I have just returned from a short work-related trip to Edinburgh, which meant spending Monday and Tuesday evenings in our illustrious capital. With one eye on quality and the other on maximum gain for my gelter, I had a quick location-based web search the night before to seek out some well reviewed city centre eating options around the area I was staying (Waterloo Place).
Of course, it’s not possible to fly direct from Benbecula to Edinburgh, so I had to first fly to Glasgow. The flight was a tad bumpy on the descent. The small Saab prop creaked as a result of pitching, rolling and yawing in the crosswind. Not even Margaret Atwood could distract me from the buffeting as we passed through squally showers. This was primarily because it was literally impossible to read while being thrown around at the mercy of the turbulent conditions. I was attempting to re-visit the first two books of the Oryx and Crake trilogy in preparation for the third, Maddaddam, to be published in 2013, according to Atwood on Twitter.
Safely planted on the tarmac in a driech Glasgow, by the time I caught the shuttle bus to the city centre and then train to Edinburgh, my stomach had recovered enough to seek out food.
Breakfast – Broughton Delicatessen, Barony Street
I had by choice opted for room only at my hotel. I am not a fan of cooked breakfasts and the cost for hotel breakfasts is very high if you only want a bowl of muesli. Being in the city centre, it seemed more fun to check out Trip Advisor and go on a local foraging expedition. Broughton Delicatessen also has the added advantage of being very close to Edinburgh’s best coffee shop, Artisan Roast.
I arrived pretty much bang on the 8am opening time as I had to get across the city centre in time for a meeting and knew I needed time to dodge the tram chaos. Staff were faced with their first customer of the day, and were ready to go. The coffee machine was already warmed up. I ordered Broughton deli granola, served with greek yoghurt and fruit compote and an americano. Disappointingly, they were out of fruit compote but offered me bananas and blueberries as substitutes. I don’t like bananas but opted for the blueberries.
It was a pretty huge bowl with a high yoghurt to granola ratio. The yoghurt was very good quality, thick, rich and acidic. The granola had plenty honey flavour but I just didn’t feel there was enough of it to balance against the volume of yoghurt. The blueberries were fine, but no substitute for a fruit compote which would have added moisture, sweetness and made the bowl complete. Had there not been a compote deficit, the £3.95 price tag would have been fine. This would not deter me from returning. The ingredients in the chiller looked appealingly fresh and high quality as did the advertised selection of rolls and salads. I need to return to revisit the compote if nothing else.
An added benefit was walking across the road for a cappuccino courtesy of the wonderful Artisan Roast. I tried a take away this time and was not disappointed, as it was presented and tasted as per a sit-in cup and kept me going as I dodged my way along the tram mess and chaos of Queen’s Street toward the west end.
Good news for Artisan Roast is that today they have received a much deserved accolade as best cafe in the UK, so well done to the knowledgeable and passionate staff therein.
Lunch – The Edinburgh Larder, Blackfriar’s Street
This unassuming deli, with a reputation for fresh seasonal Scottish produce sits at the top of Blackfriar’s Street, a stones throw from The Royal Mile. Once you have made it past all the kilted, bagpiping haggisy whisky-ness and tartan tat that accost you on approach from The Royal Mile, the atmosphere within is honest and relaxed.
Amazingly, and perhaps fortuitously, despite its proximity to The Royal Mile, this deli does not appear to particularly attract tourists. Tourists seem to exhibit the legionary behaviour of army ants, raiding en masse, focussing their column raid along the Royal Mile with all the urgency of a legion that has just scented its next meal of haggis and neeps.
The place wasn’t too busy, so I sat myself at a table, had a look at a couple of specials marked on the blackboard and tried to catch the eye of the staff, however, I did eventually have to get up and ask for a menu at the counter. The male behind it was engrossed in texting on his mobile and hadn’t noticed me come in.
I asked for a menu and about the availability of the specials. I got a very blank look and then a ‘sorry, err, um, pardon?’ I instantly recognised that this well-heeled Hugh Laurie pre-House chap was not coping with my perfectly polite but local (well, central Scotland) accent. This has happened to me once or twice in London, but it is rare. Ironically, I never had trouble being understood while working and living abroad, in fact many of my Portuguese friends developed my accent while speaking English! I would have liked to have seen him exposed to the Glesgae banter….
Having repeated my questions (painfully) slowly, ‘Can-I-have-a-menu-please?’ and ‘Are-the specials-still-available?’ We seemed to be getting somewhere and I retreated to my table to await the menu. I’m not sure if Hugh was then trying to avoid me, but another employee was sent over with the menu. He approached with all the stealth of a ninja. Steely and silent. Perhaps more alarmingly, it was a very ‘Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’ Lloyd Grossman Masterchef style approach (minus the cutlery for fingers). Without uttering a sound, he laid a menu in front of me on the table and retreated to the safety of his counter.
Although the menu was a bit grubby, dog-eared and faded, the contents were appealing. Phew! Although, having glanced at the menu online in advance, the prices were somewhat out of synch with those online i.e. it was on average about a quarter more expensive than the website suggested. This is a small but important point because it has been hailed in the past as a reasonably cheap, good value place to eat, but at current prices, I would describe it as being reasonable value, not cheap.
I ordered a leek, potato and black pudding soup from the daily specials board and a half sandwich billed on the menu as ‘homemade smoked fish pate of the day’. I had to again go to the counter to order, and qualified the fish in question was salmon.
Service was quick. The soup was piping hot, rich, creamy and well seasoned with some nice chunky pieces of leek at the bottom and with a thin puck of black pudding floating on top. The sandwich consisted of very fresh malted granary bread with a perfect crust. The filling however, was not pate as described but rather large chunks of smoked salmon on a spread of mayonnaise, a selection of fresh peppery leaves and some fresh dill. OK, clearly not pate, but it was very tasty so I happily ate it without raising the issue with the staff. They should, however, have advised me it wasn’t pate today. At £6.50, I think this light lunch was reasonable value.
Before leaving, I wanted to find out where they sourced their smoked salmon. After repeating my question ‘Where-do-you-source-the smoked salmon-in-your-sandwiches?’ very slowly to Hugh, turns out he didn’t know, but The Ninja did. Creelers (of Edinburgh, I assume). I later found out online that Creelers in turn source their salmon from the Loch Duart salmon farming company, which coincidentally has operations around the Uists. When it comes to Scottish farmed salmon, it’s a small world…
Dinner 1 – Howie’s, Waterloo Place
I chose Howie’s for 3 reasons. I had eaten in the Victoria Street restaurant on several occasions and enjoyed it (although admittedly this was probably over 10 years ago now). The menu was appealing and the early evening menu looked very good value. Finally, it was convenient being right next to my hotel.
The place was quiet when I arrived, with only one or two tables occupied. I was in time to eat and leave by 7.30pm, a requirement of the early dining menu which was my choice. Two courses were offered for £14.95. Service was efficient and staff attentive. I was advised that there would be a supplement for the rib-eye steak as a main and also that there was a special of roast pheasant (also with a supplement). I was offered tap water which came in a jug with ice, which was good. It was really quite dark inside, with most light being emitted from the tealights on the tables. After squinting at the menu I ordered cullen skink as a starter and it arrived very promptly.
It was a good-sized portion and came with what was described as artisan bread. The bread was OK, perhaps a bit nondescript. The skink was only just hot enough to eat, a fraction of a degree colder and I would have had to send it back. The texture was good with each piece of smoked fish (species undescribed in the menu) chunky and identifiable, likewise potatoes and leeks. The broth was thick enough but it did lack a bit of seasoning and the general depth of flavour and smokiness I would normally associate with cullen skink – the element that makes the dish so comforting and appealing.
On to my main course billed as ‘venison leg steak with fondant potato, seasonal greens, juniper and bramble sauce.’ Choosing venison in a restaurant has been the subject of much discussion between myself and The Man Named Sous. As our most consumed red meat at home, we have become adept at cooking it and more importantly, serving it just the way we prefer it. As a result, I have been advised many times over ‘Just don’t be tempted to order it, you will be disappointed’. Yet knowing this while staring at the menu didn’t stop me from doing so. It wasn’t sheer devilment that made my choice. There was a lure I couldn’t resist – the offer of fondant potato. I’m not a huge lover of potato, but a good pomme fondant is a wickedly decadent triumph.
A very high plate of food was presented with a substantial sea of surrounding gravy. In the gloom, I was trying to figure out what was going on the plate because I couldn’t see the pomme fondant, which made my heart skip a beat. I deconstructed the tower. It was topped with curly carrot shavings, which I assume had been deep-fried, but they were a bit soft. Underneath a substantial layer of several slices of venison leg meat sprawled. Lying somewhere between the venison and carrots was some kale, a pleasant surprise. Finally, pushing the veg and meat off the tower, I revealed the pomme fondant. It was gargantuan and I very quickly became suspicious that this was an imposter masquerading as my dream tattie dish.
Venison tower deconstructed in the dark with pomme conglomerate
A quick prod with my fork revealed the stark reality. I tried not to visibly recoil. This was not as described but a conglomerate of several potatoes set into a ring or formed into a cake. Crushed potato cake would be a better and more accurate description. I am not a fan of crushed potatoes and I felt robbed. Pomme fondant should be made of one single piece of sculpted potato. That aside, some pieces were cold and a bit hard and the whole potato component was underseasoned.
Moving onto better things, I tried the venison. The portion was very generous and it was nicely cooked overall being rare and tender. The flavour was good and although the species was not identified on the menu, I assumed it was red deer (confirmed later by my server who checked with the kitchen as she did not know). Unfortunately, there was a bit of sinew around the edges of a couple of slices, which was a pity. It was a little insipid around the edges too and would have benefitted from a bit more browning and seasoning.
Unfortunately, the juniper and bramble sauce was disappointing. Texturally, it appeared to have had a thickening agent added late in the sauce-making process as it was gloopy and may account for the lack of depth of flavour and seasoning. I regularly use both juniper and/or bramble in game sauces and I know it can be difficult to get the right balance as both can overpower. In this case, neither did. There was no hint of juniper infusion and only the slightest tang of fruit acidity that I presume came from bramble. It was a mere pale spectre of the powerful winey hedgerow berry flavour I anticipated.
I felt quite sorry for Howie’s, and myself as I didn’t expect disappointment and it would be unfair to assume my experience is representative, given the generally favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. If you want value for money, good service and you are not fussed on attention to detail, Howie’s may be an acceptable choice. Sadly the let down of the faux pomme fondant and my familiarity with venison meant high expectations were unfulfilled. It was always going to be an uphill struggle for this dish to deliver in these circumstances. Next time I will heed the advice and chose something else.
Dinner II – Mother India’s Cafe, Infirmary Street
I have been meaning to visit the Edinburgh cafe for a while. How fortuitous it was and delighted was I when a colleague suggested our team go for a meal there after work. The Man Named Sous was less impressed with my plans as he had wanted to eat here last time we were in Edinburgh and I suggested somewhere else. I have therefore committed to going to the Glasgow cafe with him in December. I promise. What a hardship!
The restaurant offers tapas style Indian food and has a longer established sister cafe in Glasgow which has a formidable reputation for great food.
I arrived with an advanced party of 4, the rest of our group of twelve arriving in dribs and drabs. This did not phase staff and our table was ready. Staff were attentive and gave us the options of drinks, poppadums or starting to order while we waited. Eventually, with everyone present, we ordered and despite the bombardment of information, staff coped impeccably with our orders. Service was swift without feeling rushed.
A long list of dishes are available with plenty veggie options and a daily special on the menu. It is suggested that 4-6 dishes are shared between 2 people. With over 40 dishes on the menu, it was difficult to choose. Two of us opted to share and ordered 4 dishes between us as well as a portion of rice and a nan, which was the perfect amount for us. The food arrived promptly and was piping hot.
Our order consisted of spiced haddock baked with punjabi spices, lamb saag (i.e. with spinach – hot!), chilli king prawns and the Tuesday special, vegetable thali. Each dish was full of great contrasts of aromatic and pungent spices, plenty chilli and fresh herbs.
I had forgotten just how good Indian food can be and it was also incredibly good value at £16 each, including poppadums and chutneys and a drink each. Having always headed for the nearby excellent vegetarian Indian restaurant Kalpna previously, I have now doubled my Indian options in Edinburgh. I can’t wait to use the excuse of a promise to The Man Named Sous to visit the Glasgow Mother India’s cafe soon.
Homeward bound, eventually
After a quick pre- and post-work whizz around Edinburgh, time to return home. Never anything but eventful, problems with planes meant my flight was delayed at Glasgow to accommodate some stranded passengers bound for Islay. Good old Loganair. Can you imagine a budget airline re-routing a plane because passengers would have to wait another 4 hours for the next one? Not on your life. So it was, our Benbecula-bound plane stopped off at Islay on the way. A novel experience indeed. Not least when we landed in Islay for the crew to discover one of the Benbecula passengers was missing and was thought to have got off the plane at Islay.
After much sniggering from the remaining Benbecula-bound passengers and a security check and baggage search taking 45 minutes, it turned out the passenger had not actually got on the plane at Glasgow. Stringent security?! The big bonus was that it was a beautiful cloudless morning over the Inner Hebrides and we had wonderful views of the Paps of Jura as well as Coll and Tiree, so the extra hour and a half on the journey provided much more than just the novelty of sitting on the tarmac at Islay.