As a visitor to the Edinburgh festival, it's easy to sink into a paralysis of indecision when faced with the sheer number of shows and events on offer. How to choose between that Perrier-bound stand-up who brought the house down on Loose Ends, and the naked, all-female reinterpretation of Macbeth which recently wowed audiences in Krakow?
Frankly, you might as well give up, and just go for a nice meal instead.
When it comes to eating out, though, Edinburgh doesn't offer quite the same banquet of possibilities. It has traditionally been well served at the bottom end of the market - the fringe, so to speak - with plenty of good bistros and cafes, and some fine Indian restaurants. But further up the scale, the city seems to lack destination restaurants, with a few exceptions such as The Atrium and the gloriously romantic Witchery by The Castle.
Things are starting to change, however. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament has brought new money flooding into the city and sent property prices soaring. New restaurants and bars are opening to cater for the affluent cadre which is moving in. Of the latest crop of openings, none has higher expectations riding on it than The Tower, which opened last December in the new Museum of Scotland.
One of the very few examples of modern architecture in the city, the museum is a striking, confident building which rises like a massive golden wedge amid the blackened sandstone facades of the Old Town. Its collection includes Scottish artefacts from pre-history to the present day, and provides a focus for the country's post-devolution resurgence of cultural pride. But it's possible - if a little shaming - to eat in The Tower without visiting the museum itself; the restaurant is separately managed (by the team behind the Witchery), and sits high above the city on the building's roof.
There's something of the posh department store restaurant about the Tower's dining room: a narrow and slightly hard-edged space given a feel of shiny glamour by its glass-topped bar, silver pillars and Philippe Starck-style chairs, whose spiked aluminium legs fork the blonde-wood floor like stilettos. One wall is formed by floor-to-ceiling windows, and the lay-out means that most tables have a view of the city's famous shortbread-tin skyline, from the glowering hump of the Castle to the green swell of Calton Hill.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its location in a museum celebrating Scottish achievement, the Tower's menu doesn't make a big song and dance about Scottishness. Instead, it favours a simple, modern British approach which caters for hungry tourists with fish and chips and char-grilled ribeye steak, while including more delicate offerings such as goat's cheese tart and sushi for the ladies who lunch. The menu descriptions, like the dishes on offer, tend towards the plain and appetising, and ingredients are sourced locally where possible, with meat from the Buccleuch estate, and fish and seafood from the West coast.
My lunch partner, Simon, an Edinburgh adman and Tower regular, was recovering from a "brutal" night out, and would happily have dived straight into the comfort zone of steak and chips, if I hadn't persuaded him to try a chilled roast garlic and pea soup as perhaps the better test of the kitchen's capabilities. Gorgeously green, it contained subtle nutty notes courtesy of the roast garlic, but the ball of mint sorbet, which bobbed in its centre, cowed the expected sweetness of the peas into submission, and seemed an unnecessary refinement.
My own chilled soup, of roast vine tomatoes, was also served with a sorbet, of cucumber, and this time it worked a little better, but only because the flavour of the soup was rather more robust - almost too sweet, in fact. "Too much treble and not enough bass," I offered, in the secret hope that Simon would sign me up to write snappy slogans for his ad agency.
Only the excellence of the bread - a cornbread speckled with chilli and thyme - indicated that better things lay ahead, and indeed our main courses were far more successful. Simon was finally allowed his comfort food, in the form of grilled calves liver served in thin slices, stripy from the char-grill, with "absolutely gorgeous" bacon. My lamb osso bucco (for some reason I went for the perfect winter's dish on the hottest day in August) substituted lamb shanks for the traditional veal to satisfying effect, the sweet tenderness of the lamb obviously the product of long and loving simmering. Both dishes were served with an intense and creamy potato puree, as good as any I've tasted. The only black marks came with the airline-food tiredness of my over-boiled carrots, and Simon's bland and interminable tomato and basil salad.
The Tower operates a no-smoking policy in the dining room, and my guest's urgent need for a cigarette provided us with a good excuse to repair to the roof-top terrace outside, where we enjoyed our puddings in splendid isolation, despite the sunshine. Either it's a hangover from Calvinism, or the city's famously unpredictable climate militates against a culture of al fresco dining.
The honeyed colours of the building's glowing Clashach-stone finish were echoed in the pink and gold of my peach Melba, an upmarket rendering of a declasse favourite, while Simon's vivid raspberry sorbet was all the better for not being surrounded with soup.
With good coffee, and a bottle of Ca'del Solo from the Californian winery Bonny Doon, our bill came to pounds 35 a head. The museum might be a landmark building, but on this showing, The Tower still has some way to go to establish its credentials as a landmark restaurant. What it does offer, though, is that peerless view, and the comfort of knowing that up there on the roof, amid the fluttering saltires, you've definitely found the best-looking show in town.
The Tower, Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh (0131-225 3003). Noon - 11pm, seven days. Disabled access. All major cards. No smoking.Reuse content