The Tower Restaurant
Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF
Tel: 0131 225 3003
My first visit to the Tower Restaurant, situated above the Museum of Scotland, was in April 2005. I didn't write a word about it; I had been living in Edinburgh for less than two weeks, and without sufficient context I felt uncomfortable making any comment. I felt that perhaps one has to understand a city better than I did before I should make any judgement. Frankly, I didn't enjoy that meal. I remember all too easily the rubbery razor clams and almost raw, sinewy asparagus that constituted my starter; the lamb that followed must have been less offensive, because I remember less of it. One year on, and I returned. What would my impression of The Tower be this time?
If you were to judge solely on design and setting, The Tower might wipe the floor with much of the opposition. The dining room is lengthy and narrow, but the space is well utilised, and the view of Edinburgh Castle is one to be reckoned with. The restaurant looks onto the castle's south and east sides, quite the opposite of the more commonly appreciated aspect which faces Princes Street. But a fine dining experience needs more than a grand setting; obviously, it needs some top notch food.
To start this evening I took a crab and cumin risotto; put simply, this was quite edible. Note I do not suggest it was excellent, desirable, or even a good example of a risotto. I found the rice to steer too close to a slight fluffy, grainy style, quite the opposite of what one expects with this dish. The one small chunk of crab that hovered at the periphery of my oval of rice was tasty, I am only sorry that this characteristic did not follow through to the rest of my dish. I'm not sure where the cumin went either - I certainly didn't find any evidence of this spice on the palate. Overall, this was distinctly average. But I must add some balance to my opinions; in our group of diners there were some mixed opinions on the starters. The Thai fishcakes came with some cold noodles which were not well received (I am paraphrasing here - the actual comment on these bits of cold string were in truth much more colourful), but a celeriac soup, with poached egg and truffle oil was reportedly as good as it sounds.
Onto the main course; venison for me, with a Stornoway black pudding and sweet and sour red cabbage; on the side (salads and vegetables were extra) I had a rocket salad. There was much here that was good, in particular the venison was obviously of good quality, although something had been lost in translation I think - a pinker meat would have been preferable. It was presented in four overly thick tranches. The pudding was certainly distinct; enveloped in the leaves of a Savoy cabbage, this was a huge, thick, richly flavoured delight which went beyond what I normally expect of black pudding, and straddled the culinary limbo that sits between the black pudding and the haggis. In itself, delicious, and the red cabbage also performed very well. But I have to take issue with this dish; had I knocked this up at home, I would have been proud, and with good reason. There was richness, there was bags of flavour, and there was a filling, hearty portion, but is this what constitutes the aforementioned fine dining experience? Not quite, I feel. Like a great wine, fine food needs balance, delicacy, elegance, and this was missing in spades. What I had was a hearty, overly rich, slap-up meal, no doubt, but without the finesse that I was hoping for.
Puddings were duly consumed. I did not partake (such self-control!) but I did taste two. They were disappointing; a steamed marmalade pudding was dull, and the sponge was dry and crumbly, sufficiently so for this to be sent back to the kitchen. The accompanying chilli ice cream, though, was good. And a baked pecan pie was also dry and uninspiring, although I found the peanut butter ice cream that perched on top to be pretty good, although my companion actually eating the pudding was unimpressed. There seems to be a trend here...perhaps anything with ice cream might be a safe choice?
If there is a good side to The Tower, it is the wine list. There is good choice, at a variety of price points, and the wine service was without fault. I tasted/drank:
Niepoort Redoma Branco 2004: The menu billed this as Burgundy-like, which made me wonder how much oak I would find, but having heard such good things about Dirk Niepoort's table wines I was keen to try it. Indeed, it has an oak-dominated nose, full of butterscotch notes, which frankly I would rather weren't there, but this may just need time to integrate. On the palate there is freshness and balance, although the oak dominates the fresh tropical fruit, laced as it is with aniseed. This is good, despite the dominant woody character found throughout. 16/20 (May 2006)
Château Teyssier (St Emilion) 2001: Having enjoyed the 1998-2000 vintages, I thought this might be good with the venison. Decanted for an hour or so before tasting - thank heavens it wasn't corked. Good deep colour, and early evolution on the nose which shows a meaty, secondary edge to the fruit. A little featureless on the palate, however, which seems to lag behind the nose a little. I suspect this needs time in the cellar to develop, although it performed well on the night, demonstrating a good texture and nice, slightly marrowy mouthfeel. Good. 16.5/20 (May 2006)
Price: Pretty reasonable actually. I dined in a party of nine, with a bill of £450, including coffee, wine and service. I would note, however, that there were only three bottles of wine consumed. There were too many people driving or with early flights the next day to consume much more. (26/5/06)