Food and Drink: Chefs' turn takes centre stage: Emily Green visits Edinburgh and finds the food so improved that some festival-goers may consider weaning themselves on to solids
Take, for example, Patisserie Florentin, just off the Royal Mile. Open round the clock, it offers salads and sandwiches, croissants, good patisserie and salty breads made with French flour, some plain, some tricked up with raisins or sun-dried tomatoes. Best was the crusty baguette.
Florentin bread is also on sale at a marvellous little shop just off the Grassmarket. Iain Mellis Cheesemonger opened 10 weeks ago, and stocks artisanal cheeses, almost all made from raw milk. Mr Mellis himself works the counter; 14 years of experience shows in his solicitous and intelligent service. He stocks classics from the south, including caerphilly, and Scottish cheeses such as cheddar from Dumfries and the Isle of Mull, Bonchester and Dunsyre Blue.
To assemble a wine and cheese picnic, the final stop should be Raeburn Fine Wines. Once a simple corner shop run by Zubair Mohamed's father, it was, say locals, a good source of Fairy Liquid and packet curry powder. Almost 10 years ago, Mr Mohamed turned it into a wine shop selling well chosen bottles, cigars and flowers - mainly fresh lilies. 'It still has a few bottles of Fairy Liquid for historic reasons,' he says. I went in search of an unusual wine for friends, and he produced a Gran Recosind 1982 Gran Reserva from Cellers Santamaria, the first and only wine I have sampled from the Costa Brava. It smelled of wood and vanilla, in the Spanish style, and was a big red. Mr Mohamed's business is expanding, and he has taken space in one of the city's most ancient wine vaults in the docklands of Leith.
His neighbours in Leith, to my mind, are among the best restaurateurs in Britain. I would stack the Vintners Rooms against almost any restaurant anywhere. It is utterly couth: candlelit and handsome, made up of carved wood, stone and old plaster. The food is good. So is the wine. You can drink and eat a little or a lot, casually in the bar, a bit more formally in the restaurant. Either way, prices are fair. The place was built in the days when Leith was a notable claret port. Its proprietors the past four years have been Tim and Sue Cumming. He cooks, she carries. She has help from first-rate staff, including a young Scot named Grant Rae, who returned to Edinburgh 18 months ago to ply a relaxed brand of civility after working in a famous Michelin two-star in London.
Mr Cumming is so reserved, even jerkily shy, that he might be mistaken for a distracted English butterfly collector. Yet by birth he, too, is Scottish. He and his wife arrived four years ago from Bath, where they cooked among the West Country mafia fathered by George Perry-Smith. This is a good credential. Many of his fold, such as Joyce Molyneux, have since become household names. Mr Perry-Smith was one of the first British restaurateurs assiduously to put the recipes of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson on restaurant plates. The cooks he trained still do. Mr Cumming is no exception. Cacciucco alla Livornese is on page 86 of Mrs Grigson's Fish Cookery. I found it on the bar menu last week. It is a sort of fish soup with squid, its liquor black from squid ink. Spices, even strong ones such as star anise, blend their flavours rather than dominate.
A terrine of salmon was accompanied by a sauce grelette. It was fresh and perfect for the fish - a simple blend of cream cheese, single cream, tomato, brandy and tarragon.
These two offerings were so good that I raced back for a second meal. Again Mr Cumming cooked real food with real flavour, and execution so sure that it did not need twiddling and fiddling. Spinach soup was built on good, delicate stock. Mildly spicy grilled white sausage came with sweet apple sauce and fritters. A piping hot fettucine with mussels swam in a creamy saffron sauce. Only a cherry tart with almond and amaretto was overcooked.
Fresh dark red cherries appear with the cheese course in an earthenware bowl with a deep blue glaze. Also accompanying the cheese is fresh, salty celery. Filter coffee is good, the wine list exemplary - best on the French regions of Alsace, Bordeaux, the Rhone, the Loire and Burgundy, with an unusual subdivision for Chalonnais. Prices per bottle average from pounds 10 to pounds 15, and there is a decent selection by the glass.
IF DINNER no longer need be drink, Scottish restaurant menus still grapple with an extreme taste. Choice is too often between protein or protein.
One would expect Andrew Radford to be the sort of chef to rectify the situation. Everything about his new restaurant, The Atrium, in the shiny new building housing the Traverse Theatre, says stylish. Fittings show a penchant for transforming found materials: tables are made from Australian hardwood, formerly railway sleepers. Floors are a clever parquetry of stained plywood. Lighting fixtures are made from twisted metal. Tables and chairs are draped in white cotton.
However, if this restaurant were a spiffy new pair of shoes, then my guess would be that they pinch. I would like to visit it in six months. Mr Radford is known among the best suppliers in Edinburgh for meat, game and fish. For some reason, just now he is listing them all on the same menu, with precious few light options. It made ordering a chore: for example, fried chicken livers and bacon followed by game pie did not appeal.
If menu-writing is the most difficult task faced by a chef, a close second is to keep food simple. I would like to see Mr Radford's food less twiddled, to eat a salad without green beans in it, to see baked aubergine that has not been sliced and stuck on opposite ends of a plum tomato with molten mozzarella and sided with more busy salad and salsa.
It should be stressed he has a touch that is rare: the ability to cook things properly. The halibut was perfectly moist. He likes big flavours - there were great handfuls of fresh mint in a summery, light ice-cream. Baked goods fell down a bit on technique: a chocolate biscuit was British Rail-ish, a pecan pie dry. Service is assiduous and charming.
IF you have ever wondered what happened to the whimsically rude French restaurateurs, go to the Marinette, a new restaurant in Leith. The chef-patron, in a paper souffle hat, also waits tables. An innocent request for a starter as a main course evoked the declaration, 'Non] It is a starter, and I, madam, am a restaurant]' Request garlic bread for a moaning seven-year-old and he will say 'Non] I cook 12 years in order to get my own restaurant, not to make garlic bread]'
Five minutes later, he had transformed himself into a Blue Peter presenter, all cheer, cajoling us with champagne glasses rarely seen outside of Babycham adverts and presenting a paper chef's hat to one of two rather winning children in our party.
Physically, the Marinette is cute as pie, all gingham and splashy motifs. Management provides bibs, which is useful, for the food is rough and mainly good: mussels in a vaguely aniseedy liquor, garlicky sauce for (gritty) clams, overcooked fish stews. The proprietor's arm-twisting meant we ordered rather more than we could swallow and, after coffee on the house, he cheerfully sent us off with a takeaway.
THE notion that food is meat links Edinburgh and rural Fife. Those who seek a retreat from city life could do worse than take the train for a day trip over the Forth and up the east coast. Its workaday beauty, rolling fields and rough fishing villages have somehow escaped heritage schemes. The poshest joint going in Fife is the Peat Inn near St Andrews. The wine list is heroic and food excellent. Make what you will of the chintzy fittings and froufrou laid on for Michelin inspectors: Glaswegian chef David Wilson cooks with love and best local ingredients, be it pigeon, hare or smoked haddock.
For fresh fish, simply cooked, look to the Cellar in Anstruther. For protein with protein, go to Ostler's Close in the market town of Cupar. Friends had told me this was the commoner's Peat Inn. Hmmm. Physically, it is more like a tea shop: tiny and homely. And neighbourly. One of the two owners, Amanda Graham, knows most of her guests, and pauses for a good natter every now and again while waiting tables, even passing a petition complaining about invasive food smells from the takeaway restaurant next door. Inspectors for guide books, she says, do not abide hot streams of garlicky air wafting through the dining room.
Petitions about unfamiliar squabbles seem best left unsigned, but I am happy to endorse the cooking of Mrs Graham's husband, James. Granted, it was so meat-heavy, the 'vegetarian' next to me relented and had confit of duck followed by venison, but it was good confit (a bit dry) and excellent venison. Fresh Pittenweem langoustines (large local prawns) were served on blanched samphire and beurre blanc. Of puddings, best was a dense sticky toffee. Cheeses are Scottish, raw milk and good.
Patisserie Florentin, 8 St Giles Street, Edinburgh (031 225 6267). Open 24 hours. Average spend at tables pounds 5; pastries from pounds 1.50; loaves of bread from pounds 1.20.
Iain Mellis Cheesemonger, 30a Victoria Street, Edinburgh (031-226 6215). Open 9.30am-6pm Mon-Sat.
Raeburn Fine Wines, 21-23 Comely Bank Road, Edinburgh (031 332 5166). Open 9am-6pm Mon-Sat. Visa, Access, Switch, Mastercard.
Vintners Rooms, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh E6 (031 554 6767). Set two- course lunch pounds 8, three-course pounds 10.75. Three-course dinner with drink approx pounds 25- pounds 30. Open Mon-Sat lunch and dinner. Amex, Visa, Access.
Marinette, 52 Coburg Street, Leith (031 555 0922). Approx pounds 20 for two courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Open lunch 12 noon-3pm, dinner 6-10.30pm Tue-Sat. Visa, Access, Mastercard.
Ostler's Close, 25 Bonnygate, Cupar, Fife (0334 55574). Approx pounds 30 all in. Open lunch 12.15-2pm, dinner 7-9.30pm Tue- Sat. Access, Visa, Switch.
Also recommended: Peat Inn, Peat Inn, Fife (0334 84206) and the Cellar, 24 East Green, Anstruther, Fife (0333 310378).
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