Life must be interesting for the residents of St Stephen Street, in Edinburgh's Stockbridge. Classic Edinburgh tenements tower overhead, while squatting beneath them is a bohemian shopping nirvana, a street crammed with Edinburgh's most hipsterish places to spend your money. There are what were once called second-hand clothes shops, although now it is 'vintage wear' that they purvey, alongside coffee shops, antique dealers, art galleries and even Vox Box, a vinyl record store established in 2011. On the north side of the street, no doubt of interest to local historians is the entrance to the old Stockbridge Market. Access is gained via an imposing stone archway, flanked by two Doric pillars. Engraved in the stone lintel above there is the promise of "Butcher Meat, Fresh Fruit, Fish & Poultry" beyond. The adventurous who seek out this market will, however, be disappointed; it ceased to exist eons ago.
The market may have given way to modern housing, but thankfully hungry Edinburghers who land here are not yet without hope. Because the land slopes so dramatically towards the Water of Leith here, many properties on the north side have lower levels, accessible from the street, and hidden in one such cellar is Purslane. The first hurdle with Purslane is finding it; there is no neon sign to show the way, but there is a menu hung on the street-level railings outside. Watch your footing as you descend the steps to the cellar; these are comedy steps, the height of each one subtly but notably different from the one above. With your hips and knees still jarring, you soon arrive at the entrance to a postage stamp of a dining room.
Chef and co-owner Paul Gunning has a curriculum vitae that seems to major on the favourite names of Edinburgh, including stints at Number One in the Balmoral Hotel, and La Garrigue, which was one of the first restaurants I ever visited in the city. It also includes a spell at Marco Pierre White's ill-fated River Room (now, unless I am mistaken, the River Bar & Grill) in Manchester. The cooking here is modern, using classic flavour combinations, and with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. After a cauliflower velouté which served as an amuse bouche, I opened proceedings with sautéed wild mushrooms on toast with a quail's egg. Yes, this was a safe option, from my point of view as well as the chef's I would guess, but it did what it said on the tin. To be honest I was hoping for a more exotic selection of mushrooms than what arrived, my crunchy toast covered with what were mostly sliced chestnuts or similar, but the menu didn't promise any such thing and so I can't complain. The quail's egg was nicely cooked with a runny yolk, but overall the seasoning was a bit too full-on. While I enjoyed the dish (who doesn't like a pile of salty mushroom slices on toast?) I didn't feel it was anything noteworthy. The harissa-marinated sea bream with a crushed lentil samosa, pickled carrots and mouli, of which I also managed to snaffle a mouthful, was no doubt a little more challenging technically. The spices were subtle, the fish sensitively marinated and cooked.
A main course of rump of beef with mashed potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, roasted vegetables and red wine jus was delicious, the sliced rump thick, pink and tender. This was a little more like it, and although the kitchen had been a little parsimonious with the jus, meaning that overall the dish felt a little dry, I really enjoyed this. It said a lot more to me about the kitchen than the mushrooms on toast, at any rate. An assiette of pork with kale, carrot purée, red wine poached apples and star anise jus was similarly delicious, the pork soft and melting, not like the old rubbery leg of pork that I recall from roast dinners back in the 1970s.
Masochists who peruse my restaurant reviews with any regularity may have recognised that I have a penchant for cheese, but perhaps inspired by that delicious strawberry dessert at Timberyard I opted to finish my three courses here with a pistachio cake with yoghurt ice cream and roasted figs, and as it turned out in doing so I made a good decision. The cake was soft and moist, the figs rich and heavy, the whole dish brought nicely together by the ice cream, which was indeed creamy, but with a gentle tang. It was very full and satisfying on the palate, a different experience to more fruit-rich, acid-defined desserts. Happily, on the other side of the table there appeared a selection of cheeses from Iain Mellis, Edinburgh's star cheesemonger. They were very good, but then in my experience Iain Mellis cheeses almost always are. As for wine, by the way, these dishes were washed down with a couple of by the glass options. First, the Non-Vintage Delamotte Champagne which was rather firm and citrus-stony, but did the job, followed by a 2013 Altas Tierras Bobal, which started off a little smoky and confected, but after half an hour in the glass this had morphed into vibrant, acid-driven fruits. It worked well with the beef.
Paul Gunning has been here at Purslane in St Stephen Street for several years now, and yet he remains relatively unknown. Why this should be is unclear. Is it the rather low-key location, or the lack of a street presence? One thing is for sure it can't be the cooking, or the price of said experience. Putting to one side any niggles, which were minor with nothing more serious than a little over-seasoning and under-saucing, this was a really enjoyable meal. The service was friendly, natural and relaxed, and there is no question - as per the prices presented below - that I found great value for my money here. We might all like to eat out at those famous names once in a while, but Purslane is a restaurant we can come back to every week, for dishes of a very similar quality, without breaking the bank. So, once you have refreshed your wardrobe with a new kaftan and expanded your vinyl collection with that limited-edition Nana Mouskouri picture disc you have been hunting down for twenty years, be sure to pop next-door to Purslane for something more modern, more enjoyable and certainly more worthy of the hard-earned shilling in your pocket.
Prices: For two courses, £24.95, for three courses, £29.95, with a £1.50 supplement for cheese. The Champagne was £9 per glass, the Bobal £7.55 per glass. Coffee and petit fours are £4.50. Our dinner for two came to £90.25. (14/11/15)