The Little Chartroom restaurant review, Edinburgh: From small things come great plates

Away from both the Old and New Towns of Scotland’s capital is the ‘up and coming’ area of Leith, where a newlywed couple went against all family advice to open their restaurant there

Emma Henderson
Thursday 30 August 2018 18:03 BST
When a restaurant and kitchen are small but perfectly formed, so too must the menu be
When a restaurant and kitchen are small but perfectly formed, so too must the menu be

“When we told our parents we wanted to open a restaurant here, they tried everything to persuade us not to,” says Shaun McCarron, who runs front of house in the newly opened Little Chartroom.

Along with wife and head chef Roberta Hall (the couple were married just a week and a half before opening), McCarron went for it against all opposition, and the duo opened their restaurant on Leith Walk, which leads down to Edinburgh’s dockland area. It was the location that was most problematic.

There’s little to do to skirting around the location. Known as the “shit end of town”, Leith Walk is neither the beautiful Old Town with its tiny, wonky stone staircases and sloping cobbled streets, nor the wonderfully planned wide streets of James Craig’s New Town. The shipping port of Leith wasn’t even part of Edinburgh until 1920, but was incorporated as it grew (although some still consider it to be separate entity).

And as these places always are, it’s described as the “up and coming” area, where rents are cheaper for businesses and the bonus is there’s plenty of people living there already.

Finally, the long-promised trams are due to arrive in the area. The plan to connect the airport to Leith was abandoned years ago after overspending reached a mere £400m (how?). For years, locals and businesses endured the annoyance and disruption of roads being pulled up and cables being laid underneath.The infrastructure is now there, and soon, so will be the trams.

Aside from the location, the restaurant has not come without its problems. Ceilings have been lowered and walls brought in after serious issues were found after taking on the lease, but Hall and McCarron still made it work.

First up is the heirloom tomato starter, where the real star of the show is the watermelon and white balsamic vinegar (Little Chartroom)
First up is the heirloom tomato starter, where the real star of the show is the watermelon and white balsamic vinegar (Little Chartroom)

Inside, it’s cosy (made more so after the construction work). It seats only 18, with four of those at the bar. These stools overlook the area that doubles up as half bar and half kitchen (the back worktop is the bar with fridges below and the front forms the kitchen preparation area), where diners awkwardly (my awkwardness, not theirs) watch the chefs plate up starters and desserts.

But from this viewpoint, we’re able to watch the cogs turning in this little machine. And it’s silent. Each member of the tiny team (we count six?) almost glides, never bumping in to one another, as if they’ve worked here years, not the mere 10 weeks it’s been open. Each seems to know exactly their colleagues’ next moves.

McCarron later tells us that the two chefs in front of us (doing starters and puddings) have only been there for a couple of weeks. But they seem part of the furniture, each filing in where needs be (washing up and all, which I can only just see from my perch).

The main kitchen seems to be much the same; little is said loudly, bar the call of “check on” from Roberta.

The carrot cake dessert uses a Heston-style carrot ice cream
The carrot cake dessert uses a Heston-style carrot ice cream (Emma Henderson)

But she’s probably more used to a larger kitchen, considering her previous post: three years at Tom Kitchin’s restaurant, The Kitchin (even further into Leith, about a 10-minute drive down Leith Walk, up and coming etc), before helping to open the French restaurant, Castle Terrace (you guessed it, right in front of the city’s castle) where she became head chef. She also spent a year working at the Burj in Dubai (complete change of scenery).

And as the restaurant and kitchen are small but perfectly formed, so must the menu be. Not only can they not store a huge array of ingredients, I’m sure, but where would they all be cooked? Starters, mains and desserts have a trio of choice each. It’s refreshingly small.

Husband and wife team Shaun McCarron and Roberta Hall (Little Chartroom)
Husband and wife team Shaun McCarron and Roberta Hall (Little Chartroom)

We watch the starters prepared in front of us: tiny strips of cured sea trout are laid across a thin layer of the same fish that’s flaked in a small shallow bowl (with tweezers) and topped with tiny pieces of cucumber and a few spots of avruga caviar (which does not contain fish roe). As delicate as it is, it’s an incredible flavour; pretty much as fresh as it comes.

I have the heirloom tomatoes dish. It’s made up of six different varieties, two of which are tiny and cured, and a large dark tomato that’s wonderfully tender, accompanied by wedges of yellow ones and long slithers of bright red specimens. Tiny dollops of feta are circled around dish but the real beauty of this is that it’s sweetened with a watermelon and white vinegar jus (that I’m specifically given a spoon to be able to scoop up the dregs with, and I’m glad I saved some bread for).

From the three mains, we go for the hake dish and the bavette of beef. Mine, the beef, is succulent, tender and almost creamy; served with gnocchi (nicely crisped), a whole load of shredded beef that’s hidden under the bavette (making the dish way bigger than you think it is), a little wilted spinach and a whole loads of girolles. It’s enormous and seriously worth its value. But the hake, well, I have food envy. The hefty chunk has its well-cooked skin on, and is flaky and delicate while the accompanying shellfish bisque is rich and robust. The chargrilled vegetables – fennel and cauliflower – retain their shape and match the boldness of the bisque while teeny tiny (I imagine the tweezers came out again) cubes of orange give it a zesty punch of freshness. It’s a memorable dish, and I didn’t even order it.

The standard doesn’t drop for the desserts either. The carrot cake choice is a long slither of moist fingers stacked atop each other, sandwiched and topped with cream and a little portion of carrot ice cream. It sounds like it’s straight out of Heston’s kitchen, but it has a welcome hint of savouryness, and is “the best carrot cake I’ve ever had,” says my partner.

It was before I’d even sat down that I’d chosen my dessert, thanks to that multi-use kitchen counter. When we walked in, I spied a beautifully formed circular chocolate pudding, topped with crushed pistachios and a little ball of tart cherry ice cream. I was sold.

The level of food that comes from such a tiny kitchen and team is beyond impressive, as is the way it’s created. Hall’s experience and flair shines through tremendously, but without fuss and pomp; it’s a place to visit again and again. Let’s hope the trams do get there sooner rather than later, as it’s worth going straight there from the airport.

Food: ★★★★☆
Value: ★★★★★
Service: ★★★★☆

30-31 Albert Pl, Edinburgh EH7 5HN; 0131 556 6600; open Wed-Sun;

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