Food: Haste before taste in Edinburgh: New culinary acts get broken in at festival time. After suffering through a pair of comical performances, Emily Green sees a star in the making
Saturday 22 August 1992
Here the festival does play a part. Smart proprietors launch restaurants in August or just before. Festival crowds fill the coffers and test the staff. The event can make or break a new name.
The newest, Les Partisans, is scarcely more than a week old. Bang on the Royal Mile, it is so new that the ground floor is still a construction site, and the fire alarm might trill accidentally during mealtimes. It announces itself with a bright mustard-yellow frontage, the suitability of which has apparently already been discussed in the letters page of the Scotsman.
Upstairs, it is cool white and the soul of simplicity. A comfortable bar leads to a long room lined with windows overlooking the high street. There are flowers, tables, cutlery, glasses, candles, chairs and not much else. It is a clean, appealing look.
This agreeable condition was partly born of haste. Les Partisans is a collective of sorts, rushed together to meet the opening of the festival. More than a dozen different investors stumped up cash when a respected restaurant manager, Mark Budworth (formerly of Le Marche Noir), announced he wanted to open a new place.
One notable partisan is Charlotte Mitchell, the dynamic new chairman of the Soil Association. She was recently awarded a Diploma of Wine, and she shares this interest with Mr Budworth. The result is that Les Partisans has an exceptionally good wine list. There are at least a dozen wines by the glass, large or small, including fresh grassy whites from New Zealand, oaky reds from Spain, floral whites from the Basque country and a good peppery syrah from the Herault region.
The full list (which includes 15 half- bottles) covers top regions and countries, but its emphasis is on flavour and organic production. This can cost. At pounds 28, the Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay was almost prohibitively expensive, yet it was excellent: buttery, fat and farm-yardy. Perhaps the idea is to economise on the food: set three-course lunches are pounds 6, dinners pounds 13.50. If so, the logic needs examining, for the food needs improvement.
The best savoury dish of our meal was a garlic and bread soup; in southern Spain this might be water-based and served cold, here it was warm with a rich backing stock. Other starters tended to the insipid. The avocado, that poor man's butter, needs more than mango coulis to make a starter: it was more like a misbegotten pudding. A leek mousse with long strands of tough green leaf running through it needed skill to eke out the earthy sweetness.
Main courses were similarly plagued by poor thinking and marginal execution. A chicken breast rolled in oatmeal and served with whisky sauce may sound very Scottish, but it needs lighter cooking, dash and spice to avoid being sawdusty and bland.
Puddings were better. A lemon and lime tart suffered from undercooked, soggy pastry, but the filling had good bounce and reasonable acidity. The creme caramel was humble, and perfect for it. The bar is open throughout the afternoon for some unappetising snacks.
The staff and the manager are a credit to the trade. The faults of the food, however, are basic and nothing to do with newness or haste. The chef, I am told, is also from Le Marche Noir - in my experience an overrated French restaurant, across town in Eyre Place. He needs a no- nonsense pro, a Roux or Ladenis, to get him to jack in those mousses and coulis, concentrate on simple, well- cooked food and then move up the ladder slowly.
Of course, Les Partisans may succeed even if it persists with cut-price fancifications. Pierre Levicky launched the Pierre Victoire bistro in Victoria Street four years ago; it took French food downmarket and was a runaway success. Queues, wrong orders, kitchen fires, clouds of cigarette smoke all were part of the charm. Occasionally, the food was good. More often it was not. This was laughed off; Mr Levicky was a popular hero. His food was politically correct: cheap, therefore desirable. Two new restaurants quickly followed, one in Grassmarket and another in Union Street.
Now there is a fourth, up by the university in West Nicolson Street. Again, it is absurdly cheap - a three-course lunch is pounds 4.90 - and it is also vegetarian; its name is Pierre Lapin (amusant, non?). The setting is a vast, half-panelled room, which looks like a converted meeting hall. Just now it has a stage at one end and is doubling as part of the Gilded Balloon venue.
It certainly does not need comics. The food is already a joke. Last week, lovely, well-intentioned waitresses served what might be the worst food I have ever encountered in a British restaurant. Course one was what seemed to be a sort of minced, vaguely spiced marrow, served with tough, dry vine leaves in a red pepper coulis. Course two was a decent (probably packet) spinach tagliatelle topped by button mushrooms in a cream sauce: it tasted like Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, even down to the hint of tin.
To the side were undressed new potatoes that had been overcooked and stuck in a long holding pattern, and a salad of watery tomatoes, red pepper and oakleaf lettuce in a 1910-style sugar vinaigrette. Recognising the ingredients was no mean feat: it was wilted sludge, as if someone had been cleaning out last night's salad bowl.
A recent edition of Caterer & Hotelkeeper announced that Mr Levicky has plans to open restaurants in England. Consider yourself warned.
How marvellous it was, after two poor meals, to discover Spices. The owners, Dik Mehta and Mossa Jogee, are dynamos of the Scottish restaurant scene. Between them they have opened Shamiana and the Kalpna, revolutionary Indian restaurants (Shamiana is now under different ownership and is reputedly not as good). Spices is their latest venue.
Even from the street it displays care. The small frontage is neat and polished. Inside, the room is decorated with fine fabrics and intense watercolours. Staff are gracious and correct.
The menu is pan-Asian, touching the cookery of the Cape Malay in South Africa, Persia, Pakistan and the regional capitals of India. The spices are roast and ground fresh. The food tastes of itself; tamarind, coriander, chillies, cayenne, cumin, mustard, fenugreek, turmeric and so on are delicately deployed to heighten, or mute, a dish.
Even the poppadoms are fresh and flavoursome, with freshly made chutneys. As a starter, I had plump wedges of a home-made milk-curd cheese (paneer), smoked in a tandoor. It is a delicate, wholesome, pleasing dish. Fruit chat (fresh fruit and lightly curried potatoes) comes in a hollowed-out pineapple. All the ingredients were lightly spiced; then, marrying the floury potatoes with acidic bursts of fruit was a slightly sour tamarind sauce. Delicious.
Unlike the Kalpna, a South Indian- style vegetarian restaurant that the partners still own, this is a meaty menu. We dwelt on chicken. Chicken rashida came with a rough spinach sauce spiked with garlic and a subtle spice mix, whose heat built slowly and pleasurably on the tongue. Kuku paka comes from Zanzibar, according to the menu: I could not detect the influence of the marinade on the chicken nor the tandoor (as advertised), but the light, creamy, coconut sauce was perfect.
Spices bucks the Edinburgh trend. It is not cheap: without wine, you will spend pounds 15- pounds 20 a head. And it is good enough to walk away with honours anywhere in Britain.
Les Partisans, 144 High Street, Royal Mile (031 225 5144). Set three-course lunch, incl coffee, pounds 6; dinner pounds 13.50. Children welcome; vegetarian meals. No cigars or pipes. Classical, jazz played. Restaurant open lunch, afternoon snacks and dinner daily; bar 11am-12 midnight. Access, Visa.
Pierre Lapin, 32 West Nicolson Street, (031 668 4332). Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. No credit cards.
Spices, 110 West Bow, Grassmarket (031 225 5028). Open Mon-Sat lunch and dinner, and during festival only for Sunday dinner. No smoking. Vegetarian meals. Visa, Access.
CORRECTION: Our 8 August olive oil tasting mistakenly credited Di Canino Extra Virgin Olive Oil, described as 'leafy, rounded with a peppery finish', as available at Safeway. It is exclusive to Sainsbury at pounds 2.29 for 250ml.
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