|Edinburgh to Eden|
|Thursday, 01 July 2010|
From chain restaurants to hidden gems
In the last issue, I suggested that I might endeavour to find Le Cafe Ecossais to complement Le Café Anglais. Well, I was fortunate to be entertained to a splendid lunch just a stone’s throw from the Edinburgh College recently, high above the Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, at The Tower.
I know it was on the fifth floor because between the starter and the main course there was a fire alarm, the three of us were evacuated and had to walk down ten flights of stairs to a wet and cold Scottish capital. Fortunately, the lift was back in action once the false alarm had been cleared and I went back to enjoying fillet of brill floating on some pasta in a sea of spring vegetables. My first course, which had been guillotined, was a terrine which was an interesting mixture of chorizo and a more bland sausage-type meat and was entirely satisfactory, but not exciting.
"I know it was on the fifth floor because between the starter and the main course there was a fire alarm, the three of us were evacuated and had to walk down ten flights of stairs"
My companions also opted for fish as a main course, all of which was delicious and oozing freshness, and, very importantly, the French white wine was outstanding and came from a relatively small, but clearly carefully chosen, list. It survived the enforced break in proceedings between the roast parsnip soup and table d’hote fish of the day. Our desserts were also successful and light, and came from one of the two set lunch menus, mine being slightly higher priced.
The Tower Restaurant, I understand, is owned by the same team (Thomson) as many other restaurants in Edinburgh and is much less of a tourist destination despite the magnificent views of the castle and the Edinburgh domes and spires and is excellent for either a casual or business lunch. The meaty evening menu looked extremely promising as well.
Continuing to travel around the country, I tried a cheap and cheerful Sunday lunch outside Cardiff at one of the Loch Fyne Restaurants, part of the popular and burgeoning chain. Their ethos, again, is for high quality fish, sustainably sourced, and I was amazed how they can offer so much at such little cost for a Sunday lunch.
The food was actually adequate. The sardines crusted in parmesan were dry and overcooked but the steamed mussels were a great success and the fish of the day main course was hake, which was interesting and in a generous portion. The fish was served with mixed vegetables and their own brand Loch Fyne chips which were those of a somewhat larger cross section than fries and those around the table that had them were very satisfied with their good flavour and lack of fat.
I have also experimented with two other high street names of late. One is Strada which is an impressive Italian set-up with very good rich maroon and green decor and a more eclectic menu than you might expect, and is therefore somewhere between Pizza Express and full-blown traditional Northern Italian Trattoria. The service was desperately disappointing – in a large establishment with tables hidden around all sorts of corners, there just appeared to be two servers and someone behind the bar. It was nearly 50 minutes before we were served with our food, which was actually very tasty – perhaps too tasty.
My wife had succumbed to a complex pizza of multitudinous colours but it turned out that the little red bits were not peppers but none other than chillies. There was also something rather purple which was so fiery that a cold glass of ice water with lemon did nothing to quell and it required a further bread roll to relieve her of intense distress and a very bright red nose. We did not stay for dessert. I suspect we were simply unlucky on a somewhat stressed day for the staff.
The other experiment was in Brighton and I was very nervous about this place, Wagamama, with its global reputation. I did not like the idea of sharing my lunch with a couple of dozen others on a wooden bench, but it turned out there were decent gaps between us all so we could comment on the culinary offerings without necessarily being overheard.
There were three of us and we each had a different sort of noodle, but despite having it all explained I still don’t understand the difference between the various types. One was served with curried prawns which seemed a little odd but was actually delicious and the others seemed to be a mixture of what I assume was shredded chicken and possibly tofu, but nonetheless despite the description, the appearance, much as expected, was a tangled mass of colour on the plate which was really very delicious. Like any Asian food, there seemed to be masses of it but it was still easy to feel hungry an hour or two later. I would certainly revisit Wagamama for a quick meal despite my considerable initial misgivings.
Now I return to fish and this next place is a gem. A rather insignificant name of Smith’s Brasserie and a somewhat insignificant large house-cum-shed on the side of a busy road in semi-rural Ongar, north east of London and the M25, turns out to be a place that needs revisiting time and time again.
For a start, the cost is very reasonable, the ambience is excellent with beautifully adorned tables and an informal atmosphere, and smartly dressed young staff all of whom are charming and efficient.
You have to book and I can see why. There is an a la carte and set menu with plentiful fish in both starters and main courses although there are a few meat alternatives, rack of lamb and steaks and so on. Go for the fish. I had a superbly dressed crab; the prawn cocktail, platter of smoked salmon and bowl of mussels were all very generous and delicious and all the accompanying sauces were perfect. These included tartare sauce, and also a red wine balsalmic vinaigrette which went superbly with the crab and creme fraiche. Our main courses were a mixture of wing of skate, halibut in a lobster sauce and monkfish in a herb crust. All were fresh, extremely tasty, served superbly and we had no criticisms – although perhaps the lobster sauce was richer than could have been expected.
There were a large number of choices, not just for type of fish but also how you would wish it to be cooked. There were certainly no short cuts taken here. The desserts all looked delicious on the other tables but none of us could cope for much more than sharing a classic bread and butter pudding which was more of a light brioche-type concoction with straightforward vanilla custard and a generous but unexciting fresh fruit platter. The coffee blend was also excellent and I would wholeheartedly recommend this institution.
For the final slices of this issue’s choices, I will come to a couple of high-end restaurants. One in Surrey and one in France and both were proud to be associated with those sparkling Michelin devices about which none of us are ever sure whether they make a difference or not apart from to put an extra zero on the account.
Drakes at Ripley is somewhat in hushed silence when you arrive but gradually the atmosphere builds as the guests grow more and more impressed with the service and quality of the delicious morsels, arranged with surgical precision, that are brought out on multiple plates. It is extremely French, as all the staff appear to be, and has one Michelin star.
The Chef, Steve Drake and his wife are British and are extremely impressive. There are set meals for two or three courses and a tasting menu has a different glass of wine for each of the eight or nine courses. We simply went for the two-course set menu which comes complete with amuse-bouche, a mouth-watering refresher between courses, coffee and a multitude of wonderful petit fours.
The first courses were exquisite and included a pair of tiny langoustines surrounded with little bits and pieces and a foie gras platter with an onion marmalade. The accompanying breads were all homemade, including a cheese brioche, a rosemary white roll and something a bit odd with onion.
The wine was perfectly satisfactory by the glass to keep costs down. Another gem is Eden, a ‘casual Asian terrace restaurant’, part of the Chateau de la Chevre d’Or, high on a village perched between Nice and Monaco in Southern France. It is next door to the two-star restaurant in the same hotel with much of the same team and only opens in the evenings. It has wonderful views from a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, particularly as the sun goes down with long shadows on the Corniches. Most memorable during a wonderful fusion-style meal here was a duck burger which was rather like a mini-hamburger but contained duck and foie gras – it was outstanding, melt-in-the-mouth and haemorrhaging flavour served with appropriate delicious accompaniments. This main course also offered various fish presentations and for the two of us followed some interesting spring roll look-alikes and sophisticated spicy meat balls.
The prices were as intense as the flavours but the whole experience was entirely memorable. This sort of evening is the ultimate in perfectly prepared, delicious unique food in an outstanding setting with excellent service and cannot easily be equalled. It should be reserved for that very special romantic occasion.