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.

Culinary-tale of New York – great bites (and sups) from the Big Apple

Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry.
Ferry to lower Manhattan.

New York food & drink travelogue - "After an adequate start to our Big Apple breakfasting, in a sparsely-populated Italian restaurant on the border between - appropriately enough - Little Italy and the East Village, Tribeca's Gee Whiz Diner was a dream come true.  With its open kitchen, cosy booths and friendly/efficient/sassy staff, it could have been populated straight from central casting."  

Mention "The Big Apple" or "The City That Never Sleeps" and people instantly know of the metropolis to which you refer.  Glance out of the aeroplane window when landing at Newark Liberty airport and you are greeted by a skyline that has not only formed a central backdrop in countless films, TV programmes and novels, but has also greeted immigrants from across the globe who went on to build a nation.

Everything about New York seems iconic and familiar.  Yet take time to explore this fabulous city and you will find a diverse mosaic of differing neighbourhoods, cultures and architecture. Visitors may think they know NYC from the media, but it is more atypical and extraordinary than is sometimes imagined. And that is equally true of the city's food and drink.

This is what JML and I came to realise during a birthday-celebratory long weekend in autumn 2015, encompassing Manhattan, Brooklyn and (briefly) Staten Island.  Our trip to New York wasn't all about food and drink.  But as two lads who rarely pass up an opportunity to partake of a tasty morsel or alluring beverage, it played a pretty central part. So join us on our Big Apple culinary journey...

Beer in New York's Blind Tiger Bar
Beer at the Blind Tiger - tasty! (pic Courtesy of The Blind Tiger).
B is for beer, Brooklyn and breakfasts
Now I know that America's national, alcoholic drink of choice is almost certainly beer.  And from our last visit to NYC, some eight years ago, it was apparent that that state-side brewing wasn't all about the more insipid, mass-produced brands that now also adorn the booze aisles of UK supermarkets (thank you Brooklyn Brewery for that particular revelation).  Also, I have recently rediscovered home brewing (watch out for a post on this soon), meaning I have absorbed some the internet buzz that exists regarding craft beers emanating from the USA.  So an initial pint of pretty decent IPA procured from a food stand in Battery Park, and enjoyed whilst overlooking the Hudson River and a distant Statue of Liberty, was an unexpectedly welcome refreshment three hours after clearing immigration at Newark. However...

Even the most mundane midtown or Tribeca pub seems to have a bar adorned with an intriguing array of pumps offering tempting brews, each advertised with a branded, sculpted tap handle. Ales from the likes of Goose Island, Allagash, Lagunitas and Brooklyn jockey for attention.  And whilst not all of these could be considered "craft" beers, they are none-the-less very appetising.  Yet also dotted across NYC are veritable temples dedicated to real ale, such as The Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village.  Its unassuming entrance on Bleecker Street hides a smashing colonial-style dark wood and brick interior lined with blackboards displaying the plethora of brews currently on offer. And what a range...  IPAs, Belgian tripels, oatmeal stouts, saisons, porters, lambic ales, all sourced from New York and neighbouring states. To be honest, I could have stayed supping all day, but we restricted ourselves to a couple of quaffs. Oh and be warned - east coast breweries like things strong - Victory Hoppy Belgian-style quad at 13% ABV anyone?

Bait and Tackle Bar, Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Red Hook's Bait and Tackle bar - in soft focus, naturally...
Beer also featured in our visit to Brooklyn - where two of our Edinburgh friends were ensconced whilst work had brought them to the City That Never Sleeps. Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood is what real estate agents describe as "up and coming". Imagine the area around Leith Docks, and you have the picture of where our mates chose to reside.  And in the Bait and Tackle, we found this dockland neighbourhood's answer to the Port of Leith.  If you ever end up in this bit of the smashing borough that is Brooklyn, do check out this eclectic former fishing supply shop-turned-bar.  And if you are carnivorous, or even if you are not, a trip to Prime Meats should certainly be in order.  A "farm to table" restaurant located in the Carol Gardens neighbourhood, its cuisine has a Germanic alpine influence that makes the most of local and fresh ingredients.  Treated by our friends to a tremendous dinner to celebrate JML's birthday, starters of grilled octopus, and herb and gruyere spatzle were sublime.  But the mains stole the show: sukrut garnie - bone-in pork belly with German wurst and saurekraut was delicious, yet by the same token the steak frites, and dry-aged cote de bouef looked and tasted amazing.

Huevos Rancheros, served at Fort Defiance, Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Hearty huevos rancheros from Fort Defiance, Brooklyn.
What I didn't mention above was the smashing, American wine that accompanied the meal. The copious, smashing wine. The copious, smashing wine that made us trust a certain smart phone navigation app that directed us along the quickest walk home, through a very "interesting" area of Brooklyn, where we were stopped by two members of NYC's finest, concerned for our safety.  Do not fear, we made it back safely - to the Bait and Tackle...  So the next, brilliantly blue sky-emblazoned, squinty-eyed, cardboard-mouthed, morning demanded a hearty breakfast. Cue Fort Defiance in Red Hook.  A subtly, yet beautifully, decked out restaurant that serves a heavenly "all-Amercian" (eggs any style, Nueske's bacon, hash browns and toast), and an even more divine huevos rancheros.  Worth crossing the East River for this alone.  Wandering back to Manhattan through picturesque, leafy streets lined with brownstones, we decided there and then that our next visit to NYC would involve more exploring of Brooklyn and its inviting cuisine.

Food blogging - this I now know to be true.

Brunstane Fields Greenbelt
Campaigned to save this from development - sadly we lost.
Hello, and sincerest apologies for being absent from Scrumptious Scran for a further protracted period of time. This in no way indicates I have lost my love of food and drink, nor my appetite for sharing this with you. I’ve had the most fantastic time as a food blogger, and hope that this may long continue.  Yet over the last few months – if not years – I have discovered the following to be true when it comes to committing thoughts and experiences to the blogosphere…
  • Trying to make a decent stab of writing about (and photographing) culinary experiences and thoughts, that people will actually want to share in, takes a fair bit of planning and effort. This isn’t a grouse, merely an observation that, if you are passionate about people connecting with your take on food and drink, you need to approach such things with care and attention to detail, as well as passion.
  • In common with many food bloggers, my dream occupation would be that of a full time food writer. However, until such fame and fortune beckons (oh, how we laughed!) it’s necessary to pay the mortgage through other forms of gainful employment (which are great, don’t get me wrong). And this accordingly means that the time that can be dedicated to exploring and writing about the “next big culinary thing” becomes a bit limited. And talking about paying the mortgage…
  • Moving into a new house that “requires a bit of minor renovation” which then transpires to need completely refitting from top to bottom, can also put the kibosh on having any spare time to actively maintain a blog, or even identify new and exciting things to cook, or places to eat.  Fear not however, as the renovations are nearly complete, bar building a new kitchen, which might have ramifications in terms of my ability to cook for a wee while, but it's all for a greater good ultimately. And talking of building…
  • Moving into a new house to find that the fields/greenbelt opposite are set to be turned into a development the size of Haddington can naturally result in being drawn into a campaign to actively oppose such a loss of essential greenspace.  In combination with renovating said property, this leaves even less time for actively maintaining a blog.
However, dear reader, all is not doom and gloom. The battle to save the greenbelt may now be lost, but our house is smashing, and will be even more so when the kitchen is extended and refitted.  All of which means I – hopefully – now have much more time to devote to what I am passionate about: cooking, eating, drinking and writing about all of these things.

Watch this space – Scrumptious Scran is back…   

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.