The Plumed Horse
50-54 Henderson St, Leith, Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 554 5556
My restaurant reviews usually, rather conventionally I feel, deal with the matter of food, almost always in conjunction with wine. Naturally I may also from time to time comment on decor, ambience and service, but largely I talk of the food. This time, however, I feel compelled to talk of something else first. I didn't want to do so, but I feel as if an inexorable force is drawing me towards it. I feel compelled to talk about stars.
Browse the Plumed Horse website and you will find a tale of culinary success, a tale that began in 1998 when Tony Borthwick established his tiny restaurant in Crossmichael, in the Scottish Borders. By 2001 he had a Michelin star under his belt, followed by a string of other awards, including Scottish Chef of the Year in 2005. The following year, Tony relocated to Leith in Edinburgh, a move which saw him relinquish his Michelin star. And as things weren't quite ready in time, he missed out on the 2007 Michelin Guide. I sense he and his staff are waiting with baited breath for the 2008 publication.
My visit was of course to look at the food and the wine, and to judge them without preconception, but I found it difficult to get away from the stars. "I do hope you get your star," enthused a lady on one table behind us as she paid her bill. "Do give your chef my compliments", effused another lady on a different table. "I don't care whether you get your star or not, the food was wonderful," she continued. It seemed my context for the evening was set.
Rewinding, the Plumed Horse can be found on one of Leith's backstreets, understated signage and a window full of ferns tell you that you have arrived. Inside you will find a small, well-lit and unusually shaped dining room - it follows the contours of the building - with a handful of tables, nicely spaced out. On the evening in question there were three other couples dining, and there is no turnaround of covers, so the atmosphere was very quiet and relaxed. Next door, in the private room near the entrance, there was a party of eight.
Before I began my calorific intake proper I was first treated to an amuse bouche of smoked salmon in a frothing langoustine veloute. The former aspect was very good, the latter simply delicious. Whilst not a fabulously imaginative combination (and surely it should be - an amuse bouche is a chance for a chef to have a little fun, to surprise his patrons and of course to show off the depth of his talents) I can not knock this on flavour. It was a very good start to the evening, which continued with a ravioli of rabbit, with loin and kidney, Stornoway black pudding and Madeira-spiked rabbit juices. Here there were moments of delight, especially the flavoursome pudding and the melt-in-your-mouth slice of kidney. Overall the flavour was good, although the delicate slices of white meat were, to be critical, a little dry. Naturally this can be a problem with rabbit, and if the advertised juices had materialised this would have helped I am sure, but they were nowhere to be seen. Had they been forgotten, or had they simply soaked into the pudding? There was no hint of Madeira anywhere, and as a result I found it difficult to judge this dish as a whole. Delicious in parts, overall perhaps very good, but I think it could have been better. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, the veloute of Jerusalem artichoke was delicious, the accompanying tarragon and chicken dumpling interesting and tasty, but not breathtaking.
The wine list at the Plumed Horse is an admirable one, and I applaud the inclusion of a well populated list of half bottles. There is a decent selection of good value choices, and also a handsome array of famous names for those addicted to labels, and the mark-up on some of the more pricy bottles wasn't as steep as you might expect. Don't get excited, though, there is still a fairly traditional mark-up in place. From the list I plumped for the following:
Bosquets des Papes Châteauneuf du Pape 2003: A rich and deep colour, as you would expect from this vintage. The nose carried deep fruit and an obvious savage, feral, furry note. On the palate it had a good combination of structure, nicely integrated texture and it held together quite well. Despite showing the inevitable characteristics of the vintage, I was surprised that the composition here overall seemed pretty good, and it worked well with food. There is some, at least, acidity. Nice, although where the wines of this vintage are going in the future I am unsure. 16+?/20 (January 2008)
Dinner was provided by a kindly guinea fowl, which was very nicely prepared, not overcooked, and with a good but not vibrant flavour. It battled with a complex array of flavours on the plate, some of which worked very well both in isolation and in combination with others, although some did not. The main feature was a potato galette which I thought over-the-top and certainly overly crispy, whereas a parsnip puree was superb and pure in its provision of flavour, although a little helping of cabbage and pancetta at the very core of the dish was uninspiring. The grand gift of three slices of black truffle accompanied the dish, which I found excessive; every mouthful began to taste of nothing but truffle, and I left at least one of these languishing at the side of my plate. May I offer my sincere apologies to lovers of truffles everywhere. Overall, though, this was enjoyable, thanks mainly to the handsome breast of fowl which was the centre of the dish. A loin of free-range pork was another option which I sampled after a small fight, and this was good. The pork was just on the edge of pink, and was tender and tasty, and naturally it worked well with the caramelised apples alongside.
There followed a little wait before puddings arrived, for which the staff - friendly and helpful at all times - apologised. "I am sorry but our kitchen is small, and we have just taken eight orders for the party next door. Is it alright if you wait?" Not a problem for me, but I wonder how they will cope when the restaurant is actually fully booked, and they have a less patient diner?
It would not be exaggerating to say that desserts were the highlight of the dinner. A pecan tart was dancing with flavour, whereas a rice pudding was very well prepared, light and yet traditional, and it made a great partner for a dollop of sorbet infused with Pedro-Ximénez, the flavour of which was really singing, unlike my Madeira-free starter. We finished with coffee (very good) and petit fours (less good) before escaping into the night. In conclusion, though, I must stick my neck out on the issue of stars. For me, this was not quite the quality I expect from a one-star meal; there were great moments of pleasure, but equally there were points of criticism. There are other restaurants in Edinburgh that already hold a star - three, in fact, at the time of writing - and my dinner here does not match my experiences at these other establishments. Most importantly I do not feel compelled to return, and it is that desire, when it is present, that marks - more than any star - a great restaurant.
Price: A three course dinner has a set price of £39, two courses are £32. Three courses for two, plus a half bottle (well, somebody has to drive) of Bosquets des Papes 2003, with a bottle of mineral water and followed by coffee for two was £115. (18/1/08)