The studenty south side of central Edinburgh isn't on the map for most tourists and festival-goers, but it contains one of the city's newest landmarks. It was in Nicolsons bistro, near the university campus, that J K Rowling famously wrote most of the first Harry Potter book, while cradling a cappuccino and her young daughter.
Despite the Rowling connection, Nicolsons premises are now occupied by an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Two former Nicolsons employees, chef Richard Logan and manager Rowland Thomson, have set up their own place around the corner, in a cobbled row already containing the essentials of modern student life - a tattoo parlour, a record shop and several pubs .
The name, Home Bistro, implies a cosy, Nicolsons-style retreat, but the chic, hard-lined interior isn't designed to encourage all-day writing sessions. The homeliness derives from the food, which they describe as "traditional home cooking and retro comfort food". Home-made pies, fish and chips, jam roly poly are promised; perfect fare to reorientate the befuddled festival visitor and soothe the homesick student.
It's a tiny place, containing just half a dozen tables, and seems to have been fitted out on a budget, with painted vermilion walls and chairs from the (primary) school of Rennie Mackintosh. But the foodie credentials are signalled by jars of preserved lemons and designer olive oil bottles on the shelves and a short selection of wines from local merchants The Noble Grape. The menu, too, is short; in fact between the four of us, my guests and I were able to order everything on it.
Springy herb bread, baked on the premises, and served with pesto, promised good things, but our starters were patchy, and owed more to Eighties wine bar food than to honest home cooking. When did you last knock yourself up a celery and Stilton soup, for example? Grilled goats cheese with marmalade illustrated why those two individually popular ingredients aren't normally partnered. Chicken and bacon salad was a heavy, mayonnaise-bound heap, like a New York deli salad. "Or a baked potato filling," offered its recipient grimly.
Given the brevity of the menu, there was rather too much duplication of ingredients, making the selection seem even more limited. When chicken and bacon salad is one of three starters, it's unimaginative to offer those ingredients again, in the form of a pallid bacon-wrapped chicken breast (supposedly pan-fried, though from the colour it might have been boiled). Stilton featured in both the soup of the day and a main-course cheese tart.
Despite the "comfort food" tag, only one of the main courses really fitted the bill. Shepherd's pie came in an individual dish, under a volcanic layer of cheese-covered mash, and was a bit too gussied-up to qualify as traditional home cooking. Cod fishcakes were judged to contain rather too meagre a ratio of fish to potato, and one was notably hotter than the other. Maybe Home's owners have extended the home-cooking theme by buying just the one frying pan.
A rebarbative, frisee-heavy packet salad, patchily dressed, appeared with most of the main courses, as it had done with the starters. It's such an easy thing to get right; a nice pile of soft leaves, maybe some herbs, a smart dressing. So why serve shaved plastic with everything? Other vegetable dishes were equally unappealing; rewarmed new potatoes, roast carrots spotted with burned garlic and - most unforgivably - soggy chips.
"I don't think they're really trying," one of my guests decided, on hearing that the day's puddings were strawberries and cream, crème brûlée and a selection of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Not that any of us could have faced a jam roly poly by then, but that wasn't the point.
The concept of a stylish boutique bistro serving well-made versions of traditional British dishes is an appealing one, and one that you can imagine having great appeal to a student crowd. But Home Bistro isn't delivering that, on the evidence of our visit. And at £17.95 for three courses, before wine and service, they aren't asking the clientele to make any allowances. The Edinburgh-based friends who came with me were glum. "There are so many great, cheap places in Edinburgh we could have taken you." Or to paraphrase, if this is Home, we're moving. E
Home Bistro, 41 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh (0131 667 7010)Reuse content