These are turbulent times for The Scotsman newspaper. Last month, the editor was invited to a hotel by her boss Andrew Neil (a scary moment for any woman) and summarily sacked.
It must have been a matter of some regret to the management of the new Scotsman Hotel that this headline-grabbing event took place in the nearby Balmoral Hotel, and not on their own majestic premises. What's the use of buying the historic former headquarters of a national newspaper and spending millions on plushing it up, if said national newspaper doesn't return the compliment by getting you a bit of free publicity?
Owned by the group which operates Leeds' chic 42 The Calls hotel, The Scotsman opened last July in one of the landmark buildings of Edinburgh's Old Town, perched high over Waverley Station.
Once you've mastered the layout, which by virtue of an architectural quirk means that to reach the third floor from reception, you must go downstairs, The Scotsman building is as fine a piece of Scots Baronial as you could wish to find. Refreshingly, the restoration avoids all the shortbread tin clichés of the Old Town's tourist destinations. Original stained glass and wood panelling co-exist with avant-garde touches such as a stainless-steel swimming pool. There are themed references to the building's inky-fingered history, from the crosswords printed on the teapots, to the rooms named after past editors. And surely only journalists could do justice to the bar, Room 399, so called because it serves 399 varieties of malt whisky.
As an upscale boutique hotel, rather than a tartan-themed tourist trap, The Scotsman is probably suffering less than some of its rivals from the downturn in American visitors. (Though it's hard to imagine who, apart from Americans – and more specifically Jennifer Lopez – could justify paying £950 for a night in The Scotsman's penthouse.) But so far, only one of the two restaurants originally announced has opened – the fine-dining option has been indefinitely postponed. The more informal North Bridge Brasserie is up and running, however, and open to non-residents. We tried it on a Sunday night, accompanied by two seasoned Edinburgh gastronomes.
They immediately identified the splendid, high-ceilinged room as the old reception area of the newspaper. By all accounts this was a social hub of Edinburgh, where people gathered to read the editions of the paper on display, and queued to place classified ads. On a cold Sunday night, it was struggling to create a similar buzz, and most tables were unoccupied. Potentially a stunning dining space, the tall, balconied room, all wood panelling and marble columns, has been radically updated. A hi-tech circular steel bar squats unhappily in the middle of the room, like a space shuttle which has crash-landed in a public library.
North Bridge has imported a specialist sushi chef from Japan; sadly Sunday is his day off, so we chose from the regular menu. Starters are adventurous by brasserie standards; they include linguine with rocket pesto and parmesan crackling, and guinea fowl terrine with red onion relish. No real attempt has been made to play the modish Modern Scottish card – unless you count the potato scone served with smoked salmon.
Fish and seafood are apparently North Bridge's strong suits. Oysters – definitely native, and possibly local – were pretty good, according to one of my guests (who was grumbling that he hadn't tasted an oyster for at least a fortnight – they do live well up there). Crab cakes were nicely stuffed with tender meat, but fiery with raw chilli. A velvety chowder made with mussels and new potatoes showed a more subtle touch.
For main courses, it's anything you want, as long as it's grilled and served with mash or fries. Blue fin tuna, scallops from Skye, veal cutlet and rib-eye steak were all correctly and competently cooked; potato sides ditto. A choice of sauces, from Café de Paris herb butter to onion pan gravy, allows you to create your own mix-and-match combination, and each dish also gets its own little bowl of fruit chutney, an elaboration which confuses the pleasing simplicity of the concept.
Fine as our food was, there were some annoying niggles: a broken chair, cold plates for hot dishes and the longish wait between courses. And our nerves weren't helped by the spotlights blazing out from the bar into the eyes of seated diners, creating a cut-price version of optical laser surgery.
Puddings included a chocolate cake spiked with beetroot – a surprisingly good match – and an insipid white chocolate custard cup, a crème brûlée by any other name. Our bill came to £25 a head for food, plus service and two bottles of wine from a jocosely descriptive list. "It's pretty good – but there are a lot better places in Edinburgh," our gastronomes advised. Still, they said the place had been critically well-received when it opened. Although there was one less than enthusiastic review – in The Scotsman. E
North Bridge Brasserie, The Scotsman, 20 North Bridge, Edinburgh (0131 556 5565).Reuse content