). With this in mind, when JML and I met a couple of friends for lunch the other weekend, I was both intrigued and a little trepidations when one of them suggested dining at The Doric.

Lovely lamb & Madeira sauce. As for the veg...
Situated just behind Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station (in Market Street), The Doric is housed in an architecturally-impressive 17th century tenement building, and bills itself as “Edinburgh’s oldest gastro-pub”. The bistro section of the establishment, located above a separate bar, is accessed via stairs that would not be out of place in an instalment of Harry Potter. Walking into the restaurant it seemed little had changed from the last time I dined there over four years ago – still the same primrose yellow walls punctuated with an eclectic array of prints, and dark wood floors and furniture. Except, maybe things looked a bit more down at heel than I remembered.

We joined one of our – already ensconced – lunching partners and placed our drinks order with the Maitre d’, just as the final member of our party arrived. Service was friendly and courteous. But when we were handed the menus, my immediate thought was these had seen better days – both physically and in terms of contents. And while we perused the, somewhat dog-eared and grubby, menu cards the bottles of wine and water we had ordered were literally plonked – unopened and unannounced – on our table by another member of waiting staff. The portents, to be frank, were not good…

Now I must admit, I sometimes struggle to do a review justice when there are more than two of us dining, as there are maybe too many viewpoints to take into consideration – tastes and preferences often seem to get a bit complicated. This restaurant’s menu is not short on choice either, even if many of the dishes might be considered “pub grub stalwarts”. Add to this mix the fact that one of our party was gluten intolerant – which, to give The Doric its due, it did its utmost to accommodate –I thought we might be in for some mixed opinions. However, by the time it came to don our coats, consensus reigned amongst our party that our dining experience was a bit hit and miss.

Bite Magazine Review: A Room in the West End – Make room for fine Scottish flavours


A plate of venison salami and beetroot salad.
Delicious venison salami & beetroot salad.
In my latest review for Bite Magazine I sample some tasty Scottish fare on a balmy October evening, when dining at A 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. 

Smoked haddock, with a mush pea puree.
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.
 


Cheesecake with a blackberry sauce.
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.


Full review available here.

Feature Article: A brilliant Berlin culinary odyssey


Brilliant Berlin beer.
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.



Cracking currywurst.
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.

Feature Article: On a trail of discovery at the BBC Good Food Show Scotland


A busy East Lothian stand.
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.

Bite Magazine Review: Calistoga – Raise a glass to Californian cuisine

Delicious Californian wine.
Tasting delicious Californian wine.
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 2011 vintage wines sampled were: Freemark Abbey Viognier – lightly scented and dry, but bursting with peach and vanilla flavours; Scott Family Estate Chardonnay – tastes of smokey pineapple and mango; Napa Cellars Pinot Noir – a cherry burst on the nose, luscious soft red berries in the mouth; and Gnarly Head Petite Sirah – scented with nuts and richly flavoured with coffee and raisins.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Brew Lab - Great coffee, good food, but trouble is a-brewing…

Brew Lab coffee machine.
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.