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.