The waiter and waitress quickly conferred, just a few metres from our table. In the noisy hubbub of the restaurant, which seemed to be lugging its way through a busy Friday evening's service in the way a rust-bitten trawler rolls through heavy seas, they were certainly out of earshot. But not out of sight, and the body language, finger-pointing, facial expressions and even a little lip-reading clearly transmitted the full detail of the brief exchange.
"What are they?" asked the waiter, pointing at the cheeses.
"I have no idea" was the reply, the shoulders shrugged to reinforce the ignorance. "They're new tonight".
To give the young waiter due credit he put a brave face on it and confessed his ignorance up front. He valiantly introduced them as a goat's cheese; it will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that I am no stranger to the cheeses of the Loire Valley though, and this was almost certainly Selles-sur-Cher. Next was a cow's cheese, soft with a similarly soft white rind, so one of perhaps dozens if not hundreds of possibilities, and I was clueless. I christened this The Moo Cheese. In third place was a sheep's cheese, firm, yellow, with an orange rind, and again I was in the dark. In my mind this was christened The Baa-Baa Cheese. The fourth cheese was a thick wedge of Fourme d'Ambert, not a favourite of mine. The thick wedge glistened at me with malevolence. I taught it a lesson by eating it anyway.
Does it matter that the staff couldn't even tell me what cheeses I was eating here? Not really I suppose, unless you subscribe to the belief that those serving the dishes know what is on the plate and it's story, how a dish has been prepared, or where the ingredients were sourced, because that reflects on the kitchen, and the management. And finishing my dinner here with a cheesy mystery tour seemed somewhat fitting. It was in fact the final fumble in what felt like, overall, a rather haphazard evening.
The Honours, located just across the road from Mark Greenaway on Edinburgh's North Castle Street, opened in 2011. It is a Martin Wishart restaurant, he of the eponymous restaurant in Leith (where I had such a fabulous meal just earlier this year) and also in Loch Lomond. My perception of this restaurant - this was before I had crossed the threshold - was that this was going to be a more relaxed, brasserie-style experience. That wasn't entirely true, as while it has the busy hubbub and more casual atmosphere of a brasserie it turns out any hope I had of paying brasserie prices would be unfulfilled. And when I say 'busy hubbub', the place was heaving; this isn't the quiet and refined dining experience you can expect to find down in Leith. Having said that, I was dining out on the first evening of the Edinburgh Fringe, so I did wonder whether that might have increased the footfall somewhat, perhaps beyond what the staff were used to. Allowances have to be made.
The wine list here bears a strong resemblance to that at the main restaurant and so I will have to plead guilty to plumping again for the Jonathan Pabiot Pouilly-Fumé, although happily we seem to have moved onto the 2014 vintage now. The arrival of the bottle opened a pouring battle with the staff who seemed eager to empty one of our bottles - either the wine or our water - as quickly as possible. The water arrived first and was duly poured into two glasses, followed by the wine. After the requisite swirl and sniff, the waitress proceeded to fill my glass to about two-thirds full. Then she topped up the water glasses again (before we had even taken a sip). I duly set about glugging the wine, trying to reduce the fill to something more manageable. A waiter arrived, took our orders, and topped up the water glasses for a third time. The waitress returned just as I had managed to reduce the amount of wine in my glass to something manageable (i.e. at least less than half-full) and an immediate attempt was made to bring the level much closer to the rim again. I intervened, and so she topped up the water glasses again, apparently as compensation. Minutes later, seeing a way in, the head waiter also made a dive for the Pouilly-Fumé so that he could also get in on the 'emptying-the-bottle' action but we managed, with only a brief wrestle with all our hands on the bottle simultaneously, to deflect him. He graciously admitted defeat, and informed us we would be allowed to pour our wine for ourselves if we wished. We spent the rest of the evening guarding the bottle from circling, pour-hungry waiters.
I opened proceedings with a duck and pistachio terrine, served with pear and black pudding. I seem to have gotten into something of a terrine groove recently, as if I was trying to establish an international benchmark for it, but the truth is I just like a good terrine. This wasn't a good terrine though; it was decent enough I suppose, fairly firm, with nice flavour, so preferable to the wet brick served at the Scran & Scallie earlier this year but nowhere as good as that delicious foie gras, chicken and ham hock terrine at The Pompadour by Galvin, although none of these could hold a candle to the terrines served during a recent lunch at the Café de la Promenade (the International Terrine League Table does indeed begin to take shape). The presentation was immaculate though, and added further to my confusion; I was expecting hearty brasserie, but what I found on the plate was more elegant fine dining, the two little chunks of precisely wrapped terrine sprinkled with dainty leaves and flowers. I fear I missed the pear and the black pudding, although it is possible that both were hiding under a flower petal.
On the other side of the table, and looking somewhat more impressive, was a risotto crémeaux, with courgette flowers and aged parmesan. I snaffled a little taste to discover delicious flavour and just the right grainy texture to the rice, so top marks there. Continuing with the main course, from the specials menu I opted for the T-bone of turbot, cooked in brown butter, with creamed spinach and a potato mousseline. I found the fish to be a little dry, despite having been cooked on the bone, although the butter-caramelised edges had a super flavour. The creamed spinach was full of unexpected pungent smokiness, while the potato mousseline never materialised at all (see prices below for more on this). The kitchen seemed to be hitting some good notes on the night though, as despite my fish being slightly sub-par they followed up their risotto with a delicious presa steak of acorn-fed Ibérico pork, which was cooked to a pristine perfection, and which seemed to enjoy being chased down by several large handfuls of salted french fries.
All in all this was a good evening, with plenty to be pleased about when it came to what was on the plates. But, to be fair, there were some niggling annoyances too. The service was amiable and charming on the whole, but overbearing and somewhat panicked at first. I got the feeling, perhaps with a big pre-Fringe service ahead, that the staff had been told to "keep on top of things tonight" and they were just simply overdoing it with pour after pour after pour of water and wine. Indeed, early on it felt as though a boundary needed to be drawn (between them and our glasses), never a great moment in a restaurant. Later on, it just felt a little haphazard, as if the panic had faded, but instead things were starting to slip. Perhaps I should return on an evening when the restaurant isn't bursting at the seams. I guess I just need to brush up on my cheese-spotting ability first.
Prices: The Pouilly-Fumé from Jonathan Pabiot was £41, the risotto was £8.50, the terrine was £10.50. The pork was £20.95, the turbot a rather pricy £36 from the specials menu, french fries and glazed carrots as sides £4 each. The potato mousseline, one-third of my main course, never appeared. To his credit this was acknowledged by the waiter as he collected the dishes and the cheese course was offered gratis as compensation. If anything makes me want to go back to a restaurant, it is dealing with a slip-up correctly and without fuss, so well done The Honours. In total, dinner for two here came to £124.95. (26/9/15)