Update: Howie’s have long ceased to operate from this address, although the chain continues in the city at a number of other addresses.
Howie’s is a small chain of restaurants scattered across Scotland, with four locations in Edinburgh as well as Aberdeen and St Andrews. I popped along one recent Friday evening, attracted by the suggestion of decent food with a bring-your-own policy. Plucking two bottles from the cellar, a small party headed over to their Bruntsfield restaurant.
Situated in a former bank, this eatery has a prominent corner position. This makes it easy to find if you are unfamiliar with the area, but it also seems to attract the passing drunks who mostly enjoy staring at the diners within, although some seem to find knocking loudly on the windows provides even greater entertainment. Inside, diners sit sweltering; this wasn’t a particularly warm October evening, but within Howie’s a tropical weather system seemed to have taken hold. The best seats were those where you serendipitously found yourself near one of the oscillating fans, which provided a welcome breath of cooling air. There should be a shorts-only dress code. The decor is unremarkable, save for the presence of a unique collection of giant lampshades; the three hanging from the ceiling here must surely be some of the largest in the world.
Onto the food. I had pigeon breast with a plum reduction to start. A pleasant, obviously slightly sweet sauce, and initial disappointment with the pigeon turned to relief as I made my way through the dish. Slices of meat near the top were dry, tough and flavourless; beneath the quality improved, until at the bottom I was enjoying succulent, slightly pink, moist and tender fare. Had the meat been left under a hot-plate to keep warm for an extended period of time? I was at a loss to explain why such variability in the palatability of the meat should occur. Those slices at the top were frankly unacceptable, but below they were fine. This lack of attention to very basic detail is endemic at Howie’s; as I found with my main course, no-one seems to care what the kitchen sends out at this particular branch of Howie’s (other branches may, of course, fare much better). Other starters seemed satisfactory; a terrine of chicken was said to be fine, and I tasted a lemon and lime fishcake which was really quite good.
Slow-roast shank of lamb was my main course. Peeling away a layer of charcoal and dried out, leathery meat I found some tasty, melting, typically slow-roasted lamb within. This inner component was fine, but as a whole the execution of this dish was rubbish. Slow roasting lamb is so easy to get right; to damage the meat so convincingly seems to me to reflect a complete lack of interest in the kitchen. Which really means a complete lack of care for the patrons, the paying customer. Shocking. This is an inexpensive dining joint, but the competitive prices don’t excuse such poor quality; I would rather see simpler fare done well, than the cremation of a variety of choice meats.
I can’t make any comment on the wine list here, as I brought my own; I include the tasting notes here to aid my own memory. Both were opened and checked before leaving for the restaurant, and the red given some time in decanter:
Maximin Grünhaüser Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett 2001: A very floral, aromatic, nose, initially very sweet and simply perfumed. But with air the wine settles down, finding a more pleasing, restrained, elegant set of white fruit and mineral-talcum aromas to exhibit, with just a subtle floral twist. Very fresh palate, off-dry, balanced, still a little simply sweet at present, but with obvious potential for the cellar. Good. 16+/20 (November 2005)
Costers del Siurana Clos de l’Obac 2000: Deep colour. When poured this exhibited one of the most simple, sweet and alcoholic noses I have ever encountered, rather like blackcurrant squash with a dash of alcohol. Fortunately with an hour or two in the decanter it fattened up, and developed a more integrated nose as well, so that it did at least please on the palate, where it eventually showed some ripe texture, decent acidity and some ripe tannins. Hopefully will develop some interest in bottle; at present I just don’t get it. 14/20 (November 2005)
I finished off with a flavourless tiramisu; where was the lovely moist texture and little kick of alcohol this pudding can provide? During the weekend that followed I entertained myself knocking up a potent version of this classic dessert on the Saturday, followed by slow-roasted leg of lamb on the Sunday. Both were great, illustrating satisfactorily how weak the show at Howie’s had been.
Price: Dinner menu; £16.50 for two courses, £18.95 for three. Early dining £11.95 for two courses, Sunday to Thursday up to 6:45pm. Lunch menu; £8.95 for two courses, £10.95 for three. I confess I can make no comment on the wine list. (11/11/05)