I would guess that all restaurant-goers have, in their formative dining years, an Italian trattoria that teaches them to eat with gusto. For many Edinburghers, it would have to be Tinelli, 139 Easter Road (0131-652 1932). It's a matchbox of a place, tightly stuffed with tables, with waiters who seem to have long ago pegged their job to being professionally Italian. Yet there is a sort of identity struggle: while the staff play merry Italianate jester, we innocently downgrade their food by expecting to be able to order prosciutto and melon in March, asparagus in February. Soon the restaurant is stewing carrots beyond recognition, serving watery cabbage and making risotto from conventional rice. So while the cheer at Tinelli is deep and warm and true, the food shows only occasional flashes of confidence and pleasure in the making, as if the cook isn't quite sure why he bothers to get up in the morning. Veal stuffed with mortadella, spinach and a rich white cheese comes looking rather frightening, like a prop from Eraserhead, but tastes good enough. Veg are a watery wash-out. Linguine (advertised as spaghetti) is served with (too much) oil and (not enough) garlic and chilli - but is still pretty good. Lamb chops are greasy but well seasoned with mint, garlic, lemon and oil. Order a barbaresco and it may be an old one, but is still full of the perfume, spice and kick of Italian wines before the oak merchants invaded. The place is warm, welcoming and special. The prices are keen: pounds 42 feeds two sumptuously. Every lunch and Wednesday dinner, the set price menu costs pounds 8.95. Vegetarian meals. Open lunch 12noon- 2.30pm and dinner 6-11pm, Mon-Sat. Major credit cards except Diner's
At Cafe Spice Namaste (pictured below left), 16 Prescot Street (0171- 488 9242), more is less. A new, impressively decorated Indian restaurant in the City, it proudly reminds us that the Indian subcontinent is a Big Place - so big, its kitchen can easily take in Southeast Asia too. It trades in diversity: this from Goa, that from Pakistan, or Thailand, China, Burma, Nepal or Malaysia.
The problem is that chefs do not learn to cook in Big Places. They learn in specific places with distinct regional accents. Putting on a new accent is as hard with cooking as it is with speech-making. It sounds wrong and, at Cafe Spice, it cooks wrong. Goan prawns are served in needlessly hot, watery glop. Spinach tastes as if it were frozen. Rice comes dangerously mined with whole peppercorns. But there are delights: the slimiest, richest and tastiest of okra curries. Rather good pickles. Excellent fruit naans.
This restaurant of a Big Place has its work cut out, not just in summoning up a regional dish a minute, but in serving two distinct audiences: City slickers by day and Tower Hamlets residents on a Saturday night. We went on a Saturday night, and the restaurant didn't seem to be trying hard enough. I have heard, from people whose taste in restaurants I respect, that the food is better at weekday lunch times. Having some inkling of how work rotas are written, it seems to me likely that the standard fluctuates dramatically. The City, and Tower Hamlets, both need a good restaurant, if only from one small part of a Big Place. Perhaps Cafe Spice Namaste can still become it. Vegetarian meals. Open lunch 12noon-3pm Mon-Fri, dinner 6.15-10.15pm Mon-Fri, 6.30- 10pm Sat. From pounds 15-pounds 35. Major credit and debit cards