The requests start coming in at the beginning of August, from friends, and friends of friends. "We're going to Edinburgh – any ideas where to eat?" It's one of the hardy perennials of the restaurant reviewer's calendar, and it never seems to get easier to advise those festival-goers who want to include some decent meals in their cultural banquet.
Edinburgh's famous high-end restaurants seem largely to be resting on former glories or historic locations, while the more interesting culinary action, represented by The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart, is happening in Leith, slightly off-circuit for the busy festival-goer. What's required here are suggestions for interesting, independent, city-centre restaurants where a good meal can be guaranteed, and you can pop in between shows without having to book months in advance.
On a brief pre-festival scouting mission to the city, I was looking for just that, and identified a couple of ambitious-sounding new arrivals, hailed as part of the city's post-Kitchin culinary renaissance. I didn't want to risk a dud, so, like the friends who text me for recommendations, I canvassed the opinion of a friendly restaurant critic. But The Herald's Joanna Blythman gave the shiny new openings short shrift. For her, there was only one show in town, and she clinched her recommendation with words that spoke to my own heart – "It's the restaurant I go to when I'm paying for myself."
Her pick was Mezbaan, a family-run South Indian restaurant which is distinguished, according to the estimable Ms B, by the authenticity of its cuisine and the warmth of its welcome. Its Tollcross location is handy for several of the major festival venues; and though we booked to ensure a Saturday-night dinner table, we needn't have bothered – the place was far from packed when we took our window-side table, which offered an appetising view over the road to the Brougham Foot Clinic.
The plainness of the white-painted dining room, with its black-and-white chequered floor, paper tablecloths and modest vases of fresh flowers, is in direct contrast to the subtlety and verve of the dishes turned out by Mezbaan's tiny kitchen. As the first dish arrived, a crisp, golden dome of masala dosa, filled with aromatic, chilli-hot potato and onion, it was clear that this was the real deal.
The menu offers meat and fish dishes, and the inevitable crowd-pleasing tikkas and tandooris, but it's the South Indian specials that stand out. The chicken dish, Wajid Ali, made with poppy seeds, fenugreek and fresh curry leaves, was a masterclass in precise spicing: the complex flavours stimulating all parts of the palate simultaneously. Also spot-on was a lamb curry, Gosht Khaas Bemisal Chaman, which took the mouth on a thrilling journey from fruity to creepingly hot.
The side dishes were worthy of star billing: a pilau, fragrant with cumin and caraway seeds; naan bread so buttery and light you wanted to cram it down greedily before anyone else could get their hands on it; and a creamy, dreamy dal made with five types of lentil and finished with fresh coriander and tomatoes. We even liked the vegetarian haggis pakoras, ordered out of curiosity, but admired for the way the recognisably haggisy taste and texture sang out from the gram flour batter and Indian spicing. Only a fried fish dish – Meen Varuthathu – recommended by our smiley and enthusiastic waiter, disappointed.
We brought our own wine – Mezbaan serves only soft drinks, and charges £2 for corkage. It's not just a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant, but something of a bring-your-own-atmosphere one as well; the super-friendly staff do their best, but some faint, therapy-room background music isn't enough to substitute for the hubbub this dining room must have when it's as full as it deserves to be.
And as promised, the enthusiastic young front of house team, some of them family members, are a treat: informative and fun. When I asked whether service was included in our bill our waiter smiled and said, "You're not from Edinburgh, are you?"
Our guests, veterans of the Edinburgh dining scene, were impressed, but less surprised than us that the place wasn't packed. "People don't want to pay these prices for Indian food when they can eat for half that in the local curry house. It's a devalued market." The difference between Mezbaan's glorious variety of dishes, and the slop served up in the name of Indian food in many of these joints doesn't need to be spelt out.
If it were a Fringe show, Mezbaan would be a sensation, with queues around the block. As it is, it hasn't quite found its audience yet. So if you're in the area, go. And tell them that a friend of a friend sent you.
Mezbaan, 14 Brougham Street, Tollcross, Edinburgh (0131-229 5578)
Around £25 a head for dinner. BYOB, corkage £2
"No service charge. Tips are shared out equally between the whole team"
Side orders: Edinburgh eats
By Madeleine Lim
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78 Commercial Quay, Leith (0131-555 1755)Reuse content