I have recently found myself looking at the prices of waterside flats in Edinburgh. I am not drawn here by the shimmering brown of the Water of Leith, nor by the algae-streaked barges and bateaux that are permanently moored here. I have never really seen the appeal of floating restaurants, floating nightclubs, floating cocktail bars, or indeed any other type of floater. Not since that booze cruise aboard the Royal Iris of the Mersey, back in the dark days of 1989. It was an evening of flat beer, 1980s dance tunes and diesel fumes. It was a night I shall forget for the rest of my life.
Here in Leith, however, evenings can be frittered away in much more pleasurable circumstances, as experienced on my latest return to Martin Wishart's eponymous restaurant which overlooks that shimmering brown. This particular evening was perhaps the busiest I have ever seen the restaurant, partly down to a large table of undertakers in town for a mortician's conference, Embalming Edinburgh 2018. Their profession and the reason for their visit to Edinburgh were largely supposition on my part, admittedly, but only undertakers wear frock coats and top hats with such panache.
Desperately trying to ignore the funereal laughter of my dining neighbours, I buried myself in the wine list and menu. From the former I was torn between several choices, with the 2015 Les Cabotines from Ludovic Chanson holding particular appeal, but in the end I went with an old friend, the 2016 Florilège from Jonathan Pabiot. I remain convinced that the prices of Jonathan's wines will rocket one day, and so I figure I may as well enjoy them while I can still afford them, even with restaurant mark-up. After a couple of dainty amuses bouches I tucked into a tartare of salmon gravadlax, with Tarbert crab, smoked eel, pink grapefruit and bergamot, presented in a crisp little crown. The original gravadlax, I am told, was a Scandinavian method of preserving fish for the winter months by burying it in salt; lax was a Middle English word subsequently usurped by the Norman salmon, while gravad has the same origin as grave. Any method that preserves, whether it be smoking or salting, rather than cooking, lays bare the quality of the ingredients and attention to detail I think, and I had no complaints here, the salmon velvety and with a clean flavour, and while the flavours of the crab, eel and of course the grapefruit came through nicely alongside, the bergamot seemed to have lost its way somewhere between the kitchen and the table. There were no complaints from me though, as it seemed to have been superfluous anyway, the dish quite delicious anyway.
Orkney scallops came next, served with Comté, parsnip, pear and a Vin Jaune sauce, and this dish raised the game a little. For me, the scallops just teetered onto the right side of cooked, the pan no doubt having been very gingerly passed over the flame of a faltering candle, one which lacked any enthusiasm for life having witnessed the slow extinction of all its candle friends. And while the parsnip and pear added interesting contrasts to the main attraction, it was the Vin Jaune sauce that provided the real excitement, bringing a spicy, roasted, umami-like sensation to the dish.
My reaction to the main course, roasted John Dory with artichokes, confit potato, parsley and lemon, was a little more mixed. The artichokes, fried in a light batter, were an absolute delight. I wonder if I might cause offence if, on my return visit, I just asked for a bowl of these, with a suitably rich bowl of garlic-laden mayonnaise, the sort that is bad for the heart but good for the soul? The confit potatoes were good too, although in my world, where we worship Axomamma with genuine fervour, the potato is viewed as far from humble, and this was a suitably respectful treatment of it. The glazed John Dory though? A little dried out to be honest, but with the lemon and sauce it was good enough.
The desserts at this restaurant have often impressed, and the Longley Farm sweet buttermilk mousse, with fennel sorbet, sorrel parfait and Granny Smith apple did not disappoint. The sharp acidity of the apple and the softer lactic character of the buttermilk on the same spoon made for magic in the mouth. The fennel sorbet was great too, fresh and working well with the other parts of the dish. It closed the coffin lid on a very enjoyable meal, and although prices seem to have climbed noticeably in recent years, this was yet another visit to this restaurant after which I felt thoroughly satisfied. How could it be improved? Well, if I owned a nearby flat, and could simply stumble home afterwards, that would be a start. And when I wasn't using it, I suppose I could always rent it out to visiting undertakers. (17/3/18)
Prices: The four-course à la carte menu is now £90, six-course tasting menu £85, eight-course tasting menu £110, with similar vegetarian options £75 and £95 respectively. The wine was £51, and the wine list is as extensive as ever. Dinner for two, including mineral waters, came to £242.
Scotland hadn't quite shaken off the chill of winter as I rolled up to the door of Martin Wishart's eponymously named restaurant overlooking the water of Leith. In truth it was as dark as night even though the hour hand had not long passed six, I felt as though I hadn't seen the sun for about six months, and the chill of the wind whipping in off the Firth of Forth nipped at exposed fingers and ears. The warmth of the restaurant would be very welcome, but a firm yank at the door didn't produce the desired result. The lights were on, the staff were in, but the door was firmly locked. Cue polite knocking and waving…., but it took several minutes of frostbite to attract someone's attention and gain entry. I was milliseconds away from phoning the restaurant and asking to be let in when our plight was finally realised. I practically tumbled into the restaurant, brushing icicles from my jacket as I did so, collapsing to the floor, muttering barely audible words about Scott and Fiennes. Alright I'm exaggerating, but it was cold outside.
It is, looking at my previous review (below), six years since I last visited Martin Wishart down in Leith. As it turns out it was a mistake, I think, to leave it that long. Recovering from this minor faux pas the staff here quickly proved themselves as naturally amiable, knowledgeable and to be honest, really quite charming. We (I don't do all this dining out alone, you know) quickly settled in. The wine list came first, and regular readers will probably know which page I turned to first , and the obvious choice for me was the 2012 Menetou-Salon from Philippe Gilbert. I have tasted a lot of Philippe's wines over the past three or four years, and visited him during harvest, but sitting down and drinking rather than tasting always brings out seemingly new nuances in a wine. After this bottle I admit I am more convinced by Philippe's wines than ever.
After a few hors d'oeuvres, including an interesting beetroot macaroon stuffed with horseradish which frankly made me hunger for roast beef, I kicked off with Orkney scallop and black truffle, which was nothing short of divine. The scallops were perfectly soft and melting, with just a gentle trim of caramelisation around the edges, and the harmony with the black truffle, confident but not overpowering, was precisely judged. Little cubes of Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato added some moments of interest, but the crunch of hazelnut that came here really lifted the dish in quite spectacular fashion. And of course as a whole it worked very well with the Menetou-Salon, which had the acidity the scallops required, but a surprising texture and depth of fruit which meant it easily stood up to the truffle as well. It also seemed to go down well with the Kilbrannan langoustine with its tandoori spice, butternut squash and walnut pesto, although I personally wasn't so sure about the curried note in this dish.
Choosing to eat to the wine in front of me (I'm sure I'm not the only one that does this) I next opted for the turbot 'à la plancha', a dish which had some themes in common with my starter, coming with salt baked celeriac, turnip, white asparagus and truffle cream. Again this was really faultless, the turbot moist and melting, very lightly caramelised at its edges, and it paired up beautifully with the very savoury melange of elements on the plate. Borders roe deer, with braised lettuce, carrot, date and barbecued winter onion was also tip top, and in a head-to-head would have taken a similar dish, perhaps one of only a few highlights at the Gardener's Cottage, to the cleaners. Turbot and Menetou-Salon? Perfect. Roe deer and Menetou-Salon? Not really, unless it's Pinot Noir rather than Sauvignon Blanc of course, which it wasn't. But then someone has to drive, don't they? No more wine for you, dear.
I went safe hereafter, with a very good selection of cheeses from what must be one of Edinburgh's best-stocked cheese trolleys. But my very wise and hedonistic dining companion opted for dessert, not one of them but all three. Three spoons appeared, and then a sequence of three dainty micro-versions of the à la carte puddings. Spoon number one was for an Ivoire white chocolate mousse (Ivoire is a very lightly sweetened white chocolate from Valrhona), spoon number two for a mango, confit pineapple and coconut sorbet, and spoon number three for a Valrhona dark chocolate and passion fruit delice. I believe they were all exceptional, but they were jealously guarded and any attempts on my part to ascertain this for myself were met with an icy stare and a brief crack to the hand with a spoon. I'll just stick with the cheese then.
I was thinking recently of Erasmus and his Adagia, and although I don't think he included it in his list of favoured adages that which is most appropriate here is you get what you pay for. This was a very fine dining experience, with very natural service, excellent work in the kitchen, and overall I would opt for a return here at the drop of a hat in preference to any of the other Edinburgh establishments I have frequented recently. Indeed, I don't mind nailing my colours to the mast and confessing that I found the entire experience here the most enjoyable dinner I have had in the past couple of years at least, and that includes dinner at The Square and one or two other popular establishments I haven't written up, such as La Tupina in Bordeaux. I'll just phone in advance next time, and ask them to unlock the doors in readiness for my arrival.
Prices: Dinner for two, three courses each (more if you include all those puddings) including wine and top quality service was £199.50. The Menetou-Salon was £45. Á la carte is £70 for three course, with a £5 supplement for cheese. Tasting menus including fish and vegetarian options are £70-75. (9/5/15)
A visit to Martin Wishart is perhaps compulsory for all food-interested individuals who find themselves in Edinburgh; with one Michelin star under his belt, and having previously been named Best Restaurant in Scotland by the AA, it should be clear why. So you might ask why it has taken so long for me to get around to it? I can only blame an inherent inability to organise myself!
The welcome here is warm, friendly but embarrassingly rehearsed. Perhaps it needs to be, but having been seated, offered drinks, offered menus and instructed regarding the tasting versus à la carte menus, it was a little tedious to listen to the same spiel being offered, word for word, to other tables positioned close to ours. This doesn't exude professionalism or comfort within one's role, and does nothing do reinforce what could be a very personal welcome. Not to worry; dining as a twosome, we made our choices from the à la carte selection, opted for a bottle of Roches Neuves 2005 Saumur-Champigny, and relaxed in what are indeed very convivial surroundings, a blend of warm browns (carpet, chairs, a little wood panelling, the blinds) and crisp white linen on the tables. My relaxation was enhanced by a glass of Ruinart (which was introduced simply as non-vintage, but which on tasting had to be the Blanc de Blancs – it was very good). It was only the arrival of a platter of amuses bouches which stirred me from my respite.
I sampled these from left to right – as instructed. First up was a celeriac and saffron velouté, and although the saffron came through quite well on the palate it also seemed rather well seasoned, and it tasted more of mushroom than celeriac. In the middle of this trio came a pig's trotter tartlet, which was rich, sweet, slightly sticky, tasty but ultimately – save for the use of trotter rather than an easier cut – lacked distinction. Lastly a small mushroom mousse; full marks here for presentation, a small marble of mousse suspended in a liquor or stock, which collapsed under the weight of the spoon, such was its delicacy. And the flavour was good too. This was surely the best of this tiny triumvirate.
Up next was a ravioli of langoustine which was good, with perfect wafer-thin pasta around some soft, flavoursome but very tiny chunks of langoustine; in fact, it was almost minced seafood. The foie gras and truffle sauce was good, with more emphasis on the latter, especially as tiny slivers of truffle dotted the surface of the dish. Overall, though, I was unmoved; the dish was technically correct, but I found the sum of the parts unexciting. I also tasted a little of an alternative, Kilbrannan scallops, which were a little undercooked for my palate, although the accompanying parmesan reggiano sauce was delicious. I suppose how well-done you prefer your scallops is a very personal thing, but these were fairly raw and very lightly seared. I thought back to the fabulous scallops from Stephane Cosnier at Le Petit Comptoir; these presented here just didn't compare.
An issue with cooking style persisted through to the next course, with a steamed sea bass, which came dressed with a mushroom ravioli (the most charming, minuscule mushrooms you have ever seen – as if harvested in a magical, miniature world), wilted rocket and konbu (seaweed, if you were wondering) vinegar. The latter was presented as a cappuccino-style foam, and did nothing to enhance the dish at all. The sea bass itself, though, was a soft and structureless dish with no bite to it; I later learned that this effect is achieved by steaming the fish in a sealed plastic bag. It's not something I would attempt to reproduce, although I suspect some would enjoy its soft, squishy texture. It's all about personal palate preferences, for sure. Finally – for the main course, at least – a squab pigeon was very nicely presented, with two breasts and one leg accompanied by a pomme galette – a round of fine potato slices – and a celeriac purée. The breasts came with foie gras, wrapped in cabbage leaves, and it was on the whole very good. My only point of criticism would be concerning the rest of my pigeon…unless it was a one-legged pigeon, of course. There is nothing wrong with serving half a bird, naturally, as the rest may be utilised for stocks, amuses bouches, and so on, but I did enjoy Tom Kitchin's ethos of serving the whole woodcock on a plate. Nevertheless, what I did receive was well presented and certainly cooked to perfection….and I suppose that is what counts.
A shared cheese course was divine – in fact it was perhaps the high point of the meal – as the cheese trolley is very well stocked. We enjoyed these with some walnut bread which was just as good as the other breads served during the meal, even if I would have preferred a little more substance and a little less crisp in some of them, as well as some Swedish crisp breads. The latter were “made especially for us”, which I imagine – although I don't know – means that they are bought in from Peter's Yard. These were followed by two desserts; first up, a lemon delice, with blood orange cream and honeycomb. Although this resembled a gigantic chip-shop sausage on a plate, this was divine, creamy, intensely flavoured and a good choice. Alongside I tried the assiette of rhubarb and yoghurt with ginger beer sorbet and lemon grass sauce. On the plate this resembled a scattering of sweet candy, rather like little sticks of sweet rock and other delights had been thrown there in a thoughtless fashion. But each one was a fine rhubarb mousse, or dollop of yoghurt, and they were certainly tasty, although the flavours were outdone by the fine presentation I think. In one place a small tartlet of rhubarb revealed some intensity, but in another came the real “wow” moment when a pink, icy quenelle of sorbet revealed not more rhubarb, but this time ginger beer. What a great blast of flavour to finish on!
This was an evening of very good, very technically correct food. The ingredients are no doubt excellent, the presentation superb, the atmosphere warm and considerate. The execution, however, sometimes failed to move me. But this is I suppose a personal thing, the interaction between one man's cooking and another's palate. We declined coffee, but a selection of handmade chocolates and some very good petits fours arrived just the same. They finished off an enjoyable evening – in fact they finished me off, as well.
Prices: This little evening came to about £180, a bill which provided one aperitif in the shape of the Ruinart (£12.50 per glass), three courses each, two bottles of mineral water (£4.45 each) and the Saumur-Champigny (£33). The wine list is extensive, and there are plenty of pricier options for those looking to spend up. The tasting menu gives six courses for the same fee as dining à la carte, £60, and a glass of wine with each of the six courses will be £50. (11/3/09)