Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Empire's, St Mary's Street

Slotting nicely into my already fairly substantial “hidden gems” catalogue of Edinburgh restaurants is Empire's, a charming Turkish eaterie on St Mary’s Street. My interest was piqued in the summer when I spied it’s handpainted sign en route to see a fringe show at the Pleasance, and when a quick browse on Monsieur Google turned up scant but nonetheless extremely favourable reviews of mezze (tick), Turkish delight (double tick) and BYOB (tickety tick tick), I was officially sold.

Nose-wrinkling doner kebab clichés were instantly dispelled the moment my friend Lizzy and I arrived. Walls bedecked with elaborately-patterned rugs and jewel-tone chandeliers conjured up a romantic Ottoman opulence far flung from the cobbles of Edinburgh, but the tiny space, low lighting and quirky split-levelled dining area lent a slightly more bohemian air that made for a wonderfully intimate and convivial atmosphere. Service from the off was impeccable, with the waiter whipping away our bottle to be opened and assuring that we would be moved from our (absolutely fine) location by the door to a cosier table once one became available. Food always takes centre-stage for me, but a glowing ambience can throw a flattering sheen over a meal in need of some pep, and Empire's has said ambience in spades.

Luckily, the food needed no such spin. Lamb mousakka and kofte (meatballs) looked like satisfying winter mains but lured by the variety pack siren song of “lots-of-good-things-in-fun-sized-portions”, Lizzy and I both opted for the mezze selection – a choice of five each from the extensive list, served with warm flatbread and green salad. Perhaps as some sort of cosmic scolding for unadventurous ordering, my halloumi cheese and spicy feta-stuffed peppers were tasty enough, but wouldn’t have been out of place on a supermarket deli counter. Much more complex were the mini portion of herby beef kofte and sucuk, a dense, garlicky, salty air-dried sausage that falls somewhere between a Spanish chorizo and a salami. Patlican, melting strips of aubergine in a tangy tomato and onion sauce, was also wonderful, and absolutely sang with its milky way swirl of creamy garlic yoghurt. However, gold star of the evening goes without question to what became (dips into trough) my sixth mezze, acili – a paste of crushed toasted hazelnuts, chilli, garlic and tomato. Mooched from a patient Liz’s plate and smeared gratuitously over a flatbread, I was won over with one bite of damp, intensely nutty, claret-coloured mixture and promptly ordered my own, which came gratis, no less. Nut allergies excepting, if you eat at Empire’s, you must try this remarkable dish.

Stuffed as a pair of vine leaves, Lizzy and I briefly considered a final honey-soaked hurrah in the form of baklava (layers of filo pastry with nuts and syrup) and lokum (mixed Turkish delight) but instead chose mint-infused tea and kahve, traditional Turkish coffee served black. It was a strong, dry, thick and earthy digestif, and miles away from my usual, comparatively insipid cappuccino.

The only jarring note of our evening was the ear-splittingly loud (but mercifully sporadic) live music, which had the bread basket shimmying belly-dancer style down the table. It’s a major pet peeve of mine - in such a small space, amps and microphones are simply not needed. Pick your night carefully enough though, and this needn’t be a problem.

It was payday and Liz and I were both giddy with illusionary Vegas-esque riches, but they certainly weren’t frittered away here, with the entire bill for two people, including corkage for our wine and tip, coming to a bargainaciously mere £44.

And so, in a (crushed, toasted) nutshell, Empire's can be summed up as small, and very nearly perfectly formed. In fact (wait for it)…almost a-mezze-ing.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Shilla, Dundas Street

My gastronomic trek across Asia – via the good establishments of Edinburgh, of course - continued with chopstick-flourishing gusto last night at Korean restaurant Shilla. Squirrelled away on Dundas Street, it’s Edinburgh’s first and only Korean restaurant (so says the website), and after rave reviews from my flatmates, I’d been wanting to try it for ages. Opportunity happily presented itself when our friend John came up to Edinburgh for a quick visit.

The restaurant itself is a cosy, unpretentious basement affair, separated into a couple of small, eccentrically-decorated dining rooms that make it feel a bit like a miniature rabbit warren. The staff greeted us warmly and were more than happy to help advise on the extensive menu, which featured a wide variety of rice, noodle and Korean hot-pot dishes, plus a slightly pricier selection of more unusual-sounding chef’s specials.

Food-wise – in the opinion of this incorrigible freebie lover - things kicked off most auspiciously indeed when a variety of appetisers arrived at the table – radish in a sweet chilli sauce, fried aubergine, potato salad and my personal favourite, beansprouts in a nutty dressing. We also ordered some kimchi to pick at, a traditional Korean pickled cabbage dish, which is normally served as a side with the main course (we were feeling impatiently piggy). It was clearly straight from the fridge and far too cold, but was nonetheless very tasty – crunchy, tangy and fiery-hot with chilli.

Despite the kind guidance of the waitress, I ended up making a rather floundering lucky-dip selection when the time came to order, although I needn’t have worried about choosing poorly. My starter of gun man do, fried dumplings stuffed with minced pork, tofu, spring onion and rice noodle (£5.50), were gargantuan parcels, fried to caramel-gold perfection on one side, with sausagey filling that had hot, deliciously oniony juices trickling down my chin. Having sampled the dumplings during recent outings to Tang's and Chop Chop, I immodestly consider myself a bit of an authority in this particular area (erm…), and Shilla’s offering without question takes the gold. In cooking and eating, size doesn’t matter, but when something tastes as good as these did, you can’t help but think bigger really does equal better.

My split-second main course choice of sizzling oh sam bul go hi, a classic Korean dish of pork with squid and rice (£9.99) also came up trumps. It was a real rib-sticker of a stew, with succulent shreds of pork melting into a dark, salty, syrupy gravy that was fragrant with star anaise and ginger. The pieces of squid were generous and tender, and provided a fresh, chewy texture contrast to cut through the richness of the meat. I also thought the portion size was spot-on – decent but not so excessive as to overwhelm with the strong flavours.

The only area Shilla is a bit lacking on is dessert, with a lonely option of red bean ice cream wedged on the end of the menu, and reported to be “a bit weird” by my flatmates, who had sampled it on a previous visit. This aside, it was another top-notch dinner, and at just over £20 a head including wine and tip, bargainacious to boot (expect to pay a bit more if you go for one of the chef’s specials).

Admittedly, this was my first foray into Korean cuisine. I know what I like, but if you would prefer a more balanced review, feel free to send plane tickets to Korea – South rather than North, if poss – and I will see what I can do…

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Tang's, Candlemaker Row

As a dedicated carb-swerver, I love but don’t generally eat very much Japanese food. However, a recent Saturday night found my sister Ali and I both massively craving sushi, I decided to stick a middle chopstick up at the diet and set course for Tang’s on Candlemaker Row. Japanese restaurants have been popping up like gophers all over Edinburgh of late (Hay Sushi in Haymarket and Yes Sushi on Hanover Street are the newest) but off the back of several positive reviews, the more established Tang’s seemed like a safer option for a night of throwing weight-watching caution to the wind. It was totally worth it – we emerged onto the cobbled street two hours later in a zen-like state of gastronomic satisfaction.

After some deliberation over the extensive menu, Ali and I decided to kick things off with a shared starter of some pork gyoza (Japanese fried dumplings) and the Aburi sushi platter, which features flame-torched salmon, tuna, sea bass, eel and prawn nigiri, and a prawn tempura maki. I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on sushi, but IMHO, Tang’s sets the bar pretty high, deftly avoiding palate-clogging starch overload with noticeably light rice that provides a perfectly chewy, not-too-sticky base for the fresh, delicate fish topping. The gyoza were generously stuffed, savoury and meaty, and I could have happily snaffled up, popcorn-style, a much larger portion.

Food envy of our neighbours’ heaving plates of noodles prompted both myself and Ali to opt for phad Thai for main course - rice noodles fried with peanuts, egg, bean sprouts and either chicken, prawn or tofu (I went for chicken, Ali for prawn). There was a rich, almost-sweetness to the noodles – not as strange as it sounds, and very tasty – and make sure you sprinkle over the supplied toasted peanuts as these take the dish from good to great in one bite. I think the dish would have benefited from a little more garlic – although the absence of garlic in Japanese cooking is widely noted, this was after all technically a Thai dish – nonetheless it was thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again, although next time I would be keen to give the lunchbox-esque bento boxes a whirl. In an unheralded display of willpower, both Ali and I gave dessert a miss, sadly only to get our big feathery angel wings in a right old tangle.

With two glasses of wine and a soft drink, our bill came in at £52 for two, including tip. Very reasonable for the quality of the food, with good service and a pleasantly buzzy atmosphere. Dr Atkins may turn in his grave, but I can defiantly confirm that I most definitely will be back.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Miso and Sushi, Haymarket Terrace

At first glance, Miso and Sushi seems to epitomise all the woeful stereotypes of your greasily mediocre local takeaway-cum-restaurant – a dinky hole-in-the-wall tucked away on the corner of Haymarket Terrace featuring some highly dubious décor (case in point – one of those moving waterfall pictures – although they have a much niftier website which you can see here). However, as the majority of cookie-cutter bar-restos on George Street demonstrate with robotic panache, it’s not the packaging but the present inside that really counts. Pause a little longer outside Miso’s uninspiring façade and a gem starts to wink out at you. I’ve ordered takeaway from here a number of times and always been very pleased, and my meal tonight was no exception.

As the name implies, the restaurant specialises in sushi but also offers Chinese food, and it is only in this latter capacity that I can comment, possessing as I do a manic lust for hot and sour soup (although I believe the sushi – in particular the dragon roll - is also meant to be excellent Note: Since writing the above have tried Dragon Roll. Can confirm it is totally sublime, and charmingly shaped into a little dragon as well). First points awarded here – despite offering two types of cuisine, the menu is in fact relatively short - often an indicator of considered and good-quality cooking.

Today, I ordered modestly, just some of the aforementioned soup and a portion of spare ribs for a speedy post-work dinner. I’ve had the soup before and today’s helping was reliably (tom) yummy as always, side-stepping the neon goo industry standard with a dish of reassuringly natural hue that was packed with lots of spice and heat. Flavour rather than chunk dominates, so it’s a lighter version than others I’ve tried, but there was still plenty of sizeable hot n sour confetti (chicken, pork, mushroom, tofu and those teeny tiny prawns) to make it a satisfying opener to my lazy supper.

And then to the ribs. Oh, themz ribs - I ate most of them standing in the kitchen with my coat still on. Located under the bluntly-named “salt and chilli” section of the menu, they were bone-suckingly moreish and did exactly what it said on the tin, red-cooked with lashings of salt, garlic and lip-tingling chilli. It wasn’t a saucy dish, as I had expected, but the pork was nonetheless soft, generously meaty and moist. You get a good number of them as well, so with a heap of plain rice you’d have more than enough for tea plus extra for leftovers.

A rather long review for such a hastily-snatched dinner, perhaps, but Miso and Sushi is such a rough diamond – emphasis firmly placed on the diamond rather than the rough – and it’s become my personal cause to get as many people through its unprepossessing doors as possible. If the autumn’s television double-whammy of X-Factor/Strictly has you glued to your sofa, you can also support from afar, for they deliver a wide selection of their sit-in menu dishes for your Saturday-night delectation as well. I’ll be at the front of the queue - not least to see what magic Miso can work on the Chinese takeaway's greatest blight and challenge: the Sweet and Sour chicken.

Long live The Other M&S!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Kitchin, Leith

The Kitchin - part of Leith’s holy trinity of Michelin-starred restaurants (along with The Plumed Horse and Restaurant Martin Wishart), is the eponymous eaterie of Masterchef and Great British Menu alumnus Tom Kitchin. We went for my friend Sally’s leaving party after she requested a memorable last night in Edinburgh, and I’m pleased to report that The Kitchin served up an evening that was indeed memorable, in the most positive way.

Throwing caution to the wind, myself, Sally, and 3 other greedy foodie friends all opted for the Land and Sea Surprise Tasting Menu, which was priced at £65. Cheap, no, but for 8 unusual, exceptionally-executed and utterly delicious courses it delivered, in my mind, indisputable value for money. The full is menu below but for the sake of brevity I’ve pulled out a couple of personal highlights from an all-round superb meal.

First up, our third course of the evening, Arisaig Spoots (razor clams), which were served very pleasingly in their shells with finely diced vegetables, chorizo and lemon confit. For me, this course really demonstrated Kitchin’s flair for creating food that is both delicate and mouth-filling, not to mention packed with flavour. The dish was warm and creamy, with the faint smokiness of the chorizo and subtle citrus of the confit providing understated base notes that let the fresh flavour of the clams shine effortlessly through.

The next special mention must go to our “middle course” of rolled pig’s head with scallop and sautéed pig ear. Straying into controversial offle territory, even the most intrepid diners at the table cocked a dubious eyebrow – but fears were quickly allayed by meat (resembling nothing like a pig’s head, as it happens, and tasting more like shredded pork belly) that fell effortlessly apart on the fork and a golden, caramelly, gloriously crispy pig’s ear which could be described, with no amount of exaggeration, as the sort of pork scratching they might serve in heaven.

Dessert was a fresh-but-velvety cherry soup that found the perfect balance of tart, sweet and juice. Accompanied by a silken champagne mousse and gently fizzy champagne sorbet, it comprehensively demolished, with one sublime bite, my twin prejudices against fruit-based puddings and champagne that doesn’t come served in a glass. Rounding off 6 previous courses, I found it a very well-judged conclusion to the meal, proffering the palette that post-main snatch of sweetness without being cloying or filling. At Kitchin, you lay down your cutlery feeling not stuffed, just pleasantly full, and very very satisfied.

The star of Tom’s Kitchin is unquestionably the food, but undeservedly brief mention must also go to the attentive and patient serving staff – they really know their stuff – and to Tom himself, that clever and kindly poodle, who invited our Wakefield-bound Sally into the Kitchin as a special adios.

To shamelessly tear apart a metaphor, the Kitchin may see you spending considerable bucks - but you’ll certainly get a very big and delicious bang for them. Start saving!

Tom Kitchin's Land and Sea Surprise Tasting Menu (3rd June 2010)

Appetiser: Beetroot soup served with creme fraiche

Sea Trout: Tartare of sea trout from Montrose, served with apple, beetroot and a lemon creme fraiche dressing

Razor Clams (Spoots): Razor clams from Arisaig, cooked to order and served with diced vegetables, chorizo and lemon confit

Pig’s Head & Scallop: Boned and rolled pig’s head, served with seared hand-dived Orkney scallop, and a crispy ear salad

Sea Bass: Roasted fillet of wild sea bass from Mr Pullar served with wild garlic gnocchi and local St George’s mushrooms

Lamb: First of the season rack of spring lamb, sourced by Peter Flockhart and served with asparagus and asparagus puree

Dessert: Cherry soup served with champagne mousse and a champagne sorbet

Coffee and petits fours