The Ship on the Shore
Leith, that place where The Proclaimers wanted us to believe the sun shines, has a long and illustrious history as a port. Situated as it is below Edinburgh at the mouth of the Water of Leith, looking out on the Firth of Forth and the North Sea beyond, it is hardly surprising that in its heyday it saw millions of tonnes of cargo landed each year. There were once more than one hundred warehouses on Henderson Street built purely for the storage of wine and brandy, an indicator of the strength of the wine and spirits trade in these parts. Sadly, those days have long gone; even the Vintners Rooms, a restaurateur's nod to this ancient vinous heritage, has long closed down.
Of course it was not all about wine. Leith had many other industries, from shipbuilding and whaling to glass manufacture and fishing. Sadly I suspect there is now about as much life left in Leith's fishing fleet as there is in its bonded wine warehouses. Even so, The Ship on the Shore seems ideally placed on the waterside to take advantage of anything that might be landed here. The concept - high quality Scottish seafood served with minimal dressing up - is undeniably appropriate, being in the spirit of this place, even if in practice the provenance of their seafood is somewhat more distant. The scallops are hand-dived and come from Mull, the mussels are not from neighbouring Musselburgh but are rope-farmed in the Shetland Isles, while the oysters hail from Loch Creran. But that's fine. It's all freshly shipped in, and it all comes from sustainable sources.
Once over the threshold The Ship on the Shore, which is marketed as a restaurant and Champagne bar, definitely has the feel of converted pub. The interior seems quite dark, with lots of wood panelling, some of which is fashioned from heavily stained and varnished case ends. Mostly claret case-ends, as it happens, exactly the sort of wines you don't want to be drinking with crab and crayfish, of any provenance. Happily, the wine list works better than the decor, but more on that later.
Once settled in I kicked off with the Shetland mussels with garlic and herbs which was at first rather underwhelming, although as I managed to get at the sauce, which lay buried deep beneath a mollusc mountain to marvel at, I finally found some flavour. I could have done with a bit more punch in the sauce, a little more reduced wine, more garlic, more herbs, more seasoning, more of everything in fact, but it was good enough. It will never live up to that first bowl of moules marinières I had in Oostende, circa August 1989, but it is not fair to ask the impossible. The mussels themselves, it has to be said, were tip-top, big, fresh and fairly meaty, so they didn't give up their ropey home for no reason. I also had a forkful of the Ship's salmon and smoked haddock fishcakes with Ship's tartare sauce ("Ship's this" and "Ship's that" crops up a lot here, by the way). These were good enough and, as with the mussels, the portion size was hearty. On many other evenings I could have started and finished with these fishcakes and left replete.
Although I was beginning to wonder why I had come to a dimly-lit old pub to eat under-seasoned mussels all doubts about the joy of Scotland's seafood were removed with the main course. I opted for a special, grilled langoustines with Ship's chips, while my alluring dining companion (who, coincidentally, bears a great resemblance to Ariel, from the Little Mermaid, thus continuing the theme of the evening) went for - predictably, it has to be said - the whole Scottish lobster with garlic and herb butter. The langoustines were nothing short of superb, gently grilled, warm, the meat from each half-tail seemingly carrying the weight of butter, full and plump, with a flavour that matched the textural impact. The chips weren't half bad either. At my request the chef also whipped up a fresh batch of hollandaise without any fuss, which helped things along immensely, even if I felt it lacked a little piquancy. The lobster was reportedly equally delicious, not that I was allowed to even approach it with my fork in hand.
Back to the wine list. This is sourced from L'Art du Vin, which is no hardship as it means Pouilly-Fumé from Jonathan Pabiot and Sancerre from Pierre Martin, and so quite why anyone would want to linger anywhere else on the list other than the Loire page is beyond me. If the names printed here were Dagueneau and Vatan people would flock to the wines like flies around a recently drained glass of Astéroïde; with these domaines the quality is similar and the prices lower. As it happens I chose to wash this all down with another from the same page, a 2014 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie from Château Haute Carizière, mainly because I found the option of a 500 ml carafe very appealing. It was very good, and of course it worked well with everything we chose.
I finished off with a crème brûlée that was good enough, although not really worthy of further discussion. What is worth talking about here is the seafood; the lobster, the lemon sole meunière, the dressed crab, the King scallops and mussels and sea bass. Quality in what I tasted would appear to be tip-top, but such quality doesn't always come cheap, and the unquestionable provenance perhaps combined with this lucrative waterside location mean dinner for two at The Ship on the Shore could set you back a pretty penny. But there are affordable options too. What you have to do is to decide, maritime pun fully intended, exactly how far you want to push the boat out.
Prices: The Shetland mussels were £6.50 and the fishcakes £7.50. The expense came with the main course, langoustines from the specials menu for £35 and lobster from the crustacea and molluscs menu for £37. Entry-level at the bar is a glass of house Champagne and three oysters for £14.50, but the options run up to the shared seafood platters, at up to £100 each, for two or three to share, Dinner for two including a very reasonably priced carafe of Muscadet at £19.50, and a glass of house Champagne at £9, came to £121. (26/3/16)