Angels with Bagpipes
Yes, that was my first reaction as well. But apparently there really are angels who play bagpipes.
Located in prime position halfway down Edinburgh's Royal Mile, Angels with Bagpipes sits directly opposite St Giles' Cathedral, a landmark within the city since the 14th century. Around the far side is a much later addition, the Thistle Chapel, the seat of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (founded 1687), Scotland's foremost order of chivalry. Membership of this chivalrous brotherhood is, I am informed, taken no less seriously by Scots than the French when it comes to membership of the Confrérie des Chevaliers de la Géline de Touraine (founded 1988), the heraldic society dedicated to promoting the virtues of the Géline de Touraine breed of chicken which I recently encountered during dinner at Agnès Sorel near Tours.
Anyway, I digress. Within the aforementioned chapel there are wood-carvings of angels playing bagpipes (I'm not making this up, by the way) which could perhaps be taken as evidence that the Scots invented heaven, as well as television, marmalade and all other life-essentials. Whether or not that is true is perhaps beyond my remit to determine, but what is certain is that these angels served as inspiration for proprietor Marina Crolla (nothing to do with Crolla's sweaty takeaway on the Tranent high street, thankfully, but everything to do with well-known Edinburgh foodie retailers and restaurateurs Valvona & Crolla). Thanks to a wander round the Thistle Chapel her new restaurant (established 2010) now had its name, and with the signing up of chef Paul Whitecross they were underway.
The restaurant is a fairly chic affair, the welcome warm, positive and forthright. This was a welcome to put you at ease, to tell you that these guys know what they're doing. The queue of servers, waiting in attentiveness to rush the chef's creations to your table, create an air of celebrity chefdom. Unfortunately, the food that came out of said kitchen was rather more variable in quality than I had hoped.
The menu is very reassuring, full of interesting combinations and carrying notes on traceability. I chose to kick of with scallops (from Orkney, says the menu), served on a miniature bed of spinach with a parsnip and vanilla cream and a braised pig's cheek on the side. Top marks for immaculate presentation here, and indeed every dish that passed under the glare of the bagpipe-wielding bronze angel which graces the interior of the dining room looked good enough to be eaten by the Gods. And she would know, I suppose. In terms of taste, though, these were strangely bland scallops, perhaps in part because they lacked seasoning, although on the positive side they had a beautifully soft, giving texture, and were clearly cooked by a skilled hand. And then came the little rugby ball of pig's cheek, falling apart under the touch of my fork, no less melting than the scallops in terms of texture, and yet again seemingly devoid of flavour. I took a sniff, felt my forehead, swallowed, coughed, did a quick check for unexpectedly enlarged cervical lymph glands, checked my temperature, took my pulse and felt my forehead again, but ultimately concluded that no, I didn't have a cold, and there was nothing wrong with my sense of smell or taste. The food just seemed strangely flat and uninteresting.
Further confirmation of the correct operation of my taste buds came with the next dish, cod (from Peterhead) with a bone marrow crust, large-grained couscous, hazelnuts and some delicate slivers of cauliflower. Again, full marks here for an immaculate presentation, and although the crust was a little softer than I would like (I would say more squish than crust, but that probably wouldn't look so appetising on the menu), the flavour complexity it brought to the dish, especially combined with the lightly toasted hazelnuts, was fascinating. Cod, bone marrow, hazelnuts, three ingredients that I have never used in the same sentence before, and I applaud the inspired mind that came up with this. The couscous was nothing more than background scenery, inconsequential except that it helped to satisfy my hunger, and in the face of such fascination the cauliflower was simply superfluous.
This could have been a brilliant dish, but two elements let it down. The first was, for some unknown reason, sitting atop the couscous and cauliflower was this dish's secret weapon; two chicken wings. Yes, what every slice of gently-cooked cod needs, a couple of fried chicken wings on the side. In themselves, these were great fun; dainty wings (think quail or partridge rather than chicken and you're on the right lines), deboned, lightly crispy around the edges, still moist within, probably not that easy with such tiny slivers of meat. Technically they were very good, and as a focus to a starter these would have been well received. But I found myself wondering for weeks after this dinner just what they were doing on the same plate as my cod. The second element, the one that really disappointed though, was the seasoning; at first bite of my cod it was clear it had seen the business end of the salt grinder, but by the time I had worked my knife and fork along to the other end I was tasting more salt than fish. I don't recall encountering such a heavily over-seasoned dish before. It seems irrelevant to me whether your cod is from Peterhead, Pontefract or Persia if this what you do to it.
I finished with a selection of cheeses, which I hoped might work well with the 2012 Domaine Daulny Sancerre, a rather appealing wine with classically smoky-flinty nuances, helped along by the benefit of a good vintage of course, 2012 having been favourable for Loire Valley Sauvignons from all appellations. What arrived was a fairly dull selection though, including applewood, the sort of smoke-flavoured cheese I associate more with a supermarket pre-packed sandwich than a cheese board of note. Most cheese boards progress in flavour, intensity, pungency and blueness, whereas this cheese board seemed to progress from mild to mild, without really stopping off anywhere else in between.
I wasn't inclined to hang around for coffee. The staff here are friendly, as I learnt on my arrival, although fairly inattentive where it really matters, at table (cue shot of customer pointing at empty water glass for a second time). There were high points to the food, and certainly some of the dishes seem inspired in their combination of ingredients, but simply not executed that well on the night. This was, ultimately, an evening of more misses than hits.
Price: Dinner for two came to £110. The scallops were £12, the cod £18, the cheeses £8, and the Sancerre £40. Starters range from £6 to £12, mains from £14 to £22, puddings from £6 to £8. Roederer Brut by the glass is £12, there are more than a dozen other wines available by the glass, and wine by the bottle goes from £19 to £90. (23/4/14)