The biggest queue I saw at this year's Edinburgh Festival wasn't outside a hit show on the Fringe. It was the line of impatient locals waiting to get into Harvey Nichols on a Saturday afternoon. It's impossible to exaggerate the excitement the latest branch of London's famously fashionable store whipped up in the city in its opening week. Every day the local papers seemed to carry a different story about it, not all of them positive; anti-fur protests, Big Issue salesmen given the bum's rush, a power cut, an emergency evacuation. The Strange Curse on Harvey Nichols, that day's Scotsman was calling it. So I was just what they needed: a restaurant critic with a Selfridges loyalty card.
The new store is the second branch outside London, but Harvey Nichols is a serious player in the food world; the group now operates a total of eight restaurants, including London's Oxo Tower. The top floor of the Edinburgh shop, as in the Knightsbridge original, houses a food hall, a brasserie and restaurant; the latter offers a panoramic view over the New Town and across the Firth of Forth that lends the place its punning name – the Forth Floor.
Luckily I'd booked a table in the restaurant a couple of days earlier. The queue of huddled masses yearning to be fed stretched all the way past the lifts back to the squid-ink tagliatelle. The airy restaurant seems to hang over Edinburgh like the light-filled deck of an ocean liner. There's a small balcony (providing a potential use for those controversial rabbit-fur coats), a pale wood floor echoing the honeyed stone of the New Town below, and cream leather bucket seats, unsuitable for the broader gentleman, as one of my guests was about to discover.
I was joined by two refugees from the Television Festival, the BBC's Martha Kearney and her husband Chris, a Channel 5 bigwig. Being in Harvey Nicks seemed to bring out the Patsy and Edina in us, and we found ourselves energetically air-kissing, though we'd last seen each other less than an hour before. Martha even ordered a glass of champagne, from an unmanageable wine list which runs to 15 closely typed pages, divided into New World, Old World and, judging by its length, Worlds Yet To Be Discovered.
Chef Stuart Muir's enthusiasm for Scottish produce lends a faintly regional feel to a fixed-price menu (£18.50 for two courses, £22.50 for three) which, to use a fashion analogy, is Prada rather than Versace; restrained, rather formal, impeccably tasteful.
Our meal started well. Endive salad at first seemed underdressed, but generous shavings of summer truffle delivered enough of the damp, loamy pungency of the real thing to compensate. Scallops from Oban were bursting with flavour, seared crisp but still shivery inside. Provençal fish soup was subtly flavoured with Pernod, the meagreness of the accompanying rouille and croutons indicating that portion control is geared for ladies who lunch rather than hungry trenchermen.
Indeed, our fellow diners seemed to be some of Edinburgh's most glamorous denizens, a cluster of Voyaged-up footballers' wives and several Donatellas with their fellas providing a floor-show for the sensible Jenners types who looked like they would have preferred to bring their own sandwiches.
When main courses arrived, Martha and I were both faced with a selection of components rather than perfectly integrated dishes, almost as if someone had done a panicky pick-and-mix at the nearby deli counter. My baked halibut was a soft, subtle cove, and no match for the squeaky and clamorous beansprout and wilted green combo it sat upon, dressed in an incongruous salsa verde.
Martha's selection also took the International Designer Room approach. Roast quail was nicely prepared, partly boned and given the sort of stuffing Martha hands out to politicians on the Today programme and Newsnight – sweet, sharp and to the point. But a soggy slab of puff pastry topped with feta and red onion added nothing, and Martha took a King Herod approach to her undercooked baby veg, going so far as to spit out a particularly sour mini turnip. Only Chris was happy; in fact he was so keen on his "brilliant" fillet of Angus beef he was practically signing it up for its own talk show. He also heartily approved of the accompanying marrowbone, which came with its own little spoon.
We were back on course with the puds – ice creams, from the family-owned Luca's of Musselburgh, were superb, particularly my candied orange and stem-ginger number. But they couldn't sweeten our disgruntlement at the lousy service. What seemed at first to be the snap and bustle of efficiency proved to be just a lot of staff running around like headless chickens. It was a full half hour before drinks or bread were produced, and our lunch consequently ran on until tea-time, almost causing my guests to miss a key part of their TV Festival schedule, the afternoon power-nap.
The last serious restaurant to launch in an Edinburgh department store, the Rhodes & Co brasserie at Jenners, only lasted a year. Harvey Nichols has too much going for it to meet a similar fate. But curse or no curse, it will have to sharpen up its act a bit if it wants those curious early crowds to keep coming back for more.
Forth Floor, Harvey Nichols, St Andrew Square, Edinburgh (0131-524 8350).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies