The Atrium, 10 Cambridge St, Edinburgh, EH1 2 ED
Tel: 0131 228 8882
Deep in the bowels of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, right next to the Usher Hall, lies the Atrium. Well, it's not really in the bowels, although it feels like it. It's not the lighting, although that is subdued. Nor is it the dark decor, or the thick, dark-wood tables. It's more the persistent thrrrruuum-um-um that rumbles pervasively on in the background; the last time I ate in a restaurant with an acoustic backdrop like this - which I assume emanates from the theatre's heating or ventilation systems - it was on a cross-channel ferry. Fortunately, one of the characteristics of such white noise is that, after a while, you just don't notice it, and by the time our impressive amuses bouches of fish soup arrived, rich in chunky, smoked-fish flavour (and a free bonus of a lemon pip in one glass - sloppy!) this was thankfully the case.
The meal proper opened with a platter of scallops with pork belly, the latter gently crisped and delicious, and packed with flavour. The former was curious, in that although each sliver of scallop had a near-perfect texture the colour ranged from an anaemic pallor through gloriously-golden to plain burnt in just one of them. There weren't so many on the plate that they demanded cooking in batches, so how this had been achieved is a mystery to me. On the other side of the table a hand-raised pork pie was disappointingly cold, but flavoursome, with a herb mix very reminiscent of Cumberland sausages. A handsome portion, it would have been very welcome in my lunchbox alongside a cheese and pickle sandwich and a banana.
So a good amuse bouche, with a wobbling effort on the starters. Thereafter things picked up a little again though; I chose roe deer which came very sensitively cooked even if the presentation was rather formulaic, although disappointingly a huge ingot of creamy pressed potatoes served alongside was not really all that creamy. Stolid was the adjective that sprang into my mind instead, but to be fair the flavour was good and its stodgy, stomach-filling consistency at least meant I wouldn't have to raid the fridge for a midnight snack when I returned home. The hogget I tasted was very good, rich in flavour, as were the herby potato dumplings that came on the same plate. A good choice there, then. The meal was rounded off by a very passable dark chocolate mousse with a condensed milk sorbet, the latter much fresher than I expected, and also a superlative tower of strawberries and deliciously light shortbread, the latter component of that dish a particular success.
So gastronomically this was on the whole a fairly decent experience, one strangely burnt scallop and those heavily-presented potatoes aside; it is a shame then that the wines provided such a spectacular deflation of the pleasure-o-meter readings. This is a restaurant that boasts the accolade of AA Best Scottish Wine List - two times winner in fact - and indeed there are many great names on this list; Trimbach, Roederer, Champalou, Nicolas Joly, Planeta, Musar, Meerlust, DRC, Beaucastel, Cakebread, The Foundry and Yquem, to name a round dozen, and I could continue with at least a dozen more examples without difficulty. There is a good range of wines by the glass, a strong feature of the list, but a rather half-hearted selection of halves - just six in fact. Annoyingly, however, although strong on the aforementioned big names there is a huge hole in the middle of the list, between the cheap-and-cheerful on-trade unknowns and the plentiful supply of just-too-expensive offerings at the top end. And yet this is where real drinkers are likely to be shopping, as only the stupidly wealthy will be shelling out for DRC, Yquem and similar at restaurant mark-ups. I can only conclude that whoever had the final say at the AA was obviously a well-soaked label addict rather than a true epicurean interested in trying to find a good bottle to actually drink.
We kicked off with a half of Ayala's non-vintage Brut Majeur which was fine, with gently appley and soft, slightly Autumnal fruits on the nose, and on the palate a big ball of fruit at the start, with a gentle mousse coming through the middle, all nicely poised, the fruit sitting well with some gentle acidity. All in all a success (15.5/20). Then moving onto to something red, one of only two such wines available in halves, the Château des Gravières Graves, from the 2005 vintage. This little bottle had the temerity to declare itself on the label not only "Cuvée Prestige" but also "Collection Privée", two accolades awarded the wine by the proprietor, a M Labuzan. On the nose it offered scents of raspberry juice and burnt coconut, and the best thing about the palate was that it was meanly characterless. A sorry effort here, not faulty, just a dull excuse for wine which I wish really had remained a collection privée, preferably confined to the proprietor's own cellar for life. (10/20)
Prices: Dinner £45 per head for three courses plus water. Wine prices are hugely variable of course; many of the cheaper choices seem distinctly uninspiring and in the middle-range there is little that interests, whereas there are rich pickings higher up the list for those with a fat wallet and little sense. Despite page after page of wines, I found it difficult to identify a bottle with the right combination of interest and affordability. (30/06/10)