Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Festival Fooderies: Eating the Fringe on the Wing

It’s been four months that Jane Eats Edinburgh has been left to languish rather mournfully in a mothball-filled corner of the interweb...job hunting, a subsequent career change and a new home being my excuses for my pretty major blogging lapse. A jampacked summer schedule of wallpainting and dishwasher shopping means that I don’t anticipate having as much time as I’d like to dedicate to some good meaty restaurant reviews…but Edinburgh’s got a wee arts festival *comedy cough* about to kick off, and so - in the wham-bam spirit of the Fringe – I’ve put together a whistle-stop tour of some of my top dining picks over the past few months.

Part 1 is below – check back for part 2 soon!

(1) Best for Japanese cuisine - Bonsai, West Richmond Street

Edinburgh’s first, and in my opinion, best Japanese restaurant. The sushi is fresh, tasty and generously apportioned, but what’s great about Bonsai is that you’re not backed into a teriyaki corner if you fancy something a bit different, with a wide range of non-rice (and non-fish, for that matter) options available. Make sure you try the okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese potato and vegetable pancake that comes served with what I can only describe as HP Brown Sauce’s much more delicious cousin. I would also recommend the mixed tempura, which comes in a light-as-air batter, and the agenasu, a chilli-spiked aubergine dish.

Near to: festival comedy behemoth The Pleasance, which has a buzzy courtyard that does a fine line in cider in plastic cups, fairylights and minor celebrity spotting.

(2) Best for luxury grazing and boozy festival lunching: Hotel Du Vin, Bristo Place.

I’ve recently fallen in love with the Starters and Savouries selection at Hotel Du Vin, which offers a departure from the rather staid menu stalwarts of pâté and soup – perfect if you’re in the mood for a quick lunch or an indulgent spot of tapas-style grazing (I usually get two - or three if I'm feeling especially gluttonous - which leave me pleasantly full). I love the cheese soufflé, the roast marrow bone on toast and the salt-and-shake whitebait – which comes in a sweetly gimmicky brown paper bag with salt and vinegar.

Very reasonably priced for the superb quality of the food (although the wine is eye-wateringly expensive), and if you prefer more a traditional dining format, then there's also a great dinner deal – two courses, a bottle of wine and coffee for £17.50 a head.

Near to: A giant inflatable upturned purple cow - aka Channel 4's Udderbelly – and just a short walk again from my erstwhile employer Assembly’s new pitch at George Square Gardens.

(3) Best for hangover cures (or hamburgers): The Cambridge Bar, Young Street.

If you fall foul of Edinburgh’s 5am festival club licences, I recommend fighting off the grimy hangover fuzz at gourmet burger heaven The Cambridge Bar. The hamburgers here are teetering skyscrapers - I’ve struggled to finish mine in the past on account of their gargatuan size - but happily there's plenty of quality along with the quantity - plus there’s a fantastic range of unusual toppings to choose from. You have to pay separately for sides, so it's not the cheapest soaker-upper you’ll find in Edinburgh, but it's well worth the few extra pennies.

Near to: the incredibly popular Edinburgh Book Festival– a more sedate but still bustling pocket of festival action at Charlotte Square. You can check out what’s on here, but tickets sell like hotcakes so if you spy something you fancy you’d be advised to get down to the box office pronto.

Check back for recommendations next week!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Chop Chop, Morrison Street

As much as I love food and eating out, I have never claimed to be a trendsetter. I’m always the last to hear about new Edinburgh restaurants, making the most comical noises scrabbling up onto the bandwagon as it hurtles towards the mainstream. However, there is one exception: Chop Chop, on Morrison Street. Long before celebrity shar pei Gordon Ramsey poked his camera crew round that custard-yellow door, catapulting the restaurant to national recognition on his Best Restaurants show, I was cheering at the top of my lungs for the little Chinese restaurant that could.

Which is why, on a previous visit, I noted with flailing pom poms that whilst the meal was still good, the bill seemed bigger, portions were smaller, and at least one dish was unacceptably lukewarm.

Nonetheless, sure that my beloved Chop Chop would step up to the dinner plate, I reserved a table for dinner with my friends Beccy and Simon. Wi. th the epic smorgasbord that followed, Chop Chop did just that, and with an almighty swing, knocked it right out of the park.

First out of the gate was a dish heaped with crispy shredded potato, emerald-flecked with a leafy sprinkling of coriander, spring onion and sesame seeds. Verdict: a transcendental rendering of a bag of Walkers’ ready salted, in the best possible way.

Next was a bowl of meaty pork ribs, again generously apportioned. Dosed stickily with a toothsome treacle of soy and vinegar, these packed a walloping punch of pure umami – the “fifth taste” of can’t-put-your-finger-on-it yumminess, also known in the Jane Eats Edinburgh lexicon as “the nyom factor”.

The chow mein noodles that followed were an exercise in more understated flavours, but had been produced with no less skill, and were trailed with wobbling but enthusiastic chopsticks across the table in a sort of unintentional Lady and the Tramp spaghetti-scene pastiche.

Top marks also go to Chop Chop’s deep-fried northern chicken, which banished memories of gunge-dripping takeout offerings with its nubbly golden pebbles of chicken, swathed in a note-perfect vinegar sauce that was high in zing and low on MSG.

Although the plates were starting to bottleneck a little, I was keen to make room to sample the twice-fried aubergines that arrived next, as it was this dish that had been the hot-plate victim on my last outing. A blip, it turns out, as the aubergines arrived piping hot. Scattered liberally with a confetti of ginger, garlic and spring onion, they were mouth-fillingly moreish and justified every last calorie from their double excursion in the frying pan. My only complaint here was the size of the portion – seven strips of aubergine between the three of us - which felt a bit measly for the £9 pricetag.

Better value for money were Chop Chop’s acclaimed dumplings, in which we indulged with shameless gluttony, sampling a 32-strong selection of chicken, lamb and leek, and pork and prawn. These have been heavily touted, reviewed and praised, and I have nothing to add, except to confirm their consistent excellence. Plus mixing up your own dipping sauce is a novelty that never really wears off.

Last, but certainly not least, was a dish of marinated pork belly - in my opinion, the unsung hero of the menu. Ebony-stained with soy and fragrant with ginger, soy and five spice, this dish showcased a culinary wizardry that me and my hand-me-down Le Creuset could only ever dream of. The pork was cooked to silken, melt-in-the-mouth perfection, its rich stodge marrying beautifully with the clean Asian flavours of the marinade. It was an exquisite demonstration of the transformative power of skilful cooking on a pile of relatively simple ingredients.

Thus ended our chowfest. With my issues of quality and quantity laid firmly to rest, the only quibble left to address was value for money. The tapas-style format does mean that a party of one or two will end up paying more if they want to partake in the Chop Chop pick and mix. However, at under £25 each, including tip and corkage (we brought our own wine), I can honestly say that our meal was money very well spent.

Plaudits must also go to staff on the night, who went the extra mile to iron out a hiccough with our booking, and reminded me, after the egregious dining fiasco that was Hectors, that good customer service is happily alive and well in Edinburgh.

Dearest Chop Chop: Gordon would still love you…but more importantly, your customers do too. Recommended times a million.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Hectors, Deanhaugh Street, Stockbridge

Three things that are desirable after traipsing for 25 miserable minutes through near-apocalyptic rain on a Friday night: a big drink, a tasty meal, and having both of these delivered to your table by a member of staff who can smother their misanthropic urges long enough to throw a bedraggled customer a smile, a hello and a menu without being asked.

If you have the same unreasonably lofty expectations as me, then I suggest you give alleged gastropub Hectors in Stockbridge a very wide berth.

Things started badly from the off when, having dropped my X-ray glasses in a puddle outside, I was unable to read the giant invisible signs notifying customers that it was free seating in the restaurant. So it really was silly of me to ask the waiter whether there were any available tables, and he was right to arrange his face into an expression of sullen disdain and with a regal flick of hand inform me that I could “just sit anywhere”.

Having found a table - bedecked with the flotsam and jetsam of the previous occupant’s dinner, but a table nonetheless – I squelched into my seat and waited for my friend and a menu to arrive. Fifteen minutes later, Liz was in situ, but our menu remained mysteriously at large anywhere but our still-filthy table. With some reluctance after my earlier telling off, I approached the clutch of po-faced staff, suckered barnacle-style to one end of the bar, and requested a menu be brought to our table by the window. I should have known better than to leave empty-handed to put my socks under the hand dryer, because upon my return no menu was to be found.

It was a further 5 minutes before an unsmiling waitress flounced up and tossed a menu on the table with the words “well, you walked off before I could see where you were sitting.” Hungry, and not wishing to prolong our interminable preprandial song and dance any further, I chose not to point out that with the facts “by the window” and “no menu” it was hardly a stretch to work out where said menu was required. Our drinks order – two glasses of wine – took a further 10 minutes to emerge, and didn’t last long to say the least.

After this near-comatose start, our soggy evening started to look up a little. After placing our order at the bar, our food arrived promptly and was brought out by a quiet but perfectly sweet-tempered waitress, who even managed to wipe down the table before the meals were served, a mere 45 minutes after my ignominious self-seating. My starter of salt and pepper calamari was a solid A-, encased in a batter a touch too heavy for my liking, but the squid was tender, and complemented nicely by a beautifully-flavoured lime mayo.

Liz, passing on a starter, opted for the house burger, which was a pleasingly hefty discus of peppery, medium-rare meat, generously accessorised with an oozingly marbled slice of melting blue cheese and double layer of streaky bacon. She pronounced the accompanying pot of beetroot coleslaw a little inconsequential, but gave an unequivocal thumbs up to the earthy, skin-on thick-cut chips piled liberally on the side.

My choice of a diet-amended soul soother in the form of bangers and mash similarly looked promising, anointed liberally as it was with a mahogany-hued, conker-glossy balsamic vinegar gravy that was silky and fruitily tart. Sadly, this was to be the high point of an otherwise woeful effort from the Hectors kitchen. The roasted squash, parsnips and Savoy cabbage were a pleasantly imaginative low-carb alternative to mashed potato, but were dreadfully executed. The parsnips, cut far too small for roasting, were witchy, shrivelled fingers that tasted of nothing more than vegetable oil and oven, and the oversized lumps of butternut squash were fibrous and stringy, characteristics which would have been noted by any decent chef when it was being prepared.

Unimpressive but forgivable – maybe – if upon the veg hadn’t sat four unmistakeably burnt Cumberland sausages. Chunky and herb-flecked within, they actually had the hallmarks of a high-standard meat product, but any signs of quality were totally obliterated by an acrid taste of burnt fat reminiscent of an uncleaned George Foreman grill. I should have sent them back, but couldn’t muster the energy to beg for the attention of the surly waiting staff again.

At two courses for ten pounds, plus £4 for a large glass of wine, the only really positive thing I have to say about our washout meal is that it was mercifully cheap -
– although given the risible customer service and seriously hit-or-miss food, still a pretty high price to pay.

So a port in the storm? I’m afraid to say, Hectors is not.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Mussel Inn, Rose Street

After a long hiatus from dining out, and therefore also from blogging (culprit: the money-gobbling double juggernaut that is Christmas and the January sales, and resultant poverty), I banished the drear and misery of an impecunious January with a trip to seafood purveyor The Mussel Inn. Wedged snugly into a truly impressive line of old man pubs along Rose Street, it’s something of an Edinburgh institution, but owing to an only-recently-quashed aversion to fish, this was just my second visit.

An Inn it may be, but none of the stale carpets, fruit machines or grizzled pint-suppers that characterise the resto’s neighbours were to be found when we arrived. Airily done out with pine tables and a chalkboard menu with jazzy fish mosaics leaping across the walls, it felt like we’d found a brave glimmer of summer on that particularly rainswept evening, and we were faintly miffed when we didn’t step out onto a sun-dappled boardwalk at the end of the night.

Similarly unpretentious was the menu. On offer was a selection of prawns, scallops, oysters, a catch of the day and a couple of meat and veggie options for fish naysayers, but both partner-in-dine Ali and I were in payday pig mode and each went for a kilo of mussels in shallot, cream and white wine sauce, with French bread basket (which comes included in the price and is refilled for free) and a large bowl of chips (which doesn’t).

Our food arrived with almost startling promptness, although it was hardly unwelcome as the two steaming cauldrons heaving with glinting, garlic-scented shells were set in front of us. It took me the best part of an extremely pleasant 45 minutes to plough my way through my portion, but I wouldn’t have left even one of those wee guys – these mussels were sweet, pearly tangerine-coloured petals, without a trace or gristle or grit, and not a dud “shuttie” in the lot. They were fresh enough to be fantastic au naturel but it would have been a crying shame to miss out on the sauce – I find seafood and cream can sometimes be a bit rich for my tastes, but this was a light, salty concoction that balanced the wine to cream ratio with alchemic precision. In fact, my only complaint of the meal was having to dig through the heaped pot, piece of bread trembling rapaciously in hand, to get my dunk on. As for the accompanying chips, as moules-frites purists, both Ali and I would probably have preferred a slender fry, but the Mussel Inn’s piping hot and golden-crispy offering was the very best version of it’s thick-cut cousin, and stood up very well to further shameless dipping.

With a kilo of mussels consumed and food coma fast approaching, neither of us could stomach more than a coffee each, but a glance at the dessert menu, which featured apple strudel, sticky date pudding and chocolate crème brulee, suggests that the Mussel Inn applies a refreshingly untrendy approach in all aspects of their cooking. I’d definitely be curious to see whether they can execute classic puddings as well as they do shellfish on a return visit.

So, whilst I know that those old man pubs on Rose Street are loved by many, for an ungimmicky, unfussy and well done old-timer (with a salt air slant), I think I’ll cast my line at the Mussel Inn.

Around £25 per person including coffee, wine and tip.